A half-done puzzle of Edith Wharton against a blue background
Miki Lowe

Patience

Published in The Atlantic in 1880

The writer Edith Wharton—born Edith Jones—was not like other children. Growing up in a family of 19th-century aristocrats, she had plenty of privileges: endless reading material, travels to inspire her, governesses to talk with. And yet, she was expected to be feminine and demure, and her literary inclinations were discouraged. That didn’t stop her: Deprived of anything to write on, she began using paper from parcels. She wrote her first novel at 11, and began her second, titled Fast and Loose, at 14. Her collection Verses was printed when she was 16; after it ended up in the hands of editor William Dean Howells, The Atlantic published five of her works.

Wharton’s 1880 poem “Patience,” which came out when she was 18, might seem uncharacteristic, then: It’s an ode to the kind of dutiful restraint that, if she had practiced it, might have kept her from ever becoming the Edith Wharton we know today. But while she was gloriously impatient in her life and her literary output, she was also ultra-conscientious in her craft. In her 1925 guide, The Writing of Fiction, Wharton stressed that there are no shortcuts or “technical tricks”; the best works take work. “True economy,” she wrote, “consists in the drawing out of one’s subject of every drop of significance it can give, true expenditure in devoting time, meditation and patient labour.”

Of course, that book was published much later in Wharton’s life, when she was 63. But in “Patience” she already seems to have a deep appreciation for self-discipline. In fact, she sounds preternaturally wise when she notes that eventually “life’s phantom joys depart,” and one’s own quiet strengths are all that remain. Perhaps Wharton always understood the beauty of humble diligence; she was just adept at directing it toward what mattered. And in a society that was happy for her to never write, never vote, never make a name for herself—certainly never to become the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize—what helped her persist really was another form of patience: a steely determination, and the imagination to believe that someday it would pay off.


original magazine page with blue puzzle pieces painted on
original magazine page with blue puzzle pieces painted on