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A Backward Glance Hardcover – November 4, 2008

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About the Author

Edith Wharton was born in 1862 into one of New York's older and richer families and was educated here and abroad. Her works include the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, and Summer. As a keen observer and chronicler of society, she is without peer. Edith Wharton died in France in 1937. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1

THE BACKGROUND

Gute Gesellschaft hab ich gesehen; man nennt sie die gute Wenn sie zum kleinsten Gedicht nicht die Gelegenheit giebt.

Goethe: Venezianische Epigrammen

1

It was on a bright day of midwinter, in New York. The little girl who eventually became me, but as yet was neither me nor anybody else in particular, but merely a soft anonymous morsel of humanity -- this little girl, who bore my name, was going for a walk with her father. The episode is literally the first thing I can remember about her, and therefore I date the birth of her identity from that day.

She had been put into her warmest coat, and into a new and very pretty bonnet, which she had surveyed in the glass with considerable satisfaction. The bonnet (I can see it today) was of white satin, patterned with a pink and green plaid in raised velvet. It was all drawn into close gathers, with a bavolet in the neck to keep out the cold, and thick ruffles of silky blonde lace under the brim in front. As the air was very cold a gossamer veil of the finest white Shetland wool was drawn about the bonnet and hung down over the wearer's round red cheeks like the white paper filigree over a Valentine; and her hands were encased in white woollen mittens.

One of them lay in the large safe hollow of her father's bare hand; her tall handsome father, who was so warm-blooded that in the coldest weather he always went out without gloves, and whose head, with its ruddy complexion and intensely blue eyes, was so far aloft that when she walked beside him she was too near to see his face. It was always an event in the little girl's life to take a walk with her father, and more particularly so today, because she had on her new winter bonnet, which was so beautiful (and so becoming) that for the first time she woke to the importance of dress, and of herself as a subject for adornment -- so that I may date from that hour the birth of the conscious and feminine me in the little girl's vague soul.

The little girl and her father walked up Fifth Avenue: the old Fifth Avenue with its double line of low brown-stone houses, of a desperate uniformity of style, broken only -- and surprisingly -- by two equally unexpected features: the fenced-in plot of ground where the old Miss Kennedys' cows were pastured, and the truncated Egyptian pyramid which so strangely served as a reservoir for New York's water supply. The Fifth Avenue of that day was a placid and uneventful thoroughfare, along which genteel landaus, broughams and victorias, and more countrified vehicles of the "carryall" and "surrey" type, moved up and down at decent intervals and a decorous pace. On Sundays after church the fashionable of various denominations paraded there on foot, in gathered satin bonnets and tall hats; but at other times it presented long stretches of empty pavement, so that the little girl, advancing at her father's side was able to see at a considerable distance the approach of another pair of legs, not as long but considerably stockier than her father's. The little girl was so very little that she never got much higher than the knees in her survey of grown-up people, and would not have known, if her father had not told her, that the approaching legs belonged to his cousin Henry. The news was very interesting, because in attendance on Cousin Henry was a small person, no bigger than herself, who must obviously be Cousin Henry's little boy Daniel, and therefore somehow belong to the little girl. So when the tall legs and the stocky ones halted for a talk, which took place somewhere high up in the air, and the small Daniel and Edith found themselves face to face close to the pavement, the little girl peered with interest at the little boy through the white woollen mist over her face. The little boy, who was very round and rosy, looked back with equal interest; and suddenly he put out a chubby hand, lifted the little girl's veil, and boldly planted a kiss on her cheek. It was the first time -- and the little girl found it very pleasant.

This is my earliest definite memory of anything happening to me; and it will be seen that I was wakened to conscious life by the two tremendous forces of love and vanity.

It may have been just after this memorable day -- at any rate it was nearly at the same time -- that a snowy-headed old gentleman with a red face and a spun-sugar moustache and imperial gave me a white Spitz puppy which looked as if its coat had been woven out of the donor's luxuriant locks. The old gentleman, in whose veins ran the purest blood of Dutch Colonial New York, was called Mr. Lydig Suydam, and I should like his name to survive till this page has crumbled, for with his gift a new life began for me. The owning of my first dog made me into a conscious sentient person, fiercely possessive, anxiously watchful, and woke in me that long ache of pity for animals, and for all inarticulate beings, which nothing has ever stilled. How I loved that first "Foxy" of mine, how I cherished and yearned over and understood him! And how quickly he relegated all dolls and other inanimate toys to the region of my everlasting indifference!

