Click on the tabs to experience Wharton’s journey writing her classic novel.

  • AofI Beginnings

    Beginnings

    The Age of Innocence, published in October 1920, is one of Edith Wharton’s most enduring works. She wrote it at high speed, completing the 365-page novel in less than seven months. Forced by financial reasons into this compressed time schedule, her notes, manuscripts, and letters reveal both craftsmanship and pragmatism.

    Edith Wharton at Pavillon Colombe, her home north of Paris.
    Image credit: Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, Thérèse Bonney/BHVP

  • “War books dead in America”

    Wharton had begun a novel of wartime Paris, A Son at the Front, in 1917 and signed an $18,000 contract for its serialization with the Pictorial Review magazine. Advised by her editor in 1919 that the American public was tired of war stories, a frustrated Wharton agreed to write, on the same publication schedule, a new “House of Mirth-type” novel.

    “I have put aside all other work and missed many opportunities of making money, on the understanding that I was to receive payment…on the date of the appearance of A Son at the Front.”

    Image credit: Scott Marshall Collection, The Mount Archives

    AofI Beginnings
  • AofI Beginnings

    Wharton, who had just moved to a new home outside Paris, started The Age of Innocence in September 1919.

    A Son at the Front was eventually published in 1923.

    Pavillon Colombe, Wharton’s suburban villa in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt.
    Image credit: Beinecke Library, Yale University

  • The Editor

    Rutger B. Jewett, a former professor of Greek and Latin, was Wharton’s new editor at D. Appleton and Company, her publisher for The Age of Innocence. Their correspondence, witty and literate, would last nearly two decades.

    Image credit: New York Historical Society. Portrait of Rutger Bleecker Jewett (1867-1935) with Penguin Sketch by William Henry Walker, 1928. Gift of the Family of William Henry Walker (ID 1990.1.64)

    AofI Beginnings
  • AofI Beginnings

    Old New York

    The Age of Innocence began as notes under the title “Old New York.” The story, set in the 1870s, follows Newland Archer, whose scripted future with his fiancée, May Welland, is threatened by the arrival of May’s exotic cousin, Ellen Olenska. Ellen, fleeing a bad marriage to a Polish count, seeks a divorce. Ellen and Newland are passionately drawn to one another, yet their desires clash with the tribal rules of “Old New York.”

    Image credit: Subjects and Notes, 1918-1923, Beinecke Library, Yale University

  • Note the carefully recorded start and end dates in top left corner.

    AofI Beginnings
  • “Dearest Minnie…”

    To recreate 1870s New York, Wharton enlisted her friend and sister-in-law, Minnie Cadwalader Jones, with whom she shared memories and cultural touchstones.

    “The Age is very interesting, and your memory quite amazing; you recall things I had entirely forgotten, and you bring back that time as if it were last week.” Minnie Jones
    December 19, 1919

    Wharton drew this sketch of Minnie at Pavillon Colombe, previously known as Jean-Marie.
    Image credit: Lilly Library, Indiana University Bloomington

    AofI Beginnings
  • AofI Beginnings

    Temporarily staying in New Haven with her daughter, Beatrix Jones Farrand, Minnie conducted extensive historical research and acted as Wharton’s business agent. Numerous detailed letters crossed the Atlantic.

    Image credit: Jones to Wharton, November 22, 1919, Beinecke Library, Yale University

  • Constructing a Novel – new

    Constructing a Novel

    Wharton began her writing process in unassuming, but carefully labeled, notebooks.

    Image credit: Subjects and Notes, 1918-1923, Beinecke Library, Yale University

  • Even in these rough notes, she created a precise index on the final page. Note the entries in the index for Homo Sapiens and The Age of Wisdom, alternative titles for a never-written sequel to The Age of Innocence.

    Image credit: Subjects and Notes, 1918-1923, Beinecke Library, Yale University

    Constructing a Novel – new
  • In her notes, Wharton outlined chapters for The Age of Innocence, writing mainly in pencil with crossed out changes rather than erasures, allowing us a glimpse into her thought processes.

    Image credit: Subjects and Notes, 1918-1923, Beinecke Library, Yale University

    Constructing a Novel – new
  • Some ideas, such as setting Book III in the Blue Ridge Mountains, did not survive later revisions.

