Visiting with Edith Wharton in the Berkshires
A short bus trek from Naumkeag took us to Edith Wharton’s short-lived home The Mount, a 3 ½-story white stucco villa built in 1901 to the author’s specifications as outlined in her first book, The Decoration of Houses, which she wrote with the help of Ogden Codman. What’s this? The great Pulitzer winner (first woman to win the Prize for fiction) co-wrote her first book? Yes, in 1897, at age 35, and it was no novel of New York manners punctuated with irony. It was a hands-on how-to on building and decorating a Gilded Age mansion if you’re not a Victorian Vanderbilt, in mind or money. The Mount invited the group of us into its wide-open brick-paved terrace and saw us up a Palladian staircase. Unlike the overstuffed Choates’ cottage, The Mount is symmetrical, clean and classical. Harmony pervades the gallery. And look, a bronze of Pan by Frederick MacMonnies. We nod our heads; pretend to know.
Wharton did not build her estate with earnings from her novels. She inherited her dough. But she launched her literary career from The Mount, specifically from her bed, in which Wharton wrote each morning until about noon, dropping the pencil-scrawled pages to the floor for her secretary to gather and type, until she had The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome. Then Teddy went crazy and she had to move to Paris. Ten years Wharton possessed her paradise and this view to gaze upon as she worked.
The drawing room, the largest room in The Mount (36x20), confronts the visitor with two tapestries set into the walls, one of Narcissus, the other of Bacchus and Ariadne, made in Brussels, c. 1710; and a cast-iron fire-back of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. One of our group reminded us that a drawing room is not a room where one draws, but a room to draw in visitors from the outside, and, with typical Whartonesqueness, also to draw them out.
To enter Edith Wharton’s library is to step on sacred ground for those who worship in the House of Literature. How very often did Henry James converse with Wharton here amid these oak walls, now and again reading to one another before the fire. More than a hundred years hence, James is the most studied American author in America on the doctoral level (based on # of dissertations), and Wharton is the fastest rising at seventh. “Go, Edith," shouted one of our KUSC Whartonettes, later on the bus.
photos by Erin Kyle