We know that Edith Wharton’s Library at The Mount was largely for show – not the hundreds of books lining the walls (which she read voraciously), but the illusion of the library as Wharton’s office. Following the publication of The House of Mirth, Wharton had publicity photos made, depicting her hard at work at the desk in her Library, when she knew full well that she wrote best from the comfort of her bed.
No, the Library was a gathering place, the intellectual nucleus of the house where Wharton entertained her closest friends and shared the wealth of knowledge sitting on the shelves. Wharton remembers these evenings fondly in her memoir A Backward Glance:
One of our joys, when the talk touched on any great example of prose or verse, was to get the book from the shelf, and ask one of the company to read the passage aloud. There were some admirable readers in the group, in whose gift I had long delighted; but I had never heard Henry James read aloud–or known that he enjoyed doing so–till one night some one alluded to Emily Bronte’s poems, and I said I had never read “Remembrance.” I had never before heard poetry read as he read it; and I never have since.
James’s reading was a thing apart, an emanation of his inmost self, unaffected by fashion or elocutionary artifice. He read from his soul, and no one who never heard him read poetry knows what that soul was.
Last year, photographer Annie Leibovitz imagined this scene in Edith Wharton’s Library for Vogue Magazine.
Walt Whitman, who celebrates his 194th birthday today, was a favorite of Wharton and James.
Another day someone spoke of Whitman, and it was a joy to me to discover that James thought him, as I did, the greatest of American poets. “Leaves of Grass” was put into his hands, and all that evening we sat rapt while he wandered from “The Song of Myself” to “When lilacs last in the door-yard bloomed…”
James’s admiration of Whitman, his immediate response to that mighty appeal, was a new proof of the way in which, above a certain level, the most divergent intelligences walk together like gods.
Wharton’s copy of Leaves of Grass is well-worn, its pages stained and its passages heavily marked throughout. On the end paper of a book of Japanese poetry, Wharton left a clue as to what these nights with James and others must have been like. In faint pencil she tried her hand at haiku leaving us to imagine the electric nights spent in her Library among friends:
“The silence of midnight
A dying fire
And the best unsaid…”
To see Edith Wharton’s copy of Leaves of Grass for yourself, schedule a private library tour!