Edith Wharton counted her friendship with Henry James as the crown jewel of her career, but it just might have been a curse. During her lifetime she was labeled, inaccurately, as a disciple of James, an apprentice who inevitably fell short of the Master. Since her death she has continued to be compared with him, never to her advantage. Like her contemporary Georges Braque, she always comes in a poor second.

Wharton idolized James, to be sure, but she had a real sense of her own power as an author and of her artistic strengths, which were not his, and she chafed at the persistent coupling of her name with her friend’s. “The continued cry that I am an echo of Mr. James (whose books of the last ten years I can’t read, much as I delight in the man) … makes me feel rather hopeless,” she complained in 1904. It is true that the two writers had some obvious points in common: they were both upper-crust East Coast...


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