Engaging the Ghost: Digitization, Preservation, and the Lessons of a Haunted Library

This post was contributed by Sheila Liming, Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Dakota.  We are excited to announce that Sheila is working on digitizing The Mount’s library!

Sheila Liming.

Sheila Liming.

A ghost story is, at its very core, a romance. On the surface of such stories, certainly, there exist all manner of sensate preoccupations: we hear footsteps, feel the chill touch of something we cannot quite describe, and see what we know cannot be justifiably seen. But embedded within such stories there is, more often than not, a sublime overabundance of emotion. When we tell each other ghost stories, as when we write or read them, we do so through a desire to access a form of emotion that is so intense that it transcends logic, reason, and the material demands of earthly existence.

Edith Wharton, of course, knew this. As a writer who dedicated herself to the study of human compulsions, she intuited the link – forged by a kind of lavish, larger-than-life tenderness – between hauntings and romance, and integrated it into much of her fiction. In her 1931 story “Pomegranate Seed,” for instance, that link binds Kenneth Ashby to his deceased, first wife, who appears to be writing him letters from beyond the grave. Whether the letters are, in fact, legitimately forged by a ghostly hand is actually unimportant: what matters is that they introduce suspicion and emotional conflict to Kenneth’s relationship with his second wife, Charlotte. In this story as in others, Wharton inscribes “haunting” as intense emotional havoc.

It is probably not surprising, then, that Wharton’s The Mount should also boast its fair share of hauntings and ghost stories. This summer, for the entire month of June, I was privileged to be working at The Mount while tackling the first phase of a multi-part digitization project that will, a few years hence, culminate in a searchable, online database granting both scholars and the public alike access to Wharton’s personal library materials there. Over the course of my four-plus weeks of digitization work, I was installed in various corners of the mansion, starting first with the attic, which holds nearly 1,000 of the more than 2,700 books owned by The Mount today and once owned by Wharton. And this brings me to a quick, but necessary, caveat: anyone who wants to learn more about the details of digitization project itself – about my methods, equipment, process, etc. – is welcome to get in touch and ask away. Because, in truth, those details are not the focus of what I want to talk about here: rather, I want to talk about the ghosts. Hauntings (both metaphorical and otherwise) inform much of my digitization work in the first place, as they no doubt inform other, similar digital preservation projects launched in recent years under the rubric of the digital humanities. They are part of what both compels and inspires our collective efforts to save and chronicle the past, and they are certainly an indispensible part of life at The Mount.

View from the fourth floor.

View from the fourth floor.

So, back to the attic, then: its fourth-floor location granted me a birds-eye view of the estate, from which point I could see visitors coming and going through the courtyard below. And it also put me right at the heart of The Mount’s rumored ghostly activity. Mind you, all of The Mount’s staff members have a story or two to lend where ghosts are concerned. One story I heard involved a mysterious metal rod that had been discovered lodged in the ceiling during attic renovation work; another concerned the Fox Hollow Room – a sort of exhibition and gathering spot for Fox Hollow School alumni located on the attic floor – and a chair that, when the speaker sat on it, felt “already occupied.” Nynke Dorhout, The Mount’s librarian, in her characteristically charming way, told me that when she approaches the fourth floor alone, she likes to call out “Hello, good folk!” as a means of announcing herself to the spirits who may or may not be residing there. I was tempted to take up this practice myself when I arrived in the mornings, as accessing the attic’s book storage room first involved navigating a long, dark, creaking corridor where every electrical wall sconce had to be lit individually, one after the other, forcing me further and further into the darkness.

Sadly, I did not come away from my month at The Mount with a ghost story of my own – at least not in the strict sense implied by such a phrase. But in handling Wharton’s books, I became increasingly aware of the ways in which books themselves demand that we interface with the past and, to a certain extent, engage the ghosts. Indeed, it is almost impossible to pick up a two-hundred year-old book and not consider the many hands that have touched it before you and all of the people, living and dead, whose very handling of it has made it what it is today. For a book is more than the just textual information it contains; it is also a compendium of human touch and interaction. In Wharton’s novel Hudson River Bracketed (1929), Halo Spear tells Vance Weston that “books have souls, like people” and instructs him to care for them gently – proof that Wharton, too, understood books to be containers of (and perhaps monuments to) their owners’ humanity.

