Why Ethan Frome is Actually Great Beach Reading

The following blog post was contributed by Miranda Cooper, a student at Williams College and seasonal tour guide at The Mount. Picture1

Sometimes our visitors put hard-hitting questions to the staff here, questions like, “Is Wharton readable?” or “Is she any fun?” Many of us happen to think so, but the question is a good one worth a careful answer. While hardly bodice-rippers, Wharton’s titles aren’t squarely academic either and most are surprisingly readable. If you’re not afraid of an SAT word here or there, most find the themes she wrote about 100 years ago hold up pretty well.

But this leads us to a more complex question: must a book be fun to be considered pleasure reading? Rebecca Mead (who spoke at The Mount on July 21!), who wrote an excellent piece in The New Yorker, addresses just this.

Mead shares the experience of perusing an old journal in which she recorded her reading list between ages 17 and 21, and her list skews decidedly… heavy. Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Joyce, James, Rushdie, and Calvino. Mead readily admits that her literature survey as a young woman led her primarily to the classics rather than guilty pleasures, but then points to something delicious: it is very possible to derive pleasure not just from reading something fun but from reading “to become well read.”

So, maybe you can bring Ethan Frome to the beach? Toss it in next to the sunscreen because as Mead maintains, “…there are pleasures to be had from books beyond being lightly entertained. There is the pleasure of being challenged; the pleasure of feeling one’s range and capacities expanding; the pleasure of knowing what others have already thought it worth knowing, and entering a larger conversation.”

Picture2Ethan Frome certainly fits these criteria. So perhaps we can conclude that Edith Wharton’s oeuvre sits comfortably in both the popular and literary camps, if we accept Mead’s insightful definition of pleasure reading. And if you do need something a little more lighthearted than Ethan Frome, there are plenty of great works of literature and Wharton titles that fit the bill.

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Reflecting on The Mount as a Museum Studies Student

The following blog post was contributed by Amelia Alvarez, a Museum Studies student at Wellesley College.

Amelia Alvarez

Amelia Alvarez

¡Hola a todos desde España! I’m a third-year student at Wellesley College currently studying abroad in Córdoba, a beautiful city in the sunny south of Spain. I like to think of Córdoba as a small yet concentrated dose of Spain, filled to the brim with historical monuments, traditions, and cultural activities.

At the Universidad de Córdoba I am currently taking a Museum Studies course in which I am learning all about the development of museums as institutions over the centuries, how they are classified and run today, and in what direction they might be headed in the future. It has been especially interesting to learn about such things while in Europe, since it was in Greece where museums were born and since museums have been in steady development here since the Middle Ages.

As an assignment for my class we were asked to investigate a single museum to learn all there is to know about how it functions. After working this summer with Historic New England, an organization that preserves upwards of 36 historic house museums (one of which belonged to the family of Edith Wharton’s design partner-in-crime Ogden Codman, Jr.!), I was curious about house museums in particular. And, as an English major who perhaps fell in love with the study of literature after reading The House of Mirth as a high school sophomore, I naturally decided to delve into The Mount.

Though I have yet to visit The Mount in person, I feel as though I’ve already walked through its gardens, skirted up its stairways, and admired the tomes in its library, a testament to the wonderful transparency of the museum to the public. For my purposes, I’ve looked into everything from the history of The Mount to its documentation practices to whether or not the exhibition rooms use special climate-control mechanisms. You’d be surprised how many considerations go into making and creating a museum!

House museums are unique in the sense that the story they tell is already largely established. That is, unlike a traditional art museum in which curators craft a discourse by placing objects side by side, in a house museum the objects left in place naturally tell us about the people that once used them daily. How wonderful it is to be able to step into someone else’s life, into another era even, by simply passing through the doorway of a house museum!

Often the act of “museum-ifying” someone’s life in this way can be dangerous; you run the risk of sealing their story in the past, turning it into something that’s nice to look at but that is far removed from the present. The Mount, however, has done wonders to keep the spirit of Edith Wharton alive and accessible. I am impressed by the number of programs and events that the museum puts on, and I think Wharton herself would approve of the great deal of enjoyment that transpires on her property today.

After all, what better way to celebrate the life of Edith Wharton, a spirited designer and storyteller, than to continue telling her story and making new ones of our own in the place that she lovingly drafted from scratch?

