I Am Edith Wharton’s Muse

“I live in the mist beyond time and place, where imagination and dreams meet, and music is born on golden wings destined to pierce the veils of mystery. It is I who whisper from the far reaches into a mortal’s thoughts. It is I who strikes the heart chords and makes them hum with the joyous sound of creation. I am the cause to her effect and affection.”

Hold it. Wait a minute. Cut! My kid sister will go on and on if we let her. The youngest Muse has an itty-bitty case of sibling rivalry. Ok? She’s always, always practicing her acceptance speech, and she’s always trying to catch up to me. I’m Calliope; Muse of epic poetry and rhetoric. Just call me Callie for short.

Homer, Melville, Proust, Shakespeare, Tolstoy; that’s my line of work. I’ve been around awhile, so the glam’s kind of off the rose, so to speak. I can be casual. Sis, being new to the game, is another story, however. She takes the job so seriously. But what can I say? There’s no comparison. Pop culture can’t hold a candle to the classics. She really needs to lighten up.

But she doesn’t even have a name yet. And let me tell you that really chaps her, big time. I’ve told her and told her. Don’t worry! I didn’t get my name until well into my third century. You know? Whatever. We can deal with that later, after the council gives her full privilege and makes the 10th Muse an official addition to the clan.

We worked together on that first case and she did a fine job. To be honest, all I did was supervise. And now we are going before the council. Zeus, Mnemosyne, Aphrodite, Demeter, Persephone, Aries, Hermes, Hades, Hera; the whole gang will be there.

“She sees far horizons, beyond the limits of her birthright. She writes the future I have shown her. She plants the seeds of change and paints vistas others will soon hunger for. And when her time has passed, I watch over her garden as well as the harvest she has reaped, so that it flourishes and endures, into an era, where it will in turn inspire new generations to remember, the Muse, whose name goes unsung.”

See what I mean? She drones. Absolutely. It’s a good thing Edith Wharton had a mind of her own. Excuse me. That was tacky. Sister is earnest, and she has her talents. Well, I’m sure she’ll get better. Ok. I admit it. I helped her out a little bit, and Edith did have an ear for the classics.

“Edith was the perfect candidate for amusement. She proved to have a quick and rich imagination at a very early age and was born into a family of privilege in 1862, which was an exhilarating time for world history. It was an era of accelerated change and invention. Her 75-year lifespan, which ended in 1937, encapsulated the height of civilization’s capacity for progress and expansion as well as the depths of humanity’s ability to create misery and ruin. Save for one thing. She was spared the horrors of the atom bomb, and thus, didn’t even see a glimmer of the Atomic Age and the barbarism that was set loose a mere eight years after her passing.”

But that is another bone, which we will pick with Aries at a later date. Now, we go before the council with our appeal. We need another Muse. Nine is just not enough. Sister did a spectacular job with her first assignment. She has carried it through to completion. And we now face a new era desperately in need of inspiration. It is time for her probation to end. She is entitled to a name; status, rank and the full extent of her powers should be bestowed upon her immediately. None of this “in due course” business. I speak for all of the Muses when I say that we are fed up with the bureaucracy and the red tape and the delay tactics. It is all such fallacious hogwash and folderol. We have grown weary of being treated as inferior divinities, while the gods run off and play like children in a sandbox.

Oh, I beg your pardon. I shouldn’t have gone off like that, but we do feel so passionate about this issue, and we hope you will stand behind us when we make our plea. You see, they think that humans don’t care anymore. They think that the Muse is- obsolete! As a matter of fact, they are considering washing their hands of the whole mess. Like, firing all of the Muses, entirely and forever. Where would we go? What would we do? We would vanish into thin air. There now, the cat is out of the bag and you can see what a pickle we are in. I only ask that you let us show you what we have done, just in this one case with Edith Wharton. And we can do so much more. I promise.

