A Fresh Audience

Edith Wharton petitions for publication in The Atlantic

From the very beginning of her career, Wharton had close ties to The Atlantic. In the fall of 1878 a friend of the family's passed some of her poems along to Atlantic co-founder and contributor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who in turn passed them along to the editor at the time, William Dean Howells. Eager to discover new talent, Howells, who later became a friend of Wharton's, published five of her poems.

In 1903 Wharton, who had by then begun publishing short stories in Scribners, complained in a letter to The Atlantic's editor Bliss Perry,

Why have you never asked me for a story for the Atlantic? I am tired of waiting ... My usual price for a short story is $500 but I know that the Atlantic does not pay as high prices as the illustrated magazines and I shall be quite satisfied with this ... first because I have always thought it was an honor to appear in the Atlantic and secondly because I believe it is always advantageous to a writer to get a fresh audience.

Her petition was successful: the following year The Atlantic Monthly published her story "The House of the Dead Hand" (August 1904), the tragic tale of a young woman kept from the man she loves by a domineering father. And eight years later, her short story "The Long Run" (February 1912), about the consequences of a man's decision not to run away with a married woman, was published as the cover story. That issue of The Atlantic sold out in just two days.

Wharton expressed her fondness and respect for the magazine that had helped establish her career in an undated letter to Perry. "I cannot tell you how much praise I think you deserve for maintaining the tradition of what a good magazine should be in the face of our howling mob of critics and readers," she wrote. "And I hope that the Atlantic will long continue to nurse its little flame of sweetness and light in the chaotic darkness of American 'literary' conditions."

Her close relationship with the magazine did not save her from a mixed review, however, when she published her second novel, The House of Mirth, in 1905. In January 1906, Mary Moss wrote, "For all its brilliancy, The House of Mirth has a certain shallowness; it is thin. At best, Lily can only inspire interest and curiosity. You see, you understand, and you ratify, but unfortunately, you do not greatly care." A later review by the frequent Atlantic contributor Henry Dwight Sedgwick was more liberal with its praise. Sedgwick suggested, in "The Novels of Mrs. Wharton" (August 1906), that Wharton's developing talents as a storyteller were finally coming into full flower as she turned her hand to writing novels.

On reading The House of Mirth, the first sensation of everybody, included or not among those whose plebiscite granted the laurel, was one of exultation, of "I told you so," as they recognized all Mrs. Wharton's talents, but better and brighter. Her mastery of the episode is as dashing as ever, and more delicate.