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The Donnée Book: Reflections from Visitors

A visitor reads Wharton in The Mount's reading room.

A visitor reads Wharton in The Mount’s reading room.

All her writing life, Wharton kept ideas for later use in donnée books (donnée translates to themes or subjects).  When The Mount opened a new exhibit this past May, entitled Riding the Magic Carpet: Edith Wharton’s Literary Legacy, a blank donnée book was placed in the reading room filled with rare first editions of Wharton’s work, information about the themes in those works, and unlimited possibilities to learn more.

We asked visitors of all ages to share their thoughts in The Mount’s donnée book.  Here are some of our favorites:

“I feel sorry that women had not many choices 100 years ago. It was good to see the photo of Ms. Wharton smiling on the video. I hope she found peace.”

“Edith Wharton, a woman ahead of her time. Her legacy is inspiring in 2015.”

“This place left me with a sense of awe and reverence. The beauty and literary love of Edith Wharton seems well captured. I can’t wait to read her books.”

“I work in a library and it was so wonderful to see such a legacy paid to our literary giants.”

“Lest we forget: Great writers are also great readers!”

“I loved Summer – an unappreciated gem! – and Custom of the Country.”

“Glad you opened my eyes and my heart. A new (old) author to read, beginning to end!”

“Dear Mrs. Edith Wharton, thank you for everything. I feel so inspired from you, I’m going to be a poet when I grow up!”

“A thoroughly delightful, insightful woman…a treasure of mind and heart.”

“Thank you for all your beautiful books, Mrs. Wharton. You have given much to our world.”

“Edith Wharton is one of the first classical writers I genuinely enjoyed reading! I wanted to write after reading her early novels.”

Be sure to visit The Mount’s reading room and share your own thoughts when the Main House reopens in May, 2016!


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The Things They Say

The following blog post was contributed by Tour Guide Wendy Gash.

Wendy (right) interacts with visitors at The Mount.

Wendy (right) interacts with visitors at The Mount.

Being a guide at the Mount is similar to the job of doorman at a hotel – you are a captive audience for people who like to chat. We must be prepared to compare the weather from where we are to where they were and be sympathetic over health issues, while giving directions to the rest rooms and advice on nearby restaurants. Yet sometimes between the stories of travel woes and difficult relatives, a few nuggets surface. Here are a few from this season.

When he was fifteen and in high school, a retired professor had “Ethan Frome” as required reading. It made a profound impression on him. He saw for the first time that adult life might not run smoothly, and the confident grownups around him could possibly have a few problems. That had never occurred to him.

At the end of a tour a quiet grandmother who had been standing at the back came up to tell me that she had downloaded a group of over thirty Wharton stories on her iPad for about ninety-nine cents and read them all. She was looking for more.

I don’t know how the subject came up, but a tall, and yes, distinguished, Englishman mentioned casually that his great aunt at one time had a villa in Hyeres near Saint Claire Chateau. She and Edith Wharton were quite friendly, and Edith gave her an amethyst necklace. It now belongs to his stepdaughter. Why didn’t I get a name!

Settled comfortably in a chair in the Drawing Room, a visitor noted that this was the first museum he’d ever been in that when he sat down, an alarm didn’t go off.

A couple from the mid-west were on their annual visit to New England. On a previous trip to Old England, they rented a cottage on a National Trust property and on the well-stocked bookshelf was a copy of “Gardens To See Before You Die.” Many of them were in exotic places, Indonesia for example, but listed was Edith Wharton’s Estate and Gardens. And here they were, having a fine time.

Headmistress Aileen Farrell.

Headmistress Aileen Farrell.

A tall man claimed special knowledge of “The Age of Innocence” because he was the brother of Michelle Pfeiffer, the actress who played Ellen Olenska in the film. I looked it up.

For many years, from 1942 to 1976, the Wharton property was owned by the Foxhollow School For Girls, presided over by the headmistress Aileen Farrell, an Oxford graduate and very strict and proper. The girls were allowed to have dances with neighboring boys’ schools. One of them was The Berkshire School, and faculty members would chaperone jointly. A man who was a teacher at the time told me he would often sit with Miss Farrell, and one evening she leaned over to him and said, “Can you tell me, is the would f—k still in common usage?”

Who knows what Things They’ll Say next year. Stay tuned.

