1Edith Wharton (1862-1937) wrote nearly ninety short stories in her lifetime, an achievement that seems all the more remarkable when we remember that she was almost thirty when her first story, “Mrs. Manstey’s View,” was published in July 1891, and that she was thirty-seven when her first collection of stories, The Greater Inclination, came out in 1899. A late starter perhaps, but not a slow learner: when Wharton sent a copy of that first collection to her friend Paul Bourget (1852-1935), whom she had met in 1893 at the beginning of his eight-month tour of the United States, Bourget noted in his diary:
[Ragatz] June 30 
- 1 Paul Bourget. My translation. The original French reads: « [Ragatz] 30 Juin  La lecture du li (...)
Reading Edith W.’s book (the greater inclination) proves to me what the art of the short story may be when the subject is very representative and the style concise […].
Admired, concerning this book, what patience can achieve. I remember Edith W. in 93, and the short story she was writing then, about a schoolteacher in a small town I think. What progress in these six years through hard work and strength of will. I am convinced that the life of the artist is to be found entirely in this power of composition. 1
- 2 Lewis’s description in his 1975 biography of Wharton’s ill-health was subsequently taken up by her (...)
2“Patience,” “hard work,” “strength of will,” and the “power of composition” resulted in twenty-three stories written during the decade following the publication of Wharton’s first story. Bourget’s description of the “artist” hardly fits R. W. B. Lewis’s representation of Edith Wharton as “suffering from paralysing depression” during much of the same period.2 In her measured appraisal of Wharton’s supposed illness, Hermione Lee has pointed out that Wharton herself contributed in A Backward Glance to the “heroic retrospective narrative of depression giving way to achievement.” Wharton, she writes, “was leading a complicated, active, energetic life all through the period in which she was also unwell, unhappy and depressed” (79), a view corroborated by the letters to Anna Bahlmann, in which Wharton presents herself as active in spite of ill health, and engaging in various strenuous physical activities not usually associated with neurasthenic patients, such as ice-skating and twenty-mile bicycle rides. Looked at differently, in the years between 1890 and 1900 Wharton was undergoing a radical transformation: it would have been surprising had she not suffered from depression. In Wharton’s case at least, depression was probably not a disorder, or not only a disorder, but a form of protection, a means of adapting to the onslaught of the new. Another passage from A Backward Glance provides a clue to what was happening during those years: “I had as yet no real personality of my own, and was not to acquire one till my first volume of short stories was published—and that was not until 1899” (868). Writing, in other words, the “power of composition” as Bourget put it, was the manner in which Wharton was able—by her own account—to “acquire” a personality. The short stories, which she would continue to write prolifically almost until the moment of her death in 1937, are evidence of the energy Wharton spent reinventing herself as an artist.
3In “A Writer of Short Stories,” R. W. B. Lewis insists that although Wharton “began as a writer of short stories and, in a sense, […] finished as one,” she did not “significantly modify the genre itself.” She was, he said, a “preserver,” or “caretaker,” rather than an explorer. Lewis bases his argument mainly on what Wharton herself has to say in The Writing of Fiction (1925) about the art of the short story: “those who remain imprisoned in the false notion of their own originality will always fall short of what they might have accomplished” (28). Wharton sees form as order (21) and style as discipline (22); she favours the two unities, “the old traditional one of time, and that other, more modern and complex” one of vision, formulated by Henry James, but long since “observed by the masters of fiction” (34-35); and she sees herself as an heir—of the French and Russian authors of nouvelles, and of the German and English creators of spectral apparitions. Continuity, in other words, is the key word in “Telling a Short Story.” “Mrs. Wharton says much that is engrossing and valid, but virtually nothing that is new,” writes Lewis (10). This Wharton-of-the-old-guard has remained, since Lewis at least, a recurring figure in the criticism of the short fiction.
4Yet, Lewis himself also says that “in practice, Edith Wharton was often subtler, and both her ambition and her imaginative achievement greater, than her common-sense critical remarks might lead one to expect” (10). He adds that she was “the first American writer to make almost exclusively her own” one area of experience: the marriage question (11). Finally, he acknowledges the element of surprise in her inclusion of the eerie in her discussion of the short story. He might have added that even Wharton’s “common-sense critical remarks” are mitigated in the same chapter of The Writing of Fiction by declarations of freedom such as: “General rules in art are useful chiefly as a lamp in a mine, or a hand-rail down a black stairway; they are necessary for the sake of the guidance they give, but it is a mistake, once they are formulated, to be too much in awe of them” (33). Rules, in other words, are meant to be broken, and Edith Wharton did not think of herself as ordained to eschew the new anymore than she saw herself as bound by tradition.