“Edith Wharton was George and Lucretia Jones’ third child and only daughter, born in New York City, on January 24, 1862. It was an aristocratic New York family with a pedigree reaching back three centuries; old money accumulated through the shipping and real estate industries. As a daughter of society and a member of the elite upper crust, her prescribed role was to learn the mannerisms and rituals expected of well-bred young women, and in turn, marry well, raise some children and become a hostess within the narrow confines of Old New York. She was privately educated at home by governesses and tutors and had the privilege of access to her father’s extensive library.

“The love of story telling appeared in Edith before she learned to read. She often preferred the activity of make believe to the company of children her own age. A near death experience caused by a bout of typhoid fever seems to have enhanced her creativity and imagination. I do believe the veils were lifted during the high fever; that she had a glimpse of the Muse. She was haunted for years afterwards, with the sensation that someone was watching her and following close behind. We were, dear. We were.

“Edith’s family moved to Europe for several years during her early childhood in order to escape the high inflation, which was the result of the Civil War, and to preserve their leisurely standard of living. This would prove to be a formative period for her. Edith maintained a love and appreciation for the sophistication and beauty of Europe throughout her entire life. After 48 years of international travel, she would make a permanent move to Europe in 1911, do the unthinkable and divorce her husband, Teddy Wharton, and live in France as an expatriate until her death in 1937.”

To tell you the truth, I don’t understand why Edith hated living in America so much, and specifically, New York City. It was an exciting time to be there. We were busy doling out inspiration, I can tell you that. Her lifetime spanned a period rich with invention.

Imagine this, you with the computer and the internet. Picture life as a writer without paperclips, pushpins, scotch tape, fountain pens, ballpoint pens, mechanical pencils, crayons, or typewriters. Edith saw all these accessories invented in her lifetime. I guarantee she used them and loved it.

She also saw the invention of toilet paper and the pull chain toilet, band-aids,q-tips, germ theory, and x-rays. Communication was enhanced by first the drop mailbox, then transcontinental and transatlantic telegraph, radio and the telephone. She enjoyed the invent of records and the record player but refused to attend the motion picture show or buy a t.v. She loved her motorcar although she refused to get in a plane, and she totally appreciated her Kodak camera. The invention of the incandescent light bulb, electricity companies, transcontinental railroad, airplanes, escalators, revolving doors, refrigerators, sewing machines, rayon, zippers, cotton candy, hot dogs, bubble gum, coca cola, chocolate chip cookies, Lincoln logs, Monopoly, and the Ferris Wheel changed everyone’s life for the better.

The era was known as the Gilded Age. Vast fortunes were made overnight. Railroads afforded western expansion and the transport of goods. Merchandising and manufacturing transformed the United States into a consumer economy. Electricity companies prompted the in
vention of a multitude of time saving devices. Skyscrapers soared to the sky, and eventually, super sonic rockets did so as well.

Thoughts changed and new theories expanded the definition of truth. Darwin, Einstein, William James, Freud, and Jung altered forever the belief in creation and the understanding of the mind.

Yes, I loved the adventures of the Gilded Age. The new millennium pales in comparison if you ask me. But then again, I think Edith�s love of Europe was more about getting out of her family’s reach than anything else.

“Edith married Teddy Wharton in 1885 at the late age of 23. Teddy was not her intellectual match but a good social one, and they had a love of travel in common. Early on in their marriage they took part in an extravagant three-month cruise in the Aegean Sea, despite familial disapproval. In later years, Edith would say this was the most important thing she could have ever done.

“The experience opened up new vistas for her. She had her first taste of independence from an overbearing, superficial mother, and relished the opportunity to pursue interests and develop friendships with creative and artistic people outside of the narrow scope of her upbringing. Along with the autonomy came a growing sense of self-determinism. Thereafter, she and Teddy spent a significant part of each year in Europe.”