Many of the books in Wharton’s library are in excellent condition, having been lovingly cared for and preserved by their varying owners and having been once originally constructed from high-quality materials with great cost, effort, and concern. These books – like many of the volumes Wharton inherited from her father, George F. Jones – retain a sense of that loving care: their spines are straight and stiff, their leather is unmarred, and their pages crackle with retained freshness. But other works in Wharton’s library invoke a different sense of the word loved: Wharton’s first American edition copy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland wears the evidence of having been well-loved in its crumbling spine and tattered pages. Wharton clearly loved this book, for she read it to death. So, too, with her copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, where the binding has all but – and the pun here is intentional – given up the ghost so that the pages, if one does not handle them carefully, are likely to go tumbling to the floor.

The fourth floor.

The fourth floor.

Love, then, is inevitably part of what one encounters when they interact with old books. And love, accordingly, is written all over Wharton’s library materials: we see it in the caring inscriptions written by her father, her brothers, and yes, even by her mother, the indomitable Lucretia Jones; we see it in Wharton’s copies of the books written by her friends and associates, people like Henry James, Howard Sturgis, Bernard Berenson, Violet Paget (and, of course, Morton Fullerton); and we see the long arc of love and friendship represented through generations of successive ownership. Many of the books in Wharton’s collection, for example, feature her friend Walter Berry’s “signature” custom binding (half-blue Morocco leather with marbled interior pages done by Stroobant’s). And there are scores of books in her library that bare the marks of their previous owners – some of them famous, some perhaps less so, but all significant in their own right. I remember, for instance, when Julie Quain, a long-standing Mount volunteer who was kind enough to assist me with the scanning process, opened The Mount’s display copy of Wharton’s Italian Villas and Their Gardens and discovered the bookplate of a deceased friend – Wharton scholar Scott Marshall. When Julie held that book in her hands, I saw the soul of Scott Marshall reflected in her physical treatment of it. In this way, and in many others, books in particular and libraries in general anthologize and curate our interactions with the dead, which is why it is so essential that we seek to identify new ways for preserving and displaying them.

So while I did not come away from The Mount with a ghost story of my own, I did get the opportunity to engage the ghost of Edith Wharton through the books that she once owned and handled. More often than not, that kind of engagement, I find, takes the form of questions – questions you want to ask the object about the person, or vice versa. When I came across a postcard (completed but never sent, in Wharton’s hand, and featuring a picture of the seashore at Hyères on its front), I wanted to know: For whom was it intended? When was it written? And why wasn’t it sent? Likewise, when I would discover pressed flowers, or even human hairs, between the pages of a book, my mind was filled with questions. And even though the answers to these questions might be long in coming, I believe that Wharton’s library collection must continue to function as an accessible, useable repository for questions and answers alike.

Old books, in being made from organic material, chronicle the processes of death, but so too do they display life. Some of the books in Wharton’s collection bare evidence of decay or rot, while others sport living colonies of mold, or else the eggs of insects. All of this, I came to realize through my weeks of interacting with these texts, is completely natural. But the forces of life and death alike can work against the visions of permanence that we have for such things. We scholars try very hard to believe in and achieve permanence – the permanence of wisdom, for instance, or of information – even as we are confronted with inevitabilities of impermanence. Edith Wharton lives today inside of the books she touched, owned, and read. That is why it is so important that her library be properly preserved – embalmed, if you will – in digital format, so that future generations of scholars and Wharton fans may be permitted the kind of ghostly engagement I and others have experienced in working with these materials. I am crafting, the website that will eventually house and exhibit digital images files for all of Wharton’s books retained today by The Mount, in the spirit of access and allowance: I want contemporary and future readers to have the chance to interface with readers, writers, and book-owners of the past. I also, though, want to breathe additional life and energy into the physical library materials held today at The Mount, drawing scholars and readers to these haunted objects and enticing their continued interactions with them.

