Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Featured Manuscript: Edith Wharton

Happy Birthday, Edith!

Curator's Note:
Edith Newbold Jones Wharton was born January 24th, 1862 (150 years ago) in New York City to Lucretia and George Jones, members of a prominent New York City family of great wealth. Her childhood was one of privilege and comforts both in the United States and during extended stays in Europe. She was tutored in the fashion of the time for a girl of her social status. She was not prepared for a career beyond marriage other than ultimately taking her place as a matron in society.


Events were however moving society as a whole faster than the conservative, insulated society she was born into. She had a conventional upbringing for a girl of her time and class and saw her life as already mapped out for her from a young age. Yet, even her insulated realm was coming under attack. While the country nearly tore itself apart during the Civil War, she and her family remained safely removed from the horrors of war. Try as they might though, outside events could not be totally removed from the family’s life.

Outside of the tight knit, structured, prescribed environment within which the Jones family lived, young Edith began to sense her life could be more than presented to her. While nothing compared to the women’s rights movement of nearly a hundred years later, women during the later nineteenth century did experience a relative boost in the freedom’s allowed them. Edith Jones was quick to perceive this, and this perception only intensified after her marriage to Edward Wharton in 1885. Edward “Teddy” Wharton was not what we would consider to be a “good catch,” yet he was totally true to his social status.

Nearly suffocated by what she saw as the artificial limitations of her social state, she began to explore the options available to her as a woman as early as 1875. One area she felt particularly drawn to was writing. She felt a natural affinity to the craft of the writer and began to explore on her own her varied interests which she anticipated writing about. She published works of fiction and poetry throughout the late 1870s and 1880s before her marriage. Her first major publication however was not in the field of fiction or poetry. She was a noted amateur designer highly influenced by Classical Renaissance adaptations and with noted architect Ogden Codman wrote The Decoration of Houses in 1897.

To promote her ideas, she embarked on a building plan to construct a new home for herself based on her principles of design. The result, built in 1902 and named The Mount, in Lenox, MA, is a masterpiece of inspiration considered one of the truly fine works of architecture in the United States. Edith Wharton went on to a stunning career as a novelist and short story writer and was the first woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1921 for her novel The Age of Innocence. She was a finalist for the Nobel Prize in 1927.

Why Morristown?

Morristown NHP is naturally best known for its association with George Washington, the Continental Army, and the terrible winter encampment of 1779-1780. But there is another side to the Morristown NHP story. In 1955, Lloyd W. Smith donated his vast rare book and manuscript collection to the park. While sometimes overlooked, the collection is a tremendous source of primary information. Among the hundreds of thousands of manuscripts is a short note from Edith Wharton to an editor and friend John Brisben Walker. The letter dates from July 19th, 1900, and shows the life of a writer who is busy getting a work prepared for her publisher. Wharton is writing from Lenox, MA, not yet at The Mount, to Walker in New York. She asks Walker to send her a copy of the galleys for her short story “The Rembrandt.” The story was going to be published by Scribner’s and Wharton had left her galley copies in New York when she left for Lenox. She wanted to make final edits for Scribner’s before the deadline passed.

What this letter shows is not only the obvious, that Wharton was published by a major American publisher, Scribner’s, she was also actively involved with editing and preparation of her manuscripts. While a short letter overall, it does highlight several key points of the writer’s life which Edith Wharton is known for.

  • Wharton, Edith. 1900, July 19. Lloyd W. Smith Archival Collection. LWS 2703. Morristown National Historical Park, Morristown, NJ.

  • Edith Wharton Estate & Gardens

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