I never cared much in my little-childhood for fairy tales, or any appeals to my fancy through the fabulous or legendary. My imagination lay there, coiled and sleeping, a mute hibernating creature, and at the least touch of common things -- flowers, animals, words, especially the sound of words, apart from their meaning -- it already stirred in its sleep, and then sank back into its own rich dream, which needed so little feeding from the outside that it instinctively rejected whatever another imagination had already adorned and completed. There was, however, one fairy tale at which I always thrilled -- the story of the boy who could talk with the birds and hear what the grasses said. Very early, earlier than my conscious memory can reach, I must have felt myself to be of kin to that happy child. I cannot remember when the grasses first spoke to me, though I think it was when, a few years later, one of my uncles took me, with some little cousins, to spend a long spring day in some marshy woods near Mamaroneck, where the earth was starred with pink trailing arbutus, where pouch-like white and rosy flowers grew in a swamp, and leafless branches against the sky were netted with buds of mother-of-pearl; but on the day when Foxy was given to me I learned what the animals say to each other, and to us....

2

The readers (and I should doubtless have been among them) who twenty years ago would have smiled at the idea that time could transform a group of bourgeois colonials and their republican descendants into a sort of social aristocracy, are now better able to measure the formative value of nearly three hundred years of social observance: the concerted living up to long-established standards of honour and conduct, of education and manners. The value of duration is slowly asserting itself against the welter of change, and sociologists without a drop of American blood in them have been the first to recognize what the traditions of three centuries have contributed to the moral wealth of our country. Even negatively, these traditions have acquired, with the passing of time, an unsuspected value. When I was young it used to seem to me that the group in which I grew up was like an empty vessel into which no new wine would ever again be poured. Now I see that one of its uses lay in preserving a few drops of an old vintage too rare to be savoured by a youthful palate; and I should like to atone for my unappreciativeness by trying to revive that faint fragrance.

If any one had suggested to me, before 1914, to write my reminiscences, I should have answered that my life had been too uneventful to be worth recording. Indeed, I had never even thought of recording it for my own amusement, and the fact that until 1918 I never kept even the briefest of diaries has greatly hampered this tardy reconstruction. Not until the successive upheavals which culminated in the catastrophe of 1914 had "cut all likeness from the name" of my old New York, did I begin to see its pathetic picturesqueness. The first change came in the 'eighties, with the earliest detachment of big money:makers from the West, soon to be followed by the lords of Pittsburgh. But their infiltration did not greatly affect old manners and customs, since the dearest ambition of the newcomers was to assimilate existing traditions. Social life, with us as in the rest of the world, went on with hardly perceptible changes till the war abruptly tore down the old hame-work, and what had seemed unalterable rules of conduct became of a sudden observances as quaintly arbitrary as the domestic rites of the Pharaohs. Between the point of view of my Huguenot great-great-grandfather, who came from the French Palatinate to participate in the founding of New Rochelle, and my own father, who died in 1882, there were fewer differences than between my father and the post-war generation of Americans. That I was born into a world in which telephones, motors, electric light, central heating (except by hot-air furnaces), X-rays, cinemas, radium, aeroplanes and wireless telegraphy were not only unknown but still mostly unforeseen, may seem the most striking difference between then and now; but the really vital change is that, in my youth, the Americans of the original States, who in moments of crisis still shaped the national point of view, were the heirs of an old tradition of European culture which the country has now totally rejected. This rejection (which Mr. Walter Lippmann regards as the chief cause of the country's present moral impoverishment) has opened a gulf between those days and these. The compact world of my youth has receded into a past from which it can only be dug up in bits by the assiduous relic-hunter; and its smallest fragments begin to be worth collecting and putting together before the last of those who knew the live structure are swept away with it.

3

My little-girl life, safe, guarded, monotonous, was cradl... --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 434 pages
  • Publisher: Wharton Press (November 4, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1443728160
  • ISBN-13: 978-1443728164
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,034,730 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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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.
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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.
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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.
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Edith Wharton wrote "The Age of Innocence" (I believe it won the Pulitzer), the only fiction she wrote that I have truly liked--and an excellent book. She also wrote much nonfiction, and I have enjoyed her travel writing very much.
In this book, Ms. Wharton reflects on her childhood and adulthood to middle age. (A short biography of her life is included in the introduction by Louis Auchincloss.) She speaks of her parents and growing up in 'Old New York' and living on the Gold Coast of New England with her husband.
Ms. Wharton was a great friend of several men of letters who were prominent during her era, including Henry James. Her writing describes these relationships in part. She may have had an affair with one of them (not James), but unlike writers of today, more is not said than said. Mrs. Wharton divorced her husband in an era when it was not the best thing to do if one wished to remain a member of high society. She seems to have cast off New York society and moved to France to live permantly after her divorce. If you're interested in the story behind the story in "The Age of Innocence" this book is a good resource.
In addition to her early years in America and later years in France, this book covers some of Ms. Wharton's travels in France and the Mediterranean. The most evocative sections cover her experiences in a trip to the French front in WWI. During WWI, she became a reporter and sent information to a New York newspaper on a regular basis.
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