Wharton in the 21st Century

EW 2.0: After all of these years, Wharton still packs a cultural wallop

Not a day goes by when Edith Wharton’s name and novels aren’t freshly evoked. She’s all over the place: in the news, in the literary world, in academia, in Hollywood, and throughout the blogosphere. Whether a Wharton reference is crafted by scholars, novelists, journalists, or astute anonymous commentators, one truth is clear: 77 years after her death, the words and work of Edith Wharton still resonate. She is still powerful enough to influence, inspire, and entertain creative geniuses and ordinary people alike.

Here’s just a small sampling of how Edith Wharton has been woven into the art and conversation of contemporary notable sources:


Julian Fellows, creator of Downton Abbey, has cited Wharton as an influence on his work: “It is quite true that Edith Wharton has been a tremendous influence on me…I decided, largely because of her work, that it was time I wrote something.” (2013)


Photographer Annie Leibovitz shot an 18-page photo spread at The Mount for Vogue magazine honoring Edith Wharton on her 150th birthday. (June 2012)


Author Colm Toibin wrote the introductory essay to Vogue’s 2012 18-page photo feature honoring Edith Wharton and The Mount. “Edith Wharton was always in control of her material and her style; her scope was as large as her sympathy for characters priviledged of down of their luck…she noticed the world around her with a storyteller’s eye.” (June 2012)


Author Meg Wolitzer said of The House of Mirth: “As a New York resident, I was startled by the freshness of Edith Wharton’s 1905 look at my city. Taking topics such as class, money, love, and convention, Wharton has written a big, meaty book that is as relevant as it is absorbing.” (December 2013)

In 2014, in an interview with The Daily Beast, she continued: “Edith Wharton, of course, writes in such a startlingly sharp and close-grained way about how people live.”


Former First Lady Laura Bush said in 2013: “As a schoolgirl growing up in a hot, dusty, West Texas town, I will never forget being transported to a cold New England landscape as I read Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. My love for Edith Wharton has grown beyond her written words to include a special fondness for her beautiful home, The Mount. It is important to preserve this architectural masterpiece that she created so that future generations will experience directly this American novelist’s spirit.”


In January 2013, singer-songwriter Tori Amos named Edith Wharton as her dream dinner date. 


In the fall of 2010, literary superstar Jonathan Franzen remarked that he’s still in awe of Wharton and “how modern and refreshingly unashamedly dark she is.” In 2012, Franzen wrote a piece for The New Yorker entitled “A Rooting Interest: Edith Wharton and the Problem of Sympathy.”


“There are many good reasons to wish Wharton’s word read, or read afresh,” he writes, and goes on to discuss three of Wharton’s novels: The House of MirthThe Customs of the Country, and The Age of Innocence.  (February 2012)


Steve Martin‘s latest novel, An Object of Beautydrew a comparison from Joyce Carol Oates to Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.


In 2005, suspense novelist Dennis Lehane admitted: “There’s just something cool about the genteel savagery of her ‘violence.’ It’s not just the violence of a blow or a gunshot; it’s the violence of a well-placed whisper.”


At the top of author Jennifer Egan‘s favorite book list is The House of Mirth. “[It] really does just about everything that I strive to do,” she said. “It’s very funny and satirical, but it can also be quite tragic.”


The Nanny Diaries authors Emma McLaughlin and Nikola Kraus in 2010 cited Edith Wharton as one of their primary inspirations: “[The] Age of Innocence just rocks our world. Sexy, biting, deeply opinionated, Edith Wharton’s masterpiece feels thrillingly comtemporary. We would be over the moon to author a social satire that holds up almost a hundred years later. (Not saying much for the evolution of the behavior and mores of Manhattan’s elite, huh?)”


Martin Scorsese, who in 1993 directed the film The Age of Innocence, said: “The gracefulness of [Wharton's] prose has a kind of scathing, ironic violence to it…What was also very interesting to me was how Edith Wharton wove a tapestry of detail throughout the book, so that you’re almost reading an anthropological study at the same time as the story.”


Novelist Lionel Shriver in 2010 wrote: “I was born after the heavy spade work of female emancipation was done. But 100 years ago, Edith Wharton’s drive, independence, wilfulness and autodidactic mastery of the English language were extraordinary, and I bashfully claim her as a kindred spirit.”

In a later interview, Shriver observed: “For feminists, there is no better reading than Edith Wharton…One of the nice things about reading Edith Wharton is that you do appreciate we’ve gotten somewhere.”


Novelist Jay McInerney asserted that “It was only through…Edith Wharton that New York began to find a voice for itself.”


Author Edmund White included Wharton’s Old New York among his top 10 New York books.


Novelist Ken Follett admits to re-reading Wharton novels. “[Wharton] is so smart about people and their weaknesses. She takes a high moral stand but understands the human nature.”


Author and screenwriter Nora Ephron wrote in O, The Oprah Magazine that it was too bad Edith Wharton was dead; otherwise, she’d write to her that her “books are as contemporary as when they were written.”


Actress and writer Mindy Kaling revealed in a recent interview that The House of Mirth changed her life when she read it in the ninth grade: “I love Edith Wharton, and my teacher Ms. Faux [corrected from article] had us read it, and I just never read a book like that before, like a book that’s from the early 1900’s but felt so modern in terms of what the main character was going through.”


