Customer comments on this Youngstown Ohio Book
Very simply written yet superb autobiograpy...
This autobiography which really gives a feel for the times in, which Wharton lived as well as for her own life experiences, contains some the most stunningly succinct annecdotes I've ever read. Wharton is truly brilliant at conveying the importance of literature in her life and sharing the possibilities of the literary life with her reader. She reaches through time to inform us of universals and redefine our value systems without being the least bit pedantic. She is a genius. And her autobiography is as entertaining and resonant as a great novel.
You Wouldn't Call Her "Edy"
Such a lovely child, so patient and well behaved. New York and its society are made magic by her eyes. The opening sections of this memoir are a delight as Mrs. Wharton recounts the sights and feel of New York City in the 1870's. I liked it that she gave us a knee-high view of taking a walk with her beloved father and meeting his friends along the way. (She could never tell what the people's faces looked like, as her view only extended to their knees). Her total recall of her very best bonnet is amazing, and a very pretty bonnet it must have been.
If there is such a person as a "born writer," Edith Wharton is that person. Before she could write, she made stories, and situations "flew around her head like mosquitoes." The world she lived in had no place or interest in a writing lady, so she made her own world, and it was a life-long undertaking.
When Mrs. Wharton received her first acceptance of publication, she was so excited she "ran up and down the staircase in glee." I couldn't have been more surprised if I had read that George Washington played kickball in the back yard. Mrs. Wharton rarely lets you see anything but a very reserved and proper Victorian lady. Yet she did get a divorce (though it is never mentioned.), she lived almost her entire adult life abroad; she compartmentalized her friends like a butterfly collector, and had no interest in being part of the New York society she describes so well. When she was well into her writing career on a family visit to New York, she was invited to a dinner party where she was told a "Bohemian" would be one of the guests. When she got there, she discovered that she herself was the "Bohemian" in question.
The book has a wonderful introduction by that fine author of New York manners, Louis Auchincloss, who is obviously fond of Mrs. Wharton, but not intimidated. Mrs. Wharton has a couple of insightful (and often hilarious) chapters on Henry James that are alone worth the price of the book. But then there are the "friends." I felt I was being buried in endless pages of formal introductions to people I had never heard of, who wrote books that were never read, who gave parties which are long forgotten, and men who were great conversationalists according to Mrs. Wharton, though the witticisms she quoted were so arch and refined, I felt they belonged in bad drawing room comedy.
The book reads well, except for the stretches of introductions. Mrs. Wharton firmly believes that if you can't speak well of someone, you shouldn't speak of him or her at all. Not a bad idea at that
The writing life, uncloseted
In this orderly collection of autobiographical sketches Edith Wharton - generously and with nearly photographic recall - begins by inviting readers into her early life in nineteenth-century New York. We are treated to its cast of characters, old New York, country life up the Hudson River, the clothes, the houses, and the remarkable (and unremarkable) personalities - Washington Irving was a friend of the family - as well as the sensibilities of a sociable, bright, and wonderfully observant little girl.
Edith began to read so early that it surprised her upper-class (but unintellectual) family. Before long she became an "omnivorous reader," happiest plowing through the volumes of the classics in her father's library. She soon found that she required time alone - to invent characters, to make up stories. She knew that she had to write fiction - from childhood on, despite realizing by young adulthood that "in the eyes of our provincial society authorship was still regarded as something between a black art and a form of manual labor." Of the social imperative to closet one's writing urges she elaborates: "My father and mother were only one generation away from Sir Walter Scott, who thought it necessary to drape his literary identity in countless clumsy subterfuges, and almost contemporary with the Brontes, who shrank in agony from being suspected of successful novel-writing." The idle rich, Wharton makes clear, were intended to stay idle - and not busy themselves with writing, especially for (horrors!) pay. Her descriptions of her early popular successes are memorable.
In subsequent chapters Wharton lays out her well-thought-out opinions regarding childhood, self-discovery, the formation of the writer's imagination and intellect, and the importance of finding one's own way - as an intellectual and as a social being. There is dry humor, too. She treasured good literature and good conversation - and pursued (and found) them throughout her life. She loved beautiful things and places, too. Finally, she describes her sojourns abroad (mainly England, France, and Italy) and the relationships and places that sustained her and nurtured her creativity, her productivity - and her soul.
Lifelong friends play a central role in much of this memoir. She describes people well, without breaches of privacy or confidences. This is not at all limiting. She writes tenderly of the blossoming of her friendship with "American gentleman" Egerton Winthrop, a man of "cultivated intelligence," a shy, physically awkward man whom Wharton considered "the most perfect of friends." Others were George Cabot Lee, Vernon Lee, Howard Sturgis, Geoffrey Scott, Percy Lubbock, and most of all, Henry James, who is drawn wonderfully (and not uncritically) in this book. Of her friendship with James she remarks "The real marriage of two minds is for any two people to possess a sense of humor or irony pitched in exactly the same key, so that their joint glances at any subject cross like interarching search-lights."
I loved this memoir, and greatly admired Wharton's ability to reveal herself and her world so fully and well.