- 3 R. W. B. Lewis founded this analysis of “The Hermit and the Wild Woman” on Wayne Andrews’ introduct (...)
5Lewis sometimes turns to Wharton’s biography to explain the stories—another constant in Wharton criticism: “There are of course urgent biographical reasons for Edith Wharton’s near obsession with the perplexities of marriage,” he writes (“A Writer” 12). “It is evident,” he adds, that in “Souls Belated,” Ralph Gannet “speaks for Wharton” when he tells Lydia Tillotson, who has left her husband for him, that “life is made up of compromises” (13). Perhaps. Lewis goes on to assert that “the translation from life into story is complete” in “Kerfol,” but “incomplete in ‘The Hermit and the Wild Woman,’” which he sees as “Mrs. Wharton’s effort to make a story out of a deeply troubled period of her life […]. It becomes uncomfortably clear that the relation between the Wild Woman and the Hermit is an elementary version, at several kinds of remove, of the relation between Edith Wharton and Walter Berry,” Wharton’s life-long friend (21).3 Many critics after Lewis have also seen certain short stories as “translations from life.” Some, Barbara White among them, even turn to the stories to fill in the gaps in the life: “It was the consecutive reading of Wharton’s short stories […] that first led me to the belief that she may have been an incest victim. This might be because, as Candace Waid suggests, ‘the short stories provide the most intimate record of Wharton’s fears and desires.’” White goes on to say that “it was not only the strange father-daughter stories that led me to the incest theory but also the obsessive themes of hidden male corruption” (48-49). This, needless to say, is merely speculation, and although Wharton’s biography is of interest to most readers, conjecture remains conjecture.
6A third constant in the criticism of Wharton’s stories is what might be called the question of class and money. Wharton is almost always qualified at the outset as a “literary aristocrat” whose province, especially in the short stories, is limited to Old New York, Brahmin Boston, and the international scene, with stories like “Mrs. Manstey’s View” or “Bunner Sisters” figuring as exceptions that confirm a general rule. In his introduction to his 1991 Selected Short Stories of Edith Wharton, Lewis describes Wharton as a “restive member of the upper-middle-class New York society into which she was born” (vii). He goes on to describe the houses she bought and sold and the money she made from her stories and then adds: “There is no doubt that Edith Wharton after 1920 wrote and sold a number of flimsy fictional concoctions for large sums of money—to pay the expenses for her elegant manner of life, her travels, her lavishly hospitable homes in southern France and outside of Paris, and her many private charities” (ix). As Barbara White points out, this presentation of Wharton was first shaken by the feminist reading of Wharton’s work in the 1960s, and then by the revelation of her love affair with Morton Fullerton—seen as humanizing her—and finally by the continued study of Wharton’s correspondence, which reveals a woman who is anything but a snob (xii). Lewis, again in his essay on Wharton as a short story writer, says that “rooms and the furnishings of rooms are […] her chief source of metaphor in her short stories” and he remarks on her “sometimes excessive concern with the details of female dress, and her minute observation of interior décor” (23). Certainly, Wharton’s attention to manners and ornament, rather than merely “a source of metaphor,” has often been perceived as a sign of Wharton’s belonging to an obsolete world of hierarchies, households on a grand scale, and servants, a radically past world that is no longer the one we inhabit.
7How are we to read Wharton’s short stories today then? Wharton said that “situation” was “the main concern of the short story” (The Writing of Fiction 37). But are the “situations” presented in her stories still “situations”? Or, to put it differently, has what was new when Wharton wrote, remained new? In The Writing of Fiction, Wharton said that an “impression of vividness, of presentness […] has to be sought” in the short story (37). But presentness, surely, is not always a sustainable quality. Yet, it is striking that in an age in which, in most of Europe and North America at least, over fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, Wharton’s “marriage question” stories should still be germane to our preoccupations. Lewis was surely correct in saying that, in the best of Wharton’s stories,
the situation is gradually revealed in all its complexity and finality. What we know at the end […] is not so much how some problem got resolved, but the full nature, usually the unsurmountable nature, of the problem itself. […] The immediate human situation has, in short, become a paradigm of the human condition. (11)
8“The Other Two”, for example, is about the way the presence of his wife’s two former husbands can make a man in New York wince—he groans and winces repeatedly in the story—and about what it means for a woman to have more than one husband in any time or place. In the course of the story, Waythorn becomes aware of “the full nature” of what he has done in marrying Alice Varick, formerly Alice Haskett. His problem is never “resolved,” but, for the reader, it opens up a series of ethical, anthropological and metaphysical questions about the way we live. Wharton’s evocations of the many facets of the “woman question” are never merely anecdotal. The reader is constantly reminded of the cultural invariants involved: what is to be done with eros? How are we to order love? Are some rules superior to others and how do they affect our behaviour? In “The Other Two” once again, the language used to describe matrimony is the language of Wall Street—marriages are “ventures,” and previous husbands are “discounted”—and reveals the underlying structure of exchange that founds matrimony in all societies everywhere. This movement from the particular to the universal is perhaps the most striking trait of Edith Wharton’s stories.
