A Backward Glance, by Edith Wharton

A First Word.

Years ago I said to myself: “There’s no such thing as old age; there is only sorrow.”

I have learned with the passing of time that this, though true, is not the whole truth. The other producer of old age is habit: the deathly process of doing the same thing in the same way at the same hour day after day, first from carelessness, then from inclination, at last from cowardice or inertia. Luckily the inconsequent life is not the only alternative; for caprice is as ruinous as routine. Habit is necessary; it is the habit of having habits, of turning a trail into a rut, that must be incessantly fought against if one is to remain alive.

In spite of illness, in spite even of the arch-enemy sorrow, one CAN remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways. In the course of sorting and setting down of my memories I have learned that these advantages are usually independent of one’s merits, and that I probably owe my happy old age to the ancestor who accidentally endowed me with these qualities.

Another advantage (equally accidental) is that I do not remember long to be angry. I seldom forget a bruise to the soul — who does? But life puts a quick balm on it, and it is recorded in a book I seldom open. Not long ago I read a number of reviews of a recently published autobiography. All the reviewers united in praising it on the score that here at last was an autobiographer who was not afraid to tell the truth! And what gave the book this air of truthfulness? Simply the fact that the memorialist “spared no one,” set down in detail every defect and absurdity in others, and every resentment in the writer. That was the kind of autobiography worth reading!

Judged by that standard mine, I fear, will find few readers. I have not escaped contact with the uncongenial; but the antipathy they aroused was usually reciprocal, and this simplified and restricted our intercourse. Nor do I remember that these unappreciative persons ever marked their lack of interest in me by anything more harmful than indifference. I recall no sensational grievances. Everywhere on my path I have met with kindness and furtherance; and from the few dearest to me an exquisite understanding. It will be seen, then, that in telling my story I have had to make the best of unsensational material; and if what I have to tell interests my readers, that merit at least will be my own.

Madame Swetchine, that eminent Christian, was once asked how she managed to feel Christianly toward her enemies. She looked surprised. “Un ennemi? Mais de tous les accidents c’est le plus rare!”

So I have found it.

Several chapters of this book have already appeared in the “Atlantic Monthly” and “The Ladies’ Home Journal.” I have also to thank Sir John Murray for kindly permitting me to incorporate in the book two or three passages from an essay on Henry James, published in “The Quarterly Review” of July 1920 and the Editor of “The Colophon” for the use of a few paragraphs on the writing of “Ethan Frome.”

E. W.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02