Last summer, listening to a free audiobook version of Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence was what saved me from the bland hell of putting letters in order by date and picking out rusty staples that came with the much more interesting territory of processing a large personal archival collection at the Jones Library in Amherst, Massachusetts. (I was in charge of imposing order on the chaos and whimsy of the personal papers of Ray Stannard Baker, noted Progressive Era muckraker and the subject of my honors thesis, for those of you even remotely interested in my archival adventures).
Back to Wharton. So, in the rarefied air of Special Collections, I clung to the excitement and intrigue that Wharton’s really cutting portrayal of New York City high society provided me. Jane Austen, but later, and with decidedly more zing and shock value: I liked it. Naturally, I jumped at the chance to go out and see Wharton’s country retreat, The Mount, which is in the Berkshires.
For anyone who likes Wharton, it’s a fun visit. There’s a guided tour, which covers the essentials of her biography and elaborates on some of those charming eccentricities that writers only reveal at home. For example, Wharton apparently was more than a little obsessed with symmetry in designing her home: there are plenty of nonfunctional doors which are there only to sit opposite ones that do and the like. The tour also includes a good deal about her unhappy marriage (and its possible generation of writing material) and her friendship with Henry James, another American writer who, like Wharton, also spent much of his life abroad. When the tour finishes, there are several more rooms of exhibits–more on Wharton’s marital (and extramarital?) life, and some about her involvement in World War I charity efforts.
But, above all, I left The Mount with a renewed respect for the importance of local preservation efforts. Wharton’s estate–which was a private residence and then a girl’s school after the Whartons left–was in shambles when, providentially, a group of artists from local theater company Shakespeare & Company took an interest in the house, which had been serving as their summer home. They formed a community group that created Edith Wharton Restoration and began an extensive and ongoing rehabilitation process to preserve the house and open it to the public.
I do find it a little ironic that Edith Wharton, who lived her life at the very top of American society, should be so commemorated by a kind of community organizing, but I have to admit that the results the Edith Wharton Restoration project has achieved so far are impressive and beautiful. The place has clearly become a nice public resource, and not just for its status as an author’s historic home. The Mount hosts summer theater, music, and other events, mostly related to the Berkshire summer art community, and its grounds and gardens are free for the public to wander and enjoy some really fascinating art installations.
The Mount isn’t a retreat for a rich writer whose career focused almost entirely on the wealthy and the privileged anymore. It’s been reclaimed.
PS. The Mount is also part of the shameful 5% of National Historic Landmarks devoted to women–so there’s another reason to go. (And an indictment of our disappointing preservational tendencies…).