9Similarly, Wharton’s critiques of consumerism, including literary consumerism as in “Xingu,” are set in historical circumstances that provide the reader with the elements that allow him to place the story in time and space: “Mrs. Ballinger is one of the ladies who pursue Culture in bands, as though it were dangerous to meet alone. To this end she had founded the Lunch Club, an association composed of herself and several other indomitable huntresses of erudition” (1). But stories like “Xingu” also ask what it means to buy and what it means to read: “Mrs. Ballinger’s province […] was the Book of the Day.” She cannot remember even last week’s books: “facts came and went like transient lodgers.” She is in fact, not really a reader at all, but is proud to be “‘abreast with the Thought of the Day”’ (7). The problem is a universal one and Mrs. Ballinger stands for anyone anywhere who believes that ideas can be picked up, ready-made, off a shelf. The story’s relevance to our own age of unbridled cultural consumerism is difficult to miss.
10In A Backward Glance, Wharton explains how, from an early age, she was able to observe only from afar: “I did not know how deeply I had felt the nobility and harmony of the great European cities till our steamer was docked at New York” (817). Distance, in other words, is her fundamental epistemological tenet. Wharton’s narratives of cultural conflict are almost always cosmopolitan, or at least transatlantic, in perspective. In “The Lamp of Psyche,” a return voyage across the Atlantic is necessary for a young wife to understand that, seen from Boston, her husband is a coward, but, since she lives with him in Paris, “tolerant affection” possesses “precisely the same advantages” as “passionate worship” (42). In “The Muse’s Tragedy,” travel—to Italy this time—allows another young idolater to discover the difference between life and literature. This telescopic view, not so very different from a contemporary multicultural perspective, would appear to make a modern of Wharton. Yet Wharton is never a relativist. Some form of disenchantment or disappointment is usually the result of her characters’ clash with the world they encounter outside their dreams. In her stories, reality is limited, and therefore disappointing, everywhere and always. The present, moreover, is hardly an improvement over the past. Nothing makes this clearer than Wharton’s supernatural stories: in “Kerfol” or “The Duchess at Prayer,” for example, the past is precisely not past, as the tellers of these tales come to understand.
11One of the paradoxes of Wharton’s short stories is that they unblinkingly record the seamier sides, the petty compromises, and sometimes repellent details of marriage and family life and yet propose no future for individual desires outside those institutions. The stories chronicle the loss of illusion (“Autres temps” and “The Quicksand” for example, or again “The Lamp of Psyche”); they present a damaged world made livable only through guile or accommodation (“Charm Incorporated” for example, or “Joy in the House”); they make fun of attempts to renew the world and in particular to renew marriage (“Souls Belated” or “The Reckoning,” for example). Like Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (“your Fouriers failed,/Because not poets enough to understand/That life develops from within,” viii 434-436), the short stories as a whole reject earthly utopias. Yet, although Wharton repeatedly revealed her conviction that there was no “world elsewhere”—and Lewis was surely right to say that for her, “society, crushing as it might be, was all there was” (13)—she was not altogether insensitive to what might be called the romance of democracy. Her stories chronicle seemingly irrelevant lives with generosity and compassion: in “All Souls’,” for example, Sara Clayburn says laughingly: “Lonely? With my old servants? You forget how many winters I’ve spent here alone with them” (802). And as Avril Horner and Janet Beer have recently shown, many of Wharton’s characters, like the elder Bunner sister, or Miss Mary Pask for example, are spinsters and lonely or ill—or both ill and lonely, like Alice Hartley in “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell.” The stories are full of characters who exist on the edges of society and, as Beer and Horner point out, some live in literally remote and liminal spaces, as in “Kerfol,” “Miss Mary Pask,” “The Duchess at Prayer,” or even in “The House of the Dead Hand” although the story unfolds in the heart of Siena. The late stories often portray the loneliness of older women and “in the late ghost stories in particular, [Wharton] is intent on challenging stereotypical images of the ageing woman in order to reveal energies and desires that have been constrained by a lifetime of conforming to the expectations of others” write Horner and Beer (161).
