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In the decades following her death, Edith Wharton has been called many things as critical reception of her work ebbed and flowed: she has been labeled an elitist out of touch with the common man; an expat who fell out of touch with her American roots; a sentimentalist romanticizing the wealthy and conservative society she was born into. These assessments vary from somewhat accurate to entirely reductive. Wharton may not have been able to accurately depict rural poverty in “Ethan Frome” due to her affluent urban upbringing, but she could still capture the desperate ennui of a life lived without fulfillment. She was touched by her time spent in Paris during the latter part of her life, which informed her antiwar novel “A Son at the Front.” Wharton was many things in her time, but she was never a sentimentalist. Critical misinterpretations of her New York novels, including “The House of Mirth,” “The Custom of the Country,” and “The Age of Innocence” have ignored or downplayed Wharton’s extensive use of irony in deconstructing and lampooning high society. My paper attempts to assert Wharton’s status as a master satirist, addressing criticism while putting Wharton’s personal and professional recollections in her autobiography “A Backward Glance” in conversation with close readings of her fiction. The presence of sentimentality in Wharton’s novels, particularly those set in New York, has been largely overstated and erases her legacy as a keen observer of character and convention, satirizing the society to which she never felt she belonged.
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Daugherty, Jeffrey Smith, "After the Age of Innocence: Reclaiming Edith Wharton's Satirist Status" (2018). Senior Projects Spring 2018. 315.