    Image credit: Subjects and Notes, 1918-1923, Beinecke Library, Yale University

    Constructing a Novel – new
  • Wharton’s notes reveal several trial plotlines in which the lovers consummate their relationship but ultimately decide to separate. In the first paragraph, she outlines Newland and Ellen’s passionate tryst, reminding herself to contrast Newland’s “bridal night with May & this one.”

    Constructing a Novel – new
  • In the published version, Newland and Ellen never act on their desires; yet, ultimately, New York society exiles Ellen to Europe with a ritualistic farewell dinner.

    There were certain things that had to be done…and one of these, in the old New York code, was the tribal rally around a kinswoman about to be eliminated from the tribe.”

    The Age of Innocence

  • Family Trees

    Wharton used her past to create the novel’s world. She based Mrs. Manson Mingott, one of the book’s most memorable characters, on her great-aunt, Mrs. Mary Mason Jones. Both women, in fiction and reality, built unconventional houses north of town, at 57th Street and Fifth Avenue.

    Wharton featured the same families in multiple stories. Presumably she created this chart to keep them all straight.

    Image credit: Subjects and Notes, 1918-1923, Beinecke Library, Yale University

    Constructing a Novel – new
  • Constructing a Novel – new

    Henry James

    Note the intriguing inclusion of Henry James in this fictional family tree.

    Image credit: Image credit: Subjects and Notes, 1918-1923, Beinecke Library, Yale University

  • Wharton mourned James, who died in 1916. She honored him in The Age of Innocence, most prominently in the name of her protagonist Newland Archer, so similar to Isabel Archer, the heroine of James’ The Portrait of a Lady.

    Image credit: Portrait of Henry James (1913) by John Singer Sargent, reproduced in Wharton’s The Book of the Homeless (1916)

    Constructing a Novel – new
  • Constructing a Novel – new

    Cut & Paste

    From her notes and outlines, Wharton then wrote her manuscripts in black ink on blue paper, physically cutting and pasting changes. This page has five pasted-in pieces.

    Image credit: Holograph Manuscript, Beinecke Library, Yale University

  • Transatlantic Editing

    Wharton completed the novel in early spring 1920 but made revisions well past July. With the author in France and her publisher in New York, bringing the book to print was complicated.

    Wharton sent the manuscript to a typing service in Paris, then by ship to New York. Her publisher returned the galley proofs to Wharton, who made corrections and sent them back across the Atlantic. Her edits, even when minor, show her deftness as a writer, as she followed a process she described as “elimination, selection, concentration of idea & expression.”

    Image credit: Holograph Manuscript, Beinecke Library, Yale University

    Constructing a Novel – new
  • Opening Scene

    Opening Scene

    Wharton took particular care with the masterful opening of The Age of Innocence, set at a performance of Gounod’s opera Faust. This first scene, packed with wit and detail, immediately brings 1870s New York to life. But it also illustrates the dangers of a historical novel: one change can cause a ripple effect of inaccuracies, and in a series of letters, Minnie and Edith hammered out the specifics.

    The Academy of Music at Irving and 14th St. was favored by old New York.
    Image credit: Houghton Library, Harvard University, TCS 54, Folder 4

  • Casting the Soprano

    Wharton originally had planned to set the opening scene in 1875, and she had wanted to feature Swedish soprano Christine Nilsson, famous for playing the role of Marguerite. Faust, one of the most popular operas of the day, was based on Goethe’s tale of temptation, a Wharton favorite.

    Wharton’s first version of the scene alluded to Nilsson’s nationality in an ironic commentary on cultural pretensions: “An unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.”

    Image credit: Metropolitan Opera Archives

    Opening Scene
  • Opening Scene

    “I am afraid you can’t have Nilsson…”

    When Minnie’s research revealed that Nilsson didn’t perform in New York in 1875, Wharton had to find another soprano who did.

    Image credit: Jones to Wharton, November 5, 1919, Beinecke Library, Yale University

  • A New Soprano

    Her choice, American Clara Louise Kellogg, usually sang in English, which required multiple adjustments to Wharton’s existing text. Wharton created a long list of corrections for her editor, starting with a rewrite of the first page with Kellogg as the star soprano.

    Image credit: Correction Sheets, Beinecke Library, Yale University

    Opening Scene
  • Opening Scene

    Corrections

    Replacing Nilsson with Kellogg resulted in awkward changes to the sentence about the “law of the musical world” seen at the top of this corrections page. It now began “She sang in English…”

    Page after page of corrections in her archives at Yale’s Beinecke Library document Wharton’s attention to detail.