12More generally, the stories are inhabited by characters with strong feelings who are hedged in and hampered by the institutions and societies in which they live. Mostly women, they are passionately maternal, like Catherine Glenn in “Her Son,” or Grace Ansley in “Roman Fever,” or prey to illicit erotic desire. In fact, as Hildegard Hoeller has shown, the stories are often “driven by the secret force of female ‘illegitimate’—that is, extramarital—desire” (171). Some critics have seen this “excess” of feeling as an attribute of “sentimental fiction,” which Hoeller claims has a place in Wharton’s œuvre although it is at odds with the “economy” of realism. It is telling too that women are sometimes represented as a source of energy and renewed strength in Wharton’s stories: in “Coming Home,” for example, the world has literally fallen apart, and the saving remnant is made up of women—and more particularly one woman who is clearly portrayed as modern. When she plays the piano, she has a preference for Stravinsky.
13So, although the stories can be read as a critique of modernity, and in a sense document a particular stage of our ongoing attempt to become modern (this, surely, is what Bourget meant in his journal by “very representative subjects”), and although many of the stories are hilarious and scathing satires of the unpoetic, materialistic, narcissistic, modern world, they are also lyrical evocations of individual dilemmas. The ghost stories are probably the best examples of Wharton’s awareness of the consequences for the individual of the unfinished modern project. In her preface to Ghosts, she writes that it is not electricity that is responsible for driving ghosts away. “I have made the depressing discovery that the faculty required for their enjoyment has become atrophied in modern man” (White 139). She goes on to say that continuity and silence—“two conditions abhorrent to the modern mind”—are necessary to the appreciation of ghost stories. She then defines the good reader in curiously Nabokovian terms: rejecting clichés—“boring stage properties” like “the battlemented castle”—and praising “words shadowy and transparent enough” to send “a cold shiver down one’s spine” (White 141-142). In Wharton’s ghost stories, the eerie seeps in between the folds and interstices of existence evoking the attraction of otherworlds. Like Nabokov too, Edith Wharton uses irony to mask a lyrical subtext: in “Souls Belated,” the reader may be amused by Lydia Tillotson’s naïve denial of the need to make lust respectable but is also moved by her predicament. Caustic observation of manners does not entirely dissimulate the plight of a “soul.”
14Still, the stories are more than chronicles of a new “roaring and discontinuous universe,” as Wharton herself described modernity (“Preface to Ghosts” White 141). They are not merely reports. We learn about the transatlantic life, and about New York, Boston, and Paris in the throes of change. But Wharton’s stories are also forms that demand our attention as works of art. As artefacts, they strike us today as audacious undertakings—audacious in the sense that they are, as Richard Ford has it, “daring little instruments” that “almost always represent commensurate daring in their makers.” Edith Wharton demonstrated her audacity, not only by writing the stories—and the passage from A Backward Glance quoted above makes it clear that an inner transformation was necessary to get the stories written at all—but also by choosing the short story form. Her decision to use a form so dependent on brevity in order to force us to notice something crucial about the world she inhabited—and the title of her second collection of stories was Crucial Instances—was a bold one. Concision, omission and radical authorial decisions concerning beginnings and endings are, of course, also aesthetic features of the novel. But with short stories more is left out, more concision is needed, and authorial decisions about what to include or what to leave out are necessarily more radical. Wharton’s stories are “daring little instruments” in that, within their restricted compass, and in spite of their condensation and the absence of impedimenta—the absence of the furniture and stuffing that fill out novels—they attempt to say something important. To adopt a form that required “bold foreshortening” (The Writing of Fiction 42) was to take a risk since, as Wharton put it, with the short story, form is all—or almost all: “The effect produced by the short story depends almost entirely on its form” (37). Selection, then, “the choice of what is kept when the superfluous has been jettisoned,” is essential. But Wharton also thought that the case for the “economy of material” was sometimes overstated. She condemned excessive “thrift.” “Some critics, in their resentment of the dense and the prolix, have tended to overestimate the tenuous and tight,” she wrote (41). The short-story writer, in other words, must find his balance somewhere on the tightrope between the two extremes of “parsimony and waste” (43). The financial metaphor of writing as compared to “the administering of a fortune,” with the implied result of riches or ruin, shows that Wharton was aware that short-story writing was a perilous enterprise.
