Edith Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence in 1920, and it instantly received popular support but did not hit the bestseller list until 1921. It reached number four thatn year, but in 1922 it disappeared from the l
ist. The Age of Innocence was her first book since she had started helping out with the war effort in Paris. The war had an impact on her?it left her with a greater appreciation for history. Up until this point all of her books had been set in the pres
ent. The changes that the war brought, and her changing view of America (i.e. her disgust with its decision to remain isolated during the war) caused her to want to write about the past. She decided to focus on her childhood and the things she was famil
iar with. "Edith Wharton went in search, imaginatively, of the America that was gone" (Lewis) She set the book during the time of the 1870's when Old New York began to ebb into the fast paced New York we know today.
The focus of The Age of Innocence is the elitist, blue bloods of Old New York, and how their society was like a tribe trying to protect itself from outsiders. "They have made a code for what is to be done, and what is not to be done, and whatever differs
is un-American" (Canby) A good description of the situation of the time is found in the Times Literary Supplement (author not mentioned), "Nowhere, not among the most formal refinements of the ancien régime, has there been seen a society more carefully
and consciously organized than that of New York a generation or so ago, when the tide of new money, bearing new people and new standards and new manners, was only just beginning to encroach upon the old, and when the family in possession?it was hardly mor
e than a family, compactly knit together in one circle?was making its final and unsuccessful attempt to withstand it."
The main character, Newland Archer, is planning to marry his "perfect match," May Welland, when her intriguing cousin blows into town. Countess Olenska mocks these people's stuffy ways, and when she rejects their formalities, Newland starts to doubt the
importance of the "old ways." He and Countess Olenska fall in love, and Newland must decide what to do.
By 1921 she had won the Pulitzer Prize for her efforts. However, at the time of this award, Sinclair Lewis' book, Main Street, was number one on the best seller list. Later, Wharton found out that Lewis' book was originally voted to win the Pulitzer Pri
ze, but the decision was overturned by Columbia University for the book's controversiality. When she found this out, she wrote to him about her "disgust," and invited him to St. Brice (one of her homes).
Critics praised Wharton's writing for her attention to details, and her ability to vividly depict scenes. One critic, William Lyon Phelps, wrote in 1920, "I do not remember when I have read a work of fiction that gives the reader so vivid an idea of the
furnishing and illuminating of rooms in fashionable houses as one will find in The Age of Innocence." This critic also compared her writing with the typical writing in 1920; "The common method today of writing a novel is to begin with the birth of the
hero, shove in all experiences that the author can remember of his own childhood, most of which are of no interest to any one but himself, take him to school, throw in more experiences, introduce him to the heroine, more experiences, quit when the book se
ems long enough, and write the whole biography in colloquial jargon? Here is a novel whose basis is a story. It begins on a night at the opera. The characters are introduced naturally?every action and every conversation advance the plot. The style is a
thing of beauty from first page to last. One dwells with pleasure on the ?exquisite moments' of passion and tragedy, and on the ?silver correspondences' that rise from the style like the moon on a cloudless night." Wharton's description of family was co
mpared with Jane Austin's when Lovett wrote in 1925, "Through the memories of her girlhood we enter a group of families, almost as limited and compact as one of Jane Austin's neighborhoods,?" She has also been compared with Dorothy Canfield, Zona Gale, a
nd Anne Sedgwick when Phelps wrote "In this present year of emancipation (1920) it is pleasant to record that in the front rank of American living novelists we find four women." The Age of Innocence was acclaimed her best work thus far. Another critic,
Josheph Warren Beach, wrote in 1932, "The book is remarkable for unity and simplicity of action," and "If Edith Wharton shows her expertness more in one thing than another, it is in her dialogue."
From 1910 until her death she lived out her life in France. Because she lived in France she did not have an American public persona. However, she involved herself in the war efforts in France. Despite her aristocratic upbringing, Wharton plunged into th
e war effort, helping out wherever possible. During the war she ran a workroom for unemployed skilled women workers in her quarter. She fed French and Belgian refugees in her restaurants below cost price. She took entire charge of 600 Belgian children
who had to leave their orphanage at the time of the German advance. In 1915 in honor of her good deeds the French government gave her the cross of the Legion of Honor.
The Age of Innocence focuses on the degeneration of the high class, old New York society, and the ushering in of a new generation. Edith Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence during the time period when Old New York was giving way to a more crowded, dirtier
, faster society. Immigrants abounded and the city swelled with the influx of people. In 1920 in the New York Times Book Review and Magazine, feature articles discussed the changing New York. In the years before she wrote The Age of Innocence and for a
few years after, the loss of the old ways and society was a popular subject. One reason for Age's popularity can be accounted for the time period in which it was written. Other events in this time period include emancipation, the women's movement, proh
ibition, and World War I.
In 1928 The Age of Innocence hit Broadway and then toured for four months, earning $23,500. Three movies were made, 1924, 1934, and 1993. The 1993 version garnered popularity, because Martin Scorsese directed it while Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder, an
d Daniel Day-Lewis starred in it. Collier books printed an edition with a scene from the movie on the cover, and a movie review on the back. Running across the top of the cover are the words, "Now a major motion picture." The blurb on the back features
a clip from the San Francisco Examiner and reads, Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize, The Age of Innocence is Edith Wharton's portrait of desire and betrayal in Old New York. As Newland Archer prepares to marry the docile May Welland, his world forever c
hanged by the return of the mysterious Countess Olenska. "Wharton's characters?become very real. You know their hearts, souls and yearnings, and the price they pay for those yearnings"(San Francisco Examiner). Because the focus of this particular editi
on is focused on the movie instead of the book, it is obvious that the movie impacted the recent popularity of the book.
Wharton's The Age of Innocence may have been popular to different people for different reasons. Her depiction of Old New York is so accurate and true to detail, that any historian would find pleasure in reading about it. While there is not a lot of acti
on (i.e. war or murder or fighting), the love story is told in such a way that the reader can not help but be drawn into it. Newland and Countess Olenska share such a passion that the Countess is able to merely touch Newland's knee with her hand fan and
electrify. Either the romantic or the historic qualities could have attracted readers. It's unusual for a movie to be made about a book that was written seventy-three years earlier. This fact testifies to the lasting qualities of the book.