Appreciating Edith Wharton’s Other Career
In 1911, her marriage in tatters, Edith Wharton sailed to Europe, where she remained for the rest of her life. Ahead were many productive years of novel writing and a Pulitzer Prize. Behind was the Mount, her country estate in western Massachusetts, to which she applied her formidable design skills.
Wharton was no dilettante. In 1897, she and the architect Ogden Codman, who had worked on her homes in New York and Newport, R.I., published “The Decoration of Houses,” a book that railed against the decorative excesses of the Gilded Age and called for a return to classical principles like symmetry. Wharton was championing nothing less than an American Renaissance, said Richard Guy Wilson, an architectural historian at the University of Virginia and the author of “Edith Wharton at Home: Life at the Mount,” out next week from Monacelli Press ($45). The book, which is illustrated with archival and recent photos of the estate (it currently serves as a cultural center, attracting 30,000 visitors a year), marks the 150th anniversary of Wharton’s birth and the 100th anniversary of the year the Mount officially left her hands.
What is Edith Wharton’s contribution as a designer?
“The Decoration of Houses” is arguably the most influential book ever published by an American on interior decoration and design. And there is an element in her fiction that unfortunately a lot of scholars don’t recognize: how important setting is. She is what I would call a behavioralist, in the sense that she believes that it is environment that creates us.