Edith Wharton Rocked My World

Jan 25, 2013 | Updated Mar 27, 2013

Wharton just had her 151st birthday, and I feel like she's been part of my life for decades. In my senior year of college, I read the Pulitzer-winning biography of her by R.W.B. Lewis and was fascinated by her relentless drive to succeed as an author and to perfect her craft. She was a true artist, but also tuned into the business side of writing, something that stuck with me as I launched my own writing career soon after.

I read about a dozen of her books that year, amazed by her wit, her insight into society's subjugation of women and her comfort across genres: travel writing, memoir, novel, short story, poetry. I was inspired by her overcoming the strictures of a conformist, sexist society and The House of Mirth was the first book I'd ever read that nakedly explored the impact of shame on personality. It opened me up to my own internalized shame as no other novel ever had before.

In graduate school, I took Cynthia Griffin Wolff's famed Wharton seminar just before her psycho-biography A Feast of Words came out, and it cemented my understanding of Wharton, her world, her struggles, her obstacles, her triumphs.

I attended Wharton conferences, which led to my writing The Edith Wharton Murders, my best-reviewed book ever in the New York Times Book Review. I also wrote my own psychological study of Wharton, Prisoners of Shame, which broke new ground in exploring the psycho-dynamics of her fiction in terms of shame. And years later, I got to answer the question of her anti-Semitic portrait of Simon Rosedale in The House of Mirth with my own Gilded Age novel, Rosedale in Love.

I wouldn't say that she haunts me, exactly, but she's lodged in my consciousness like a rich piece of chamber music -- the Schubert quintet, perhaps -- continually revealing new depths. She's an inspiring role model for women, but for men, too, and writers of every kind.