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How Edith Wharton and Henry James Struck Up A Friendship Around Washington Square

Henry James & Edith Wharton. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On October 26, 1900, two great writers with ties to the Village began a correspondence that would spark a lifelong friendship…

Henry James. Photo courtesy of the New Yorker.

Henry James was an American author regarded as a key transitional figure between literary realism and literary modernism; he is considered by many to be among the greatest novelists in the English language.  James grew up in a wealthy family who lived at 21 Washington Place, just east of Washington Square (in a building long since demolished), and he traced his Victorian gentility and class-consciousness to his Greenwich Village upbringing in the mid-19th century. Though he later made England his home, the memory of his early life in Manhattan would reflect in his writing throughout his life. His signature work, Washington Square, reflected the deep imprint and influence his upbringing in Greenwich Village had upon him.

Edith Wharton moved to Paris in the early 1900s. Not long after, in 1913, after her affair with Morton Fullerton had ended, she divorced her husband of more than 20 years.

Edith Wharton was an American novelist, short story writer, and designer whose prose revealed an insider’s view of American aristocracy with a powerful writing style. Her novels and short stories realistically portrayed the lives and morals of the late nineteenth century, an era of decline and faded wealth. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1921, and was the first woman to receive this honor.  Wharton herself was a resident of Washington Square North for a short time in 1882. Although she didn’t live there for long, Washington Square often takes a central role in her work, including in her defining work, The Age of Innocence.

Washington Square North, Image courtesy of Bob Estremera

Wharton was an enormous admirer of James and had sought for over a decade to befriend him.  Though her first impressions on him failed to catch the attention of the well-known writer 20 years her senior, James eventually came around and grew to admire Wharton.  James would eventually send her a letter on October 26, 1900, which sparked a lifelong friendship.  Unlike Wharton, James did not have the deep knowledge of New York society or American rural life which nourished her work and made her the chronicler of an age. Because of his childhood spent in Europe and his subsequent exile in England, he lacked her ability to write with accuracy about the sophisticated and restricted life of the rich in old New York as she did.  Thus James grew to admire Wharton and wonder at her energy.

William Glackens, “Washington Square Park” (1908)
Courtesy: washingtonsquareparkblog.com

Wharton and James’ friendship lasted much of the rest of their lives.  Though they were drawn together by the very different perspectives they could offer one another, it’s interesting to note that each was deeply rooted in Greenwich Village, and even more particularly in Washington Square.

One response to “How Edith Wharton and Henry James Struck Up A Friendship Around Washington Square

  1. There are some errors in the above article. Henry James’ grandmother lived at #18, not #21 Washington Square North. #18 was demolished when the lower, red-brick part of Two Fifth Avenue was built in the 1950s. #21 Washington Square North still stands, part of the New York University use of those once-residential buildings!

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