The New York Stories of Edith Wharton is a collection of Wharton’s short stories that span her entire writing career. Almost all of the stories take place in the titular city and occur at a time when society was in flux. In these stories, as in her novels, Wharton writes about characters who are stuck in the traditional roles and expectations of the time and those who live outside of society’s approval. But because society is not static, it is the static characters who seem the most unhappy while the ones who dare throw caution to the wind find pleasure and even acceptance.
It is impossible for me not to compare this collection with Willa Cather’s and the differences are worth mentioning. While Wharton seems stuck in her themes and stylistically continues to mimic the writing of her time, Cather took creative risks not found in Wharton’s stories. What Wharton does so well in her novels, seems almost claustrophobic when condensed into a short story. Perhaps this is because Wharton does limit most of her stories to New York and New York society while Cather wrote about the western expansion. The two women were practically contemporaries, with the influence of Henry James is especially apparent in Wharton’s works, for better or worse.
Reading about Wharton’s New York is fascinating for me. She writes about neighborhoods with which I am familiar, places I grew up, but generations before my time. Through these stories, I see the familiar through a new lens, appreciate how much has changed while recognizing how some things haven’t. The rich get richer and the poor . . . well, not much has changed, really.
Yet, for women in particular, much has changed and, with the last story in this collection, “Roman Fever,” gives the clearest hint of how things are changing for women. Perhaps, with more time, Wharton would have found a strong short story voice. I still love her novels and I liked her short stories well enough. Enough to want to read more of her novels. With that said, there are a few I will likely reread ("The Portrait" and "His Father's Son" come immediately to mind).