“New York is, famously, the everything bagel of megalopolises—one of the world’s most diverse cities, defined by its churning mix of religions, ethnicities, social classes, attitudes, lifestyles, etc., ad infinitum. This makes it a perfect match for the novel, a genre that tends to share the same insatiable urge. In choosing the best New York novel, then, my first instinct was to pick something from the city’s proud tradition of megabooks—one of those encyclopedic ambition bombs that attempt to capture, New Yorkily, the full New Yorkiness of New York. Something like, to name just a quick armful or two, Manhattan Transfer, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Underworld, Invisible Man, Winter’s Tale, or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay—or possibly even one of the tradition’s more modest recent offspring, like Lush Life and Let the Great World Spin.
In the end, however, I decided that the single greatest New York novel is the exact opposite of all of those: a relatively small book containing absolutely zero diversity. There are no black or Hispanic or Asian characters, no poor people, no rabble-rousers, no noodle throwers or lapsed Baha’i priests or transgender dominatrixes walking hobos on leashes through flocks of unfazed schoolchildren. Instead there are proper ladies behaving properly at the opera, and more proper ladies behaving properly at private balls, and a phlegmatic old Dutch patriarch dismayed by the decline of capital-S Society. The book’s plot hinges on a subtly tragic love triangle among effortlessly affluent lovers. It is 100 percent devoted to the narrow world of white upper-class Protestant heterosexuals. So how can Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence possibly be the greatest New York novel of all time?
Well, it is. It builds itself, obsessively, out of all the essential New York themes. The necessary (but often terrifying) seesawing between change and stasis. The constant drama of taste and class; the connoisseurship of gossip. (One man, preparing to dispense a particularly juicy bit, gives “a faint sip, as if he had been tasting invisible Madeira.”) The shiny lure of fantasy versus the sharp hook of reality. The giant shell game of phoniness and authenticity. The existential strain of distinction versus assimilation—that yearning to be free (one of Wharton’s keywords) but also to belong to a social tribe (another of her keywords). The agonizing, paradoxical struggle to feel like a special individual in a city of millions.
These are the same struggles you’ll find in pretty much all the great New York novels, from Catcher in the Rye to Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Wharton, though, got there first—the book was published in 1920—and The Age of Innocence is also the first New York novel that feels like us. Its concerns are our concerns. (“Yes: my good father abhorred hurry,” says one character. “But now we live in a constant rush.”) There’s even a scandalous financial disaster based on unethical speculation, “one of the most discreditable in the history of Wall Street.” Above all, Wharton’s irony and self-consciousness—the psychic backflips her characters perform in order to gauge their own authenticity and status in the tribe—feel deeply familiar in our age of hipster anxiety and Stuff White People Like: “His heart sank, for he saw that he was saying all the things that young men in the same situation were expected to say, and that she was making the answers that instinct and tradition taught her to make—even to the point of calling him original.”
Also, crucially: The Age of Innocence’s lack of diversity is an illusion. The book is entirely about the moment the barriers broke down—when the roiling masses started to gain cultural traction and define the city, when Society surrendered its capital S. It’s a portrait of the moment that created the city we know today.
None of which should obscure the fact that the book is just flat-out great fiction, with one of the most perfectly melancholy endings you will ever have the excruciating good fortune to suffer through. It will, in other words, break your heart in the end, just as New York inevitably will.”
With regard to collecting this book, here are a few things you should know. The Age of Innocence was first published in book form in 1920 by D. Appleton and Company, with red boards and dust jacket, as shown above. The first edition title page and copyright page both say 1920 with no statements of subsequent printings and there is a number “(1)” on the last page of text, which indicates it is the first printing. Subsequent printings are marked with (2), (3), (4), etc. Early printings (although not limited to just the first printings) also have a wording change on page 186. “Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God” was replaced by “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here” at least by the fourth printing.
The first state dust jacket featured quotes about the author from Percy Lubbock on the back panel that were pieced together from an article he wrote in the January 1915 issue of the Quarterly Review entitled The Novels of Edith Wharton. The price on the jacket is $2. In the second state dust jacket, these original quotes were replaced by specific quotes about the book made by William Phelps that appeared in the New York Times on October 17, 1920. Also, later jackets have “This is an Appleton Book” printed on the bottom of the spine in a circle, instead of simply “APPLETON” printed on spine. The first state dust jacket is extremely rare, and the first printing of the book itself has become much more difficult to find in recent years.
The Age of Innocence book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1921 and Modern Library named it to its list of 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century.
If you are interested in learning more about Edith Wharton, we would also encourage you to visit her beautiful home, The Mount, located in Lenox, Massachusetts.