    Image credit: Correction Sheets, Beinecke Library, Yale University

  • “The Rendering of the Atmosphere”

    By mid-January 1920, Wharton had reverted to Nilsson, restored the original phrasing, and decided on a vaguer period of “the early seventies” as the setting for the story. In this letter, she articulated her growing belief that atmosphere was more important than rigid historical accuracy, a belief not shared by everyone when the book was published.

    “full of historical anachronisms…sure to be noticed by old New Yorkers” Literary Digest, February 9, 1921

    Image credit: Wharton to Jones, January 14, 1920, Beinecke Library, Yale University

    Opening Scene
  • Selling Innocence

    Selling Innocence

    The initial installment of The Age of Innocence debuted in the July 1920 issue of the Pictorial Review. This was Wharton’s first appearance in the ad-stuffed, mass market magazine, which paid some of the highest prices in publishing.

    Image credit: The Mount Archives

  • Selling Innocence
  • The Pictorial Review

    “For a story of such importance as yours it is necessary to get the right illustrator. This is of great moment to the [women’s] magazines. Their subscribers demand these pictures…As you know I share your feeling about illustrations which seldom illustrate.”
    Rutger B. Jewett, September 25,1919

    Wharton disliked illustrations in general, and the magazine’s insistence on them had rushed her writing schedule. Wharton’s elegant prose shared the page with romanticized illustrations and ads for toilet cleaner and hair dye.

    Image credit: The Mount Archives

    Selling Innocence
  • Selling Innocence

    “What we want are orders”

    The Age of Innocence, published in book form on October 25, 1920, was an overwhelming commercial success. Over 115,000 copies sold the first year. The original dust jacket, now very rare, portrayed a girl in a sentimental and romanticized style.

    Image credit: Scott Marshall Collection, The Mount Archives

  • “The book trade congratulates us upon the paper wrapper for ‘The Age of Innocence’, saying it is the most attractive ‘jacket’ of the season. Personally, I think it looks like the picture on a Christmas box of handkerchiefs, but in the words of the salesman, ‘what we want are orders,’ and we are getting them. Thank God the outside wrapper is usually thrown away.”
    Rutger B. Jewett, November 10, 1920

    Selling Innocence
  • Selling Innocence

    “Reviews are excellent”

    Appleton used the same innocent figure in its ads and marketed aggressively. The image belies the ad copy, which highlighted Ellen’s lurid backstory, distorting the actual plot.

    “‘The Age of Innocence’ is responding in a most satisfactory way to our advertising and publicity campaign. In the main the reviews are excellent.”
    Rutger B. Jewett, November 10, 1920

    In June 1921, Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel. A flawed selection process created controversy about the award.

    Image credit: The Age of Innocence Advertisement, Beinecke Library, Yale University

  • Becoming a Classic

    “A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.”
    Italo Calvino, author, 1991

    Wharton’s reputation fluctuated in the decades immediately following her death in 1937; however, admiration for The Age of Innocence has endured.  It is consistently included on “best-of” lists, and has been translated into over a dozen languages and adapted to film more than any other Wharton work.

    Image credit: Scribner, 2020, cover design by Tristan Offit

    Becoming a Classic
  • Becoming a Classic

    Today, new generations of scholars and writers including Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxanne Gay, and Denis Lehane, are reading the novel not just for its extraordinary literary craftsmanship, but also for its social, psychological, and cultural significance.

    The novel’s meaningful elasticity is thanks to a writer who was exacting, meticulous, and perceptive…fascinated by the alchemical interplay of social structure and individual freedom.”
    Sarah Blackwood, scholar, 2020

    Image credit: Penguin Classics, 2019, cover design by Manjit Thapp

  • Becoming a Classic

    We hope you enjoyed this online exhibit.

    Here are some additional resources:

    Explore Martin Scorsese’s 1993 adaptation.

    Project Gutenberg The Age of Innocence online

    New York Times Book Review essay by Elif Batuman

    BBC Sounds Arts & Ideas podcast The wealth gap, #MeToo and Edith Wharton

    Beinecke images are from the Edith Wharton Collection, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

    This exhibit was curated by Mount historians Anne Schuyler and Nick Hudson, and designed by Abby Tovell of T Square Design. Mount staffers Michelle Dempsey, Nynke Dorhout, Rebecka McDougall, and Patricia Pin provided additional support.

    This is our first online exhibit, and we welcome your feedback. Please email Anne or Nick with any questions, comments, or suggestions. Thank you!