- 4 The introduction of Edith Wharton: Sex, Satire and the Older Woman (Beer and Horner) provides a rec (...)
15Why do Edith Wharton’s stories please us? Perhaps, as we have already suggested, because they are still relevant to our world. But, more probably, because of the way they use language. As readers, we are surprised by what Wharton tells us, but much more surprised by the way she tells it. In “Telling a Short Story”—unlike the chapter on the novel, telling is the focus of her title—Wharton says a great deal about selection but only briefly mentions the order in which the “essentials are set forth” (41). Yet it was perhaps here that Wharton departed from accepted ways in her short-story writing. Her particular combination of wickedness and compassion—“her tendency to combine satire and melancholy” (Horner and Beer 7)—confers ambivalence on the stories, thus opening them up to endless interpretation, and commanding our attention. Recently, critics have argued that not only is Wharton’s subject matter modern, but that her narrative style, especially in her short stories, has many of the features of modernist writing.4 Since short stories were almost always published in magazines and therefore subject to particular constraints, they were especially conducive to modern, impressionistic writing—very different from the writing associated with the older novel-in-miniature sort of story. The very form of the short story, because it implicitly challenged literary norms, came to be closely associated with modernism. Within Wharton’s stories, the use of ellipsis, of cuts and jumps, as well as the very modern demands she makes of her readers—“reading should be a creative act” (White 140)—are perceived as Wharton’s entry visa to the ill-defined territory of modernism.
16Long before she became a writer of short stories, Edith Wharton was a reader. And it was perhaps her familiarity with literature in four languages that allowed her to become prolific as quickly as she did: everything suggests that many of her early stories were in a sense ready, waiting to be written down as soon as she had found a form. As Wharton saw it, she was entering into a preexisting conversation. In her discussion of Proust, she says she admired him because he was not merely an innovator, but “that substantial thing in the world of art, a renovator” (The Writing 109). Marcel Proust was a great writer, in other words, because he drew on “the great line of classic tradition” in order to renew form. But reading too is a way of entering an existing conversation or debate. In “The Vice of Reading,” Wharton says that “the value of books is proportionate to what may be called their plasticity […]. Where this reciprocal adaptability is lacking, there can be no real intercourse between book and reader” (Uncollected Critical Writings 99). Both reading and writing, then, are “reciprocal” activities: both are “an interchange of thought” (99). The writer moves between the familiar world of history and tradition and the unknown world of the future reader. Both reading and writing thus become transformative experiences. Clearly, Wharton was aware of the vivifying effect of the “power of composition”:
I must return to ‘The Greater Inclination,’ and to my discovery of that soul of mine which the publication of my first volume called to life. At last I had groped my way through to my vocation, and thereafter I never questioned that story-telling was my job […]. Meanwhile I felt like some homeless waif who, after trying for years to take out naturalization papers, and being rejected by every country, has finally acquired a nationality. (A Backward Glance 873, emphasis added.)
17Over a period of almost five decades, Edith Wharton wrote short stories that were a source of both popularity and income. If, as she herself put it, “the surest way of measuring achievement in art is by survival” (The Writing of Fiction 36), the renewed interest demonstrated by the fourteen articles in this special issue is, we hope, a sign of Wharton’s achievement as a short-story writer. Two authors, Sarah Whitehead and David Malcolm, discuss Wharton’s engagement with modernism; one, Robin Peel, analyses Wharton’s religious leanings in the Italian stories. Audrey Giboux discusses the role of letters as a narrative device in three stories and Agnès Berbinau-Dezalay analyzes reading and the figure of the reader. In the two articles following, Joanna Scutts and William Blazek analyse some of Wharton’s war stories—more particularly, “Coming Home” and “Writing a War Story.” Gary Totten and Nancy Von Rosk both analyse motifs in “Bunner Sisters”: the West and cultural norms on one hand, and fairy tale motifs on the other. Jennifer Haytock looks from a new angle at the significance of dogs in “Kerfol,” Michael Pantazzi discusses the meaning of the portrait in Wharton’s short stories, and Gina Rossetti thinks about the new definition of marriage that emerges in “The Other Two” and “Pomegranate Seed.” Finally Brigitte Zaugg provides an attentive reading of “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” and Joseph Urbas offers a highly original close reading of “The Eyes.”