Shortly after Edith Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence, she was displeased by the news that it had not been the jury’s first choice. The prize jury — which was unsurprisingly composed entirely of men — had initially decided that the award should go to Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. That book’s wry satire of parochial American life was too challenging for the organisation’s conservative leanings, so the Pulitzer board overturned the decision and the prize was given to Wharton, with the news of the original choice soon made public.
Wharton summarised her feelings about the episode in a letter to Lewis, who had written to congratulate her. She understood that Lewis’s book ‘had offended a number of prominent persons in the Middle West’ (Wharton 1988, p. 445). The discovery that she had won on a technicality, as well as the suggestion that she was the safe choice, had made the victory a hollow one for her. She went on to tell Lewis, ‘when I discovered that I was being rewarded […] for uplifting American morals, I confess I did despair’. Wharton did not want her work to be seen as uncritically holding up the values of the vanished era where the novel was set. As we shall see, close attention to Wharton’s style reveals the way it expertly interweaves both nostalgia and critique in its rich portrait of late nineteenth-century New York.
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