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Visitor Spotlight: A Strange Paranormal Presence

Seth Davis, 10.14 (7)

The Stable. Photo by Seth Davis.

The following blog post was contributed by Emma R.H. Vezina, who experienced a ghost tour at The Mount on July 22.

As fans of Edith Wharton’s writing, especially Ethan Frome, my mother and I were excited to visit her house. Once we saw that there was a ghost tour we knew exactly what we were going to do. Before arriving, we were not aware of its status as a haunted house. Both of us do believe in the existence of ghosts.

The stables certainly had an eeriness to them but it wasn’t until we got in the house proper that we really started to feel things. In Teddy’s den, we both felt an oppressive air. It affected my mother in the form of heat, whereas I felt it as a heaviness. Then came my first personal experience with a ghost. We went into the library. I stood with my back on the wall closer to the inside of the house. The only people near me were men. The guide on my right and another guest on my left. I felt the unmistakable sensation of the fabric of my hood moving over my left ear. My hood was up and there was no air current in the room. As my hood pressed lightly in, as if blown by air, I heard a woman sigh. It sounded and felt like it happened behind me and to the left. I was up against the wall. No one could have made the sound. I was certain of my experience when the tour guide mentioned that the governess Anna had been felt there.

On the second floor, my mum saw a dark shadow that did not appear to be from a flashlight or any of the guests we were with.  It was in the hallway on the way to the bathroom.  The final place that I felt anything, was in the door from Edith’s bedroom to Teddy’s.  It felt warm and hot but made no sense considering it’s positioning.  I only felt it when walking directly through the threshold.

I could not get my mother to elaborate much on any of the things she felt or saw.  As for the feelings I had, I can assure you they were very real and have been written down as accurately as possible.

It was a great tour and I can definitely say that your place [The Mount] has some strange paranormal presence.

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Berkshire Believers: Edith Wharton’s homestead hosts ghost tours

Ominous Mount Fall 2014Ghost tours at The Mount are in full swing and in honor of the season, Ghost Tour Guide Robert Oakes recently wrote a spine-tingling piece for PRIME.  Enjoy the first couple of paragraphs below, and be sure to visit The Mount to experience one of Robert’s tours!

When the sun sets on The Mount, the Gilded Age estate in Lenox, Mass., that once was home to author Edith Wharton, the beautiful grounds and buildings begin to exude an eerie atmosphere. Shadows lengthen along the wooded paths and marble floors, as the last of the day’s visitors drive off the property. The empty rooms become like tombs, witnesses to history, still and silent, except for the occasional creak or tap or … was that a footstep?    

It is during these dark and silent hours at The Mount that we Ghost Tour guides do our work. Each week. We lead groups of intrepid ghost seekers through the darkened halls and rooms of both the stable and the mansion, as well as through the wooded grounds and pet cemetery. By the glow of flashlight, we share some of the many accounts of encounters with mysterious entities that have been reported over the years by residents and visitors of the estate. These include tales of faces seen in windows, odd sensations of being watched or touched by someone unseen, the sound of voices and footsteps, and many other strange and unexplained phenomena. 

Click here to read the full article!

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New York Times 09-28-15

The New York Times

September 28, 2015

              “Edith Wharton House Museum Retires Debt”

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Berkshire Eagle 09-28-15

The Berkshire Eagle

September 28, 2015

                          “The Mount, once on brink of foreclosure, clears all debts”

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The Mount is Debt Free!

Dear Friends,

I am writing with very exciting good news—The Mount has retired all of its debt and is now entirely debt free!!!

It has been an incredible journey that began over seven years ago when foreclosure seemed a near-certain fate.  Today, through our many partnerships, The Mount is more robust than ever. We are deeply grateful to you and all our friends whose support never wavered regardless of the odds. Thank you!

Very best and, again, deepest thanks,

Susan Wissler

Edith Wharton House Museum Retires Debt – The New York Times

The Mount clears all debts – The Berkshire Eagle

Thank You to All Berkshire County Residents – October 2015


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WAMC 9-30-15

WAMC Northeast Public Radio

September 30, 2015

“After Declaring Itself Debt-Free, The Mount Looks To The Future”

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AP 09-29-15

The Associated Press

September 29, 2015

“Historic Home of Author Edith Wharton is Finally Debt-Free”

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