The marriage was not a passionate one, however. Her mother had never taught her about sex and Edith’s lack of knowledge along with the oppressive mores of the times caused unresolved sexual disappointments. Pervasive social conditioning required that she play the part of hostess and dutiful wife even if there were no children, and these activities appear to have consumed most of her energy and time until she was well past her mid-30’s. Understandably, given her creative and independent nature and her unfulfilled sexual desire; depression plagued her during this time. She wrote sporadically during these twelve odd years, publishing only a few short stories and poems of a personal nature, which reflected her unhappiness.

“Her first serious publishing effort and some moderate success came in 1897 with “A Decoration of Houses”, which she wrote with architect Ogden Codman. The book effectively and single handedly changed the popular style for interior design, eliminating the clutter and fuss of the Victorian Era, and establishing a brand new career field for others to pursue as well; Interior Design.”

This accomplishment coincided with Walter Berry’s re-entry into Edith’s arena. Walter Berry, the lawyer, judge and diplomat, was an important influence on her writing. Edith claims he taught her everything she needed to know about grammar in the weeks when he assisted with “A Decoration of Houses”.

Some would also say he was the love of her life, but there is no proof that they ever did the nasty. They met the year before she married Teddy, and I think she would have married him if he had asked her. But then again, there is no substantiating evidence that Berry did the naughty thing with anyone, so he didn�t appear too inclined towards matrimony.

Now that he was back in her life, he seemed to lend direction to her aims, fulfill an intellectual void, and encourage her growth and independence. They remained close companions for the rest of his life. He was her most loyal reader and it is said that no new manuscript went to the publishers without first meeting his approval. He died in her arms in 1927. Edith said the sun went out for her on that day.

“After “A Decoration of Houses”, Edith gained ground and momentum with her creativity and productivity. This proved to be the end of her depression and the beginning of an extravagant phase of expansion. From 1897 to 1904 she published prolifically; three short story collections, two novellas, two more books covering landscape and interior design, and a historical novel based on her travels and research in Italy.

“In 1901 Edith took on another ambitious project well suited to her nature; designing and building her own mammoth sized house and garden; “The Mount”, in Lenox, Massachusetts. The decade she spent at The Mount would eventually be one of her happiest memories, as she benefited from living inside of her own creation and blossomed into a professional authoress during that time.

“The quiet atmosphere was conducive to writing and her lifestyle was inspirational. She enjoyed being away from the hectic pace and restraints of New York Society, working in her gardens, taking drives in the country in her new motorcar, and entertaining friends of her own choosing. (Edith loved her role as Salon Mistress and was definately the hostess with the mostest.)

“It was during this period that she developed daily writing habits and a supportive social circle that played a significant part in her success as one of the most prolific female writers of the early 20th century.

“At the age of 40 years, Edith Wharton had finally found her stride. “The House of Mirth”, published in 1905, marks Edith’s coming of age as a novelist. It was an immediate bestseller. In this novel of manners with a realist twist, she found fertile ground in old New York Society. She dissected the world of privilege, old and new money, with an ironic humor and cast her eye upon the American woman’s plight with a grace and flare that won her a faithful and appreciative audience. Throughout the rest of her career, Edith would return to this subject matter, time and time again, to meet with great success.”

Ironically, as Edith found her way, Teddy lost his. Mental illness afflicted him around the time that Edith’s star was on the rise and her depression had ended. The atmosphere at the Mount was not well suited to his temperament. The quiet of the country seemed to exacerbate his troubles. But I think he was afflicted with a terrible case of inferiority living in the shadow of Edith’s success, and that this was the major cause of his problems. See, they were living in a cultural climate that delegated women to the ornamental status and bestowed enormous amounts of power and accolades on men even when it wasn’t warranted. He didn’t have a job to do and couldn’t stand Edith finding success and respect as a professional and an intellectual.

