Monday, September 30, 2013

Edith Wharton at the Library: A Writing Life

I recently had the chance to sit in on a lecture at the beautiful New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street about the great American writer Edith Wharton. I have read a lot about Edith Wharton in the past so I was interested to attend the lecture which was giving by Robert Armitage, of the library's research division, and lasted one hour and forty five minutes.

Edith Wharton's career is an iconic American story because she, as artists do, completely invented herself. Edith Jones was born into the rigid upper class of Edwardian New York when women were expected and allowed to do nothing beyond marry and raise a family. Edith grew up in a mansion at 14 West 23rd Street, which is about exactly where our friend La Peckham lives now in a loft in a building that Robert Mapplethorpe once lived in. Edith was determined to be a writer but society and her mother discouraged her. "Her literary ambitions were ignored and scorned," noted Armitage. He told a story about how in one of Edith's early stories, a character wanted to tidy up a drawing room for a guest. Her mother read this and icily noted, "Drawing rooms are always tidy."

But Edith was undeterred in her drive to capture in words the Edwardian world of manners and style.
Edith Wharton in furs -

She became friends with many of the artists and writers of the day. Here she is with her friend Henry James on the left at her house in Lenox, Massachusetts, called The Mount, which is now a destination for visitors.

Edith married Edward "Teddy" Wharton, but is was an unhappy match.
Later Henry James introduced her to journalist William Morton Fullerton, with whom she had an intense love affair. Handsome.

For me as a reader it's always a pleasure to return to the refined world of Edith Wharton's novels and the elegance of Edwardian New York. I like Henry James too, but Wharton's writing to me is less flowery, less complicated, simpler, clearer, more American. But under the gilded surfaces of her rarified world are some very harsh stories and characters.  I recently read The Custom of the Country and I could barely finish it because the central character Undine Spragg, though noted for her great physical beauty, is completely unlikable. At the lecture Armitage described Undine as "vain, vulgar, self-absorbed and heartless." Her well-meaning husband is destroyed by her ambition and she gets her way in the end. Beneath the beauty and glamour is a tale that is tough to digest.

Edith of course persevered with her work and became one of the most highly regarded authors in American literature. Her novel Ethan Frome is required reading in many schools (we read it in New Hartford in seventh grade) and she won the Pulitzer Prize, the first woman to do so, in 1921. Armitage noted that Edith Wharton published 48 volumes in her career, which he said was two books a year. That's a lot of writing. With talent and determination she overcame her obstacles and pursued her art which is an inspiration in any age.


donna baker said...

I received a copy of The Mount for Christmas last year. Her meanie Mom thought her ugly and called her Pussy. My favorite piece of her writing is the passage about a house as an inner sanctum, "waiting for footsteps that never come".

Bart Boehlert said...

Hi Donna,
Yes, he did mention that quote, that is a good one for sure.

Dean Farris said...

Thanks to you, and BBBT, I can now enjoy a dose of Whartonia. Am presently reading The Big House, A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home, by George Howe Colt. Cheers!


Bart Boehlert said...

Dean, that sounds good! Will keep in mind -