Edith Wharton at home

On the flyleaf of a book of Japanese poetry translated into French, penciled handwriting tries out haikus. Haiku would have been a less familiar form in the early years of the 20th century, when the owner of the book sat here in an arm chair, playing with ideas.

The handwriting is Edith Wharton’s.

Here, in Wharton’s library at the Mount in Lenox, on a rainy morning, Nynke Dorhout marvels that she can open a book and catch a glimpse of Wharton thinking 100 years ago.

Dorhout is librarian and programs director at The Mount, and caring for the books Wharton read voraciously, looking for the passages she underlined, gives Dorhout an unusual and close view of America’s first woman to win the Pulitzer prize.

Dorhout reads softly from a verse called “Friendship” —

“The silence of midnight

a dying fire

and the best unsaid.

Visitors relax in Edith Wharton's Garden. Photo by Kevin Sprague, Courtesy of The Mount

Visitors relax in Edith Wharton’s Garden. Photo by Kevin Sprague, Courtesy of The Mount

“I would love to know what went on in these conversations,” she said. “Wharton once said the soul is like a room, and many rooms are unopened. With some people you open certain rooms, and with some
people you don’t. Is the best friendship one where you open all the rooms?”

Dorhout imagines Wharton living and working in this house she designed. In these bright days of early fall, she and visitors to the house can take time, as Wharton did, to mull over new ideas.

“She adored Walt Whitman,” said Susan Wissler, the Mount’s executive director. “One of her favorite pastimes was to sit with Henry James and his friends and read Whitman aloud.”

Henry James would lose his stutter as he read, and the group might sit for hours, passing the book back and forth, reading and talking over the poems.

Thinking of the “Wharton on Wednesdays,” readings of short stories the Mount holds in summer on the same terrace, Dorhout wondered how it would feel to read Whitman there.

“Wharton had close friendships with literary men and women,” she said.

In the friendship haiku, she suggested, the best is unsaid because close friends can sit comfortably in silence. Maybe the best can be both unsaid and understood.

Like her character Ellen Olenska in “The Age of Innocence,” Wharton seemed to feel an ease in her friendships with men — “I’m not sure how usual that was,” Dorhout said, “but they were compatible with
her.”

Paging through her books, though, to read the places she marked, one after another, touches a pattern of brilliance and sadness.

From a child who spoke four languages and read Greek classics because her mother would not allow children’s books, Wharton grew into an adolescent who taught herself Anglo-Saxon to catch the attention of a friend’s scholar father.

The indomitable woman who talked her way to within a mile of the front lines in World War I, who traveled the Tunisian desert, explored the open markets of Morocco and studied through binoculars
an island monastery she was not permitted to enter, often seems drawn to passages full of loneliness.

In her copy of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” she marked these lines: “I loved a certain person ardently and my love was not returned / yet out of that I have written these songs.”

She received this book from Walter Berry, one of her literary friends.

“In her autobiography, she said he was the love of her life,” Wissler said.

He was Wharton’s first editor, and she thought at one time he might propose, Wissler explained, but “he preferred younger women.”

Yet at the end of his life, when he had a stroke, he would only allow Wharton to see him. And she is buried beside him in France.

Their letters to each other did not survive, and scholars speculate — but Wissler said they used to paddle a canoe in the evening on the lake below the house.

 

In September 2011 I spent a quiet afternoon in the library at the Mount, getting to know Edith Wharton better. This story first ran in Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont in my time as editor there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *