At Edith Wharton’s Home, 2020 Marks Important “Age”
The Mount – Edith Wharton’s estate in Lenox, Massachusetts – is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the author’s magnum opus with a homecoming.
Under lock and key in the book-lined study of her palatial manor sits Edith Wharton’s personal copy of “The Age Of Innocence.”
“We have many, many of her works that either have bookplates or her signature – or both, as with this copy – and so to finally have her own copy of ‘The Age Of Innocence’ join this collection of her work… It’s amazing. It’s incredible," said Nynke Dorhout, the Mount’s librarian. “We have a tremendous amount of scholars from all over the world and other people interested in Edith Wharton coming to the Mount to research the library, to really feel the books, hold the books, spend a couple of days with one book – so again, to have this added to our collection is truly amazing.”
The book was published by D. Appleton & Company in 1920 after appearing in a four-part serialized form in the Pictorial Review magazine.
“It was one of her most well-received books, I would say," said Anne Schuyler. "And in the next year, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921.”
Schuyler is the Mount’s director of interpretation and visitors services. “The Age Of Innocence” drew heavily from Wharton’s own experiences among the Gilded Age elite of New York City.
“It’s a great study of society at the time in the 1870s and, again, sort of the conflict between individual desire and love versus the norms of society and the rules – and it was a very rigid society at that time, it’s one of the reasons that she’s writing about it," said Schuyler. "It’s a society that she grew up in.”
“I teach it from the point of view of classism, sexism – because many of the characters represent women who were undeveloped, and also American culture," said Mary Valentis, an Edith Wharton expert who teaches at the University at Albany. “The whole idea of class in American culture, and what’s going on now in terms of income inequality and all that. It’s like Melville – Melville never gets old because the themes and the ideas and the culture stay the same.”
The story follows the travails of gentleman lawyer Newland Archer, who, like Wharton, is born into a wealthy New York City family. When confronted with a traditional marriage or a romance with the comparatively exotic Countess Ellen Olenska upon her return from Europe after her own disastrous marriage, Archer is forced to choose what shape his life will take.
“The major theme of it is – and this comes from Keats’ notion – ‘heard music is sweet, but that unheard is sweeter still,’" said Valentis. "In other words, is it better to consume a romance and see it through, or is it better to postpone everything and to imagine it, to live in the fantasy world and leave it there.”
Wharton wrote the book in Europe on the heels of World War I.
“Even though you would never consider this as a war novel, the impact of the war on her was huge," said Schuyler. "The whole society was changed. Lots of things had fallen away and a whole generation in France and England, particularly, were gone. So she’s kind of dealing with that the whole time that she’s writing this – what she would call a historical novel.”
Some saw “Innocence” as Wharton’s efforts to return to a simpler time.
“One interpretation was that it’s sort of a retreat to a more nostalgic time and she’s writing about this very pretty time with pretty people and pretty dresses and pretty houses and then that was all it is,” said Schuyler.
But she says the author’s sensibilities belie a deeper meaning – down to the title.
“When you really dive into the book, at the end of the book – particularly if you’ve read it a couple times – there’s a lot of irony to the title, and it’s not necessarily the age of innocence that she’s talking about,” she told WAMC.
Today, consensus around what Wharton achieved with “The Age Of Innocence” has only grown.
“Everyone from Gore Vidal 30 years ago said she was undoubtedly one of America’s finest, to writers today – Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, is particularly enamored of ‘The Age Of Innocence’ and has written extensively about it," said Susan Wissler, executive director of The Mount.
She says a new generation of writers is embracing the novel.
“The struggles for women to be actually seen and acknowledged and for stories about domestic life to be given the same serious treatment as war stories – that struggle continues," Wissler told WAMC. "But they are drawing analogies between ‘The Age Of Innocence’ and the series ‘Big Little Lies,’ in that both are not being given their due because they are dealing with very serious issues but within the context of domestic life, and they are being undervalued because of their setting.”
Wharton’s personal copy isn’t from the first printing.
“The first edition of ‘The Age of Innocence’ actually goes through 10 printings, because even after it’s published, she’s continuing to proofread it and to remove it and to streamline the writing and to distill it, distill it, distill it," said Schuyler. “By the edition that we have, which is the sixth printing, the scholars have estimated there at least 30 authorial revisions that have been made. So it’s bulk of the revisions have been made by the time that this particular book comes about, which is around February, March of 1921.”
The book was donated to The Mount by collector Dennis Kahn to recognize the centennial of its publication – a gesture which Schuyler says answers a question Wharton scholars have grappled with for years.
“There is a letter that Edith Wharton wrote to her sister-in-law, a woman named Minnie Cadwalader Jones, who was sort of her agent in New York and dealt with a lot of her business interests while she was writing ‘The Age Of Innocence,’ and it’s dated from February 1921," Schuyler told WAMC. "And she’s actually writing about the difficulties of writing her historical novel, and then she thanks Minnie for sending her the latest copy of ‘The Age Of Innocence,’ and that most of the changes have been made in that one – and that’s this very book, we think.”
But this copy also raises new questions.
“One other interesting mystery that this book presents is the bookplate in it that is not Edith Wharton’s, which is the bookplate of a man named Norman Bassett,” said Wissler.
Bassett was a philanthropist and businessman from Wisconsin, born in the late 1800s. It isn’t clear how the bibliophile acquired Wharton’s personal copy. He sold it in 1938 to raise money for a fund for librarians.
“So all of a sudden, this mysterious man from the Midwest has been drawn into our universe, and that’s been interesting, trying to track that down," Wissler continued. "And there’s more questions than answers at this point as to how the book got from France to Mr. Bassett and from Mr. Bassett to Dennis and Andrea Kahn. We hope to unravel that as the months progress.”
Unlike Archer at the end of the book, The Mount is hoping you’ll come inside and see Wharton’s personal copy of “The Age Of Innocence,” on display now for the centennial celebration of the book’s publication.