I finished The Age of Innocence and decided to keep reading as much Wharton as I could, and after awhile, I began to understand what was truly wonderful and great about her work. I realized that when Edith Wharton wrote about New York, she was writing about the New York that she once loved, a New York that she saw vanish as she grew older.
Wharton’s nostalgia was primarily aesthetic.
Today, when I walk through the neighborhood where young Edith Wharton lived as a child, when I retrace the pathways that gave her a first-hand look at the world that she would eventually commit to paper, I still can’t quite find her exact footsteps. Instead, I stop into nearby Eataly to gaze into the meat case and buy fresh mozzarella. I sometimes take money out of the ATM a few feet away, and every summer find myself drawn to the Shake Shack across the street, inevitably waiting in line for a hot dog and beer to take to watch the US Open on the Madison Square Park big screen. I always take a moment to pause when I’m walking down Twenty-Third to look up and down and try to imagine what it looked like over one hundred fifty years ago. I try and see what Wharton saw; what she loved and what she despised. I try to see the way things were when she was young; the way things were changing as she grew, the way she wanted things to look, and I try to reconcile that with what remains. When I do that, I have an easier time understanding Edith Wharton, her writing, and that little slice of New York I once tried so hard to avoid.
Jason Diamond on Edith Wharton and New York City. Wharton passed away just when photographer Berenice Abbott was beginning to document NYC’s changing face in her iconic black-and-white photos of the 1930s.
Wharton’s Age of Innocence represents New York in this recent selection of 50 great American love stories for 50 states.