Teddy’s mental condition continued on a downward spiral until he finally misappropriated funds from Edith’s estate in order to support a mistress and then fought violently to maintain control over her finances. That’s when she sold The Mount and moved to Europe for good. She continued to support Teddy financially after that, but refused to live with him and eventually faced the disapproval of her family and filed for divorce. This, indeed, was the major influence in Edith’s choice to become an expatriate. It was personal after all, not necessarily a political statement, at least initially.

I think Henry James played a big role in saving Edith’s life during the torrid years of a disintegrating marriage. They met at The Mount in 1902, on one of his few trips to America. An honored man of letters, he was, as well as a confidante, sounding board, and inspiration. Their friendship lasted until his death during World War I. He could do what Walter Berry could not. He could be an ear for Edith’s marriage troubles and her most infamous affair, with Morton Fullerton.

Morton Fullerton was a dashing man, a journalist; but a bit of a cad. Aside from being incapable of commitment or fidelity, he was also a bisexual. For some reason only Aphrodite will know, however, he brought Edith’s blood to a boil. She knew passion for the first time in her life during their affair, and wrote volumes of erotic poetry and journal entries in honor of the occasion. Henry James was there for her throughout all the ups and downs and ins and outs. The affair brought Edith’s problems with Te
ddy to a head and also taught her depths of feelings she would have otherwise never known.

“Ethan Frome”, published in 1911, came out of that period in her life. It has proved to be the most honored of her writings, maybe because there is a depth of honesty and emotion laid down on those pages that cannot be denied. It would appear that she finally buried the ghost of her guilt about divorce in the writing of this manuscript, because afterwards, she made the final move to France.

“With the onset of World War I only a few years later, Edith decided to stay on in France and do volunteer work rather than return to the safety of the United States. These years took her out of the public eye, but on a personal level she worked harder than she had ever worked before, running hostels, infirmaries and orphanages.

“Her novel, “The Good Son” went fairly unnoticed, as the world rushed into the Jazz Age and speakeasies; away from the panic and pain of catastrophic war. Yet her efforts did not go unrecognized. The President of France awarded her with the Legion of Honor in 1916, the highest order the President could dispose.

“Age of Innocence”, published in 1920, was overlooked at first; due to the fact that Edith had been busy with the war effort, working behind the scenes, for so long. In this story she returns to the Gilded Age and old New York Society, yet the heroine wins an independent life, unlike the heroine of “The House of Mirth.” In this regard she reflects the climate of the Jazz Age and the changes it wrought for women.

“But the delayed notice was short lived. Yes, “Age of Innocence” proved to be her crowning accomplishment; bringing her recognition as the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1921, the year after women in America finally won the right to vote. In 1923 she also became the first woman awarded the Doctor of Letters by Yale University and she made her one and only trip back to America since 1912.

“She continued to write prolifically until her death in 1937; publishing more than 32 books throughout her life. Her final works included, “The Writing of Fiction”, her autobiography, “A Backward Glance”, “Ghosts”, and the unfinished novel, “The Buccaneers”. She is best remembered for her humor and irony as a writer in the genre of the novel of manners, yet she also produced poetry, critical analysis, travel writings, short stories, commentaries on World War I, and books on landscape architecture and interior design. She was a prolific letter writer and kept a journal. Upon her death, she left her papers to Yale University with the stipulation that publication be withheld until 1968.”

That was MY best idea; keeping the papers and journals under lock and key for 30 years. I’m glad she took it. It gave the rest of the world time to catch up to Edith and her independent nature. We had entered into another era by the time the papers were released; one that brought more equality and appreciation for women, and a renewed interest in women’s contributions from the past.

So there you have it. I’m sure you can see what we are capable of. Consider this. As you read us, we read you. Sort of like an interview. Take a moment to think about the possibilities. If you are willing to speak for us at the council, we may inspire you to greatness. Go on. Take your time. We’ll be in touch�.

“Soaring beyond the limits of memory and experience, the Muse will take you there. Reaching from beneath the surface of what is known, the Muse will take you there. A love most splendid and a thrill superior, the Muse will take you there.”

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!