Reception by Wharton's contemporaries
In 1921, when The Age of Innocence was published, newspapers from New York to Oregon documented the event. It appeared on recommended-reading lists and was reviewed widely. Almost every review was positive. Advertisements like that which appeared in the Morning Oregonian quoted William Lyon Phelp's opinion that the book was "one of the best novels of the century". Phelps wrote an authoritative review of the book for The New York Times in which he described what he saw as Wharton's mastery of the novel form, explaining, "Wharton is a writer who brings glory on the name America and this is her best book... The style is a thing of beauty from the first page to the last". Phellps emphasized that "the appearance of such a book... by an American is a matter for public rejoicing... [it] looks like a permanent addition to literature." Phelps compares Wharton to Henry James; the two writers corresponded, and this was much noted in contemporary literary criticism of the book. James Doublas wrote in the Sunday Express that "Edith Wharton is, of course, the greatest American novelist living."
Two common themes appeared in the reception of the novel in America. The first was recognizing the skill with which Wharton crafted a picture of America for the reader. The second was the pride at the European reception of Edith Wharton's novel. The Omaha World Herald published a snippet promotion for Wharton's book which described the novel as "an admirable characterization of a certain kind of American life", and duly noting the massive change between old and new world which Wharton sought to capture. This reaction also appeared in the Miami Herald a few months later, where it was insisted that Wharton had captured faithfully the New York social life of the 1870s, "thoroughly to be recommended as an historical document". An article in The Philadelphia Inquirer documented the news that the French had requested a set of American novels for the great library at Sorbonne. This set was to include Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. Doublas also noted the European popularity of the novel, citing both England and France as a market for the work, calling The Age of Innocence the "flower of [United States] literary effort. Edith Wharton was a part of a movement which revealed the refinement and talent of the yet young America.
The only negative review of note came from one Katherine Mansfield, who proclaimed, "Does Mrs. Wharton expect us to grow warm in a gallery where the temperature is so sparkingly cool? We are looking at portraits — are we not?" Mansfield's criticism claimed that the work was cold, passionless and uninteresting.
Changing perceptions of The Age of Innocence
Killoran explains in The Critical Reception of Edith Wharton that critics have always admired Wharton's craftsmanship, her attention to structure, and her subtle ironies, along with her description of interiors (owing to her time as an interior designer). In the decades since the book's publication, critics have placed more stress on the portrayal of money and class distinctions in the book.
Ellen Olenska and May Welland have also long been at the heart of critical discussion. Originally perceived as having done the right thing by talking about her pregnancy in order to save her marriage, May Welland can also be seen as manipulative rather than sympathetically desperate. Ellen Olenska brings up the general "Woman Question" in modern literary criticism.
Rather than focusing on the lavish lifestyle which Newland Archer has not had to work for, some modern readers identify with his grim outlook.