The World and Fiction of Edith Wharton
Travel Dates: May 12-18
Instructors: Martha Billips and Melissa McEuen
Number of Students Enrolled: 12
Location: New York

Course Description

This team-taught course will focus on Edith Wharton's fiction in its historical context. We will spend the first twelve days of the term in the classroom, discussing the assigned primary texts as well as critical works by theorists and historians. This will provide the foundation necessary for the course's one-week travel component (described below). Cross listed in English, history, and women's studies at the 2000-level with no pre-requisites, the course will be open to all Transylvania students.

Course Theme/Methods

The course will address the major themes in Wharton's fiction, especially as they illuminate the political, economic, and social conditions of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America. These will include but not be limited to: the rise of the “new woman,” the transplantation of a pedigreed gentry by newly-wealthy industrialists and financiers, the ever-widening gap between urban tastes and rural values (city dwellers versus country folk), and the cultural effects of early U.S. imperialism.

The instructors' cross-disciplinary approach will allow study and discussion of selected Wharton novels and short stories, historical arguments, documentary and feature films, historic sites, architecture, and material culture.

Course Significance

Edith Wharton's importance in American literature has been well established for several decades. A best selling as well as critically acclaimed writer in the early twentieth century, Wharton published over fifty volumes in her lifetime; her works include the novels The House of Mirth (1905), Ethan Frome (1911), Summer (1917), and The Age of Innocence (1920), for which she received the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 (the first woman to do so). Less well known today but no less important as cultural texts are Wharton's first book, The Decoration of Houses (1897), which she co-authored with architect Ogden Codman, Jr., and her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934).

Wharton's keen observations of the age and place in which she matured make her an important historical voice as well as literary figure. That she so painstakingly described and extensively commented upon manners, relationships, fashion, rituals, and personal economies, makes her more than a chronicler; she was anthropologist, historian, artist, and cultural critic, all at the same time. In The Decoration of Houses, Wharton argued against the gaudy decorating and design excesses of the Victorian age in favor of a return to classical principles in proportion, simplicity, and harmony; she based the design of her own country home, The Mount, on these principles. In her memoir, A Backward Glance, she enumerated the great technological changes that had occurred in her lifetime, but concluded: “[T]he really vital change is that, in my youth, the Americans of the original States, who in moments of crisis still shaped the national point of view, were the heirs of an old tradition of European culture which the country has now totally rejected.” She asserted then that the world of her youth would have to be “dug up” by tenacious “relic-hunters.”

The current English Program curriculum does not provide students with a great deal of exposure to Wharton and other fin de siecle American writers. This course would help fill that gap. And although Professor McEuen assigns Wharton's novel The Age of Innocence in HIST 3304: The Emergence of Modern America, the course is limited to upper-level students and is only offered once every four years. This course seems an ideal vehicle to bridge needs and opportunities with a subject perfectly suited to cross disciplinary study.

Travel Component

New York City
Beginning in New York City, where Wharton grew up, class members will visit and study churches, homes, and institutions that figured prominently in the writer's life, her characters' lives, and the city's development. A custom-designed and directed tour by urban historian, Justin Ferate, will include Madison Square, Washington Square, Gramercy Park, the Theodore Roosevelt birthplace, Samuel Tilden mansion, and the Cooper Union, among other sites.

Hudson River Valley
Poughkeepsie/Hyde Park: The class will tour the Vanderbilt Mansion and the Mills Mansion, products of tremendous amassed wealth in the Gilded Age and examples of the summer homes and gardens described in Wharton's fiction. In fact, some scholars argue that the Mills house is the model for Gus and Judy Trenor's summer home in The House of Mirth. Students will also have the option of visiting the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library and Museum, the first of the presidential libraries. Built on land donated by the president and his mother, the Dutch colonial design reflects earlier patrician tastes, those which stand apart from the preferences of American industrialism's tycoons. The site's museum and educational center provide a wide variety of exhibits showcasing the Roosevelt era, which overlapped Wharton's life and work.

Berkshire Mountains
Lenox, Massachusetts: Students will spend several hours at The Mount, the fullest expression of Wharton's architectural interests as well as the place where she produced some of her most important literary work. The house still contains her intact library—probably the first library in America designed by a woman for her own use. Her time in the Berkshire Mountains exposed Wharton to many of the rural poor in New England, whom she featured in Ethan Frome and Summer, novels which differ significantly from Wharton's depictions of fashionable New York society.

Visiting The Mount involves more than a tour of the home of a major American writer. Wharton's self designed residence literally embodies her aesthetic principles and gives visitors access to the setting she created for herself in which to craft her fiction. Like Jefferson's Monticello, The Mount could be described as an “autobiographical house”; it provides a telling reflection of its designer's life and work. An educational program geared toward secondary and undergraduate students at the Mount also focuses on Wharton's life and how it influenced her work; this program involves a private tour, conducted by a trained guide, of Wharton's library, bedroom (where she wrote), and other areas.

Students will have the option of visiting other summer homes in Lenox, the site of a “land boom” in the 1880s, as well as other cultural attractions in the area, such as the Norman Rockwell Museum and Tanglewood.

Another logical site for Wharton study would be Newport, Rhode Island, a crucial location for the author, her family and friends, and so many of the memorable characters she created. But we chose a more economical itinerary in the interest of our students.

Travel Component Significance

The travel component of the course provides a wealth of visual and tactile evidence to support the ideas and issues that Wharton probed in her fiction. Even one hundred years later, one can walk from downtown Manhattan into midtown and further “up” and see what “new money” built. And the relatively short distance but vast difference between the urban world and bucolic countryside offers many surprises to students from the South and Midwest who are accustomed to long distances between home and holiday.