Writer Jesse Kornbluth, on his site Head Butler, also gave a powerful shout-out to The House of Mirth, calling it “one of my favorite novels, a story that is smart and action-packed and as dramatic as a horror movie that has you screaming, “No! Don’t go through that door!”


A humorous quote from radio personality and writer Garrison Keillor: “How many readers of Edith Wharton have engaged in terrorist acts? I challenge you to name one. Therefore, the reading of Edith Wharton is a proven deterrent to terror. Do we need to wait until our cities lie in smoking ruins before we wake up to the fact that a first-class public library is a vital link in national defense?”


And did you know Cecily von Ziegesar modeled her best-selling Gossip Girl series on The Age of Innocence? In a 2005 New York magazine book review, Emily Nussbaum writes: “Von Ziegesar’s first draft was horribly high-minded, a fusty Wharton imitation; she quickly trashed it and adopted the brassy tones of Gossip Girl…”

In fact, during an interview with CBC News, Von Ziegesar readily admits: “I wanted to be the new Edith Wharton.”


Leighton Meester, star of “Gossip Girl” and Monte Carlonamed Edith Wharton as her favorite author.


Peppered throughout Lisa Birnbach‘s True Prep, the new sequel to the 1980s bestseller The Official Preppy Handbook, are Edith Wharton quotes.


Wharton references and quotes also abound in Anna Godbersen‘s novel The Luxe.


Michael Eisner, former CEO of The Walt Disney Company, has publicly and repeatedly expressed a deep fondness for Edith Wharton and her novella Ethan Frome in particular.


After creating the British series Downton Abbey, broadcast in the United States on PBS, screenwriter Julian Fellowes in an NPR interview observed parallels to the characters created by Wharton in her novel The Custom of the Country.


Wharton received a nod in an episode of HBO’s comedy-drama series Entourage.


Ever heard of the alt-indie band Tellison? Well, Tellison has certainly heard of Edith Wharton: “Edith Wharton knows where it’s at,” they sing.


Singer Suzanne Vega‘s seventh album, Beauty & Crime, released in 2007, includes a song called “Edith Wharton’s Figurines.”


Courtney Love‘s West Village townhouse was described in Curbed as “very Edith Wharton: understated, unostentatious, and whispering of old money.”


Singer/actress/writer Isabel Rose names Edith Wharton as one of her two greatest sources of inspiration. (The other is Charo.)


In her memoir All That is Bitter and Sweet, actress Ashley Judd reveals Edith Wharton is her favorite author.


The Palm Beach Daily News noted that the Florida resort island, carefully planned and developed by the American tycoon Henry Flagler, after more than 100 years still maintains its “Edith Wharton-styled refinement.”


Wharton has even permeated the cosmetics industry: a shade of Lancome lipstick is named in her honor.


And another modern-day company, Kichler Lighting, is celebrating Edith Wharton’s timeless design sensibilities by offering an entire line of lighting fixtures named in her honor.


A lavishly designed royal dollhouse in England’s Windsor Castle includes Edith Wharton books in its miniature library.


An artist in the Midwest has created a miniature Edith Wharton wooden doll.


And here are a few recent references in the blogosphere:

Mitchell Owens, the Arts and Antiques editor of Architectural Digest, wrote about Edith Wharton’s keen interest in design and the timeless  principles she outlined in The Decoration of Houses, her first book, published in 1897. (February 2013)

A contributor to The Awl, Ali Pechman, created an amusing quiz in April 2012 asking readers to guess if quotes were from a review of the HBO series Girls or from Edith Wharton.

Huffington Post contributor Nick Kolakowski wrote in June 2012: “…Nobody pierced through society’s bullshit quite like Wharton.”

On the Americans in Paris, Fall 2010 blog, Emily Shuman posits that novelist Diane Johnson is the Edith Wharton of her generation.

In an interview with a blogger on The Beaucoup Review,  G.S. Wolff, author of The Girls of Galstanberry, reveals her favorite book is The House of Mirth.

Tulka2, a frequent Huffington Post commenter, wonders what Edith Wharton would have to say about the New York Times “Vows” story about a couple who broke up their families to marry each other.

The Hungry Like a Woolf blog points out that all of the “cool kids” are reading Wharton these days. In a recent post, Kerry writes that 2011, like 2010, should be “the year of Wharton.”

Manhattan sex therapist Dr. Stephen Snyder conjures up a metaphor from “The Fullness of Life,” a short story by Edith Wharton, to address an eternal disconnect between many wives and their husbands.

In an interview with Little Miss Zombie blogger Melissa Helwig, novelist Lisa Tuttle, whose genres include science fiction, fantasy, and horror, revealed: “I love the ghost stories of Edith Wharton.”

Edith Wharton fans can connect with like-minded readers on Goodreads.


We are always on the lookout for news, information, and juicy tidbits about Edith Wharton. If you see something we should know about, send an email to info@edithwharton.org or post a comment on our Facebook page.

Jonathan Franzen (by Greg Martin)

Jonathan Franzen (by Greg Martin)

Age of Innocence movie, 1993

Age of Innocence movie, 1993

Gossip Girl, TV version

Gossip Girl, TV version

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