I am looking forward to the summer of 2016 and to the second phase of this project, in which I will be collecting full-text scans of the texts that Wharton herself annotated, and to my continuing engagement with this collection and with the many people – living and dead – who have given their souls to it.



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In Memoriam: Shari Gabrielson Goodmann

This post was contributed by Shari’s friend, Suzanne Ferriss, PH.D., Professor of English at Nova Southeastern University.

Shari (Benstock) Gabrielson Goodmann, December 2, 1944-May 26, 2015

Wharton fans and scholars will note, with great sadness, the loss of Shari Gabrielson Goodmann, who recently passed away after a ten-year battle with early onset dementia. Under the name Shari Benstock, she published “No Gifts from Chance”: A Biography of Edith Wharton (1994), as well as a critical edition of The House of Mirth. Her meticulously researched biography challenged previous accounts, by R W B Lewis and others, to offer a more modern and complex portrait of the Pulitzer-prize winning author as a woman who “fashioned life to her own desires.”

Shari.  Photo by Irmelie Jung.

Shari. Photo by Irmelie Jung.

Shari’s interest in Wharton emerged from decades of scholarly work on the intersection of women’s lives and literature (as well as a personal attachment to the Berkshires). Her book Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940 (1986), a study of over two dozen expatriate women writers, including Wharton, was groundbreaking in its fusion of history, biography and literary criticism. Thirty years after its initial publication it remains an invaluable resource for scholars of French and English literature, for historians of the modernist period, and for those interested in women’s literature, lives and sexuality.

As an editor of books and journals, Shari not only granted greater visibility and significance to women writers but to the scholars studying them. She was tapped by Germaine Greer to edit Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature and, with Celeste Schenck, created one of the first book series devoted to women’s writing and feminist scholarship, “Reading Women Writing,” at Cornell University Press. Her edited collection on women’s autobiography, The Private Self (1986), has become a classic in feminist literary scholarship. I had the good fortune to collaborate with her on three books: A Handbook of Literary Feminism (2002), an intellectual history of literary feminism in the United States and Great Britain from the Renaissance to the present, and two edited collections on the cultural study of fashion: On Fashion (1994) and Footnotes: On Shoes (2001). Generous, ebullient, funny, she touched the lives of generations of scholars and students—at the University of Tulsa, the University of Miami and beyond—and will continue to do so through her published works.

Shari composed much of her Wharton biography at her second home in South Egremont and made frequent visits to the Mount, establishing friendships with those working on its restoration and preservation. Almost exactly fourteen years ago (on July 30, 2001), she appeared on C-SPAN’s American Writers series to discuss Wharton’s life and work. Filmed on location at The Mount, the episode serves as a lasting testament both to Wharton’s contributions to literature, landscape architecture, and interior design, and to Shari’s formidable intellectual gifts. You can view the episode here:

Her husband, Tom Goodmann, who cared for Shari during her long illness, asks that In lieu of other memorials, donations may be made in her name to The Mount, which she described as “rising upward and outward to sun and air.”

Donations can be made by contacting The Mount’s Development office at 413-551-5100 or


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Kicking Off a Spooky Ghost Tour Season

This post was contributed by Marge Cox, The Mount’s Assistant House Manager and Ghost Tour Guide.

Maline Thai, 7.1.15, faces in window

The July 8th Ghost Tour had everyone on high alert.  There was definitely some kind of presence in the house making itself known.  Doors opening and closing and footsteps in the servant wing were heard several times.  Could this have been Catherine Gross the Head Housekeeper, still on duty after all these years?  Our Tour Guide, Robert, was patted on the head.  Perhaps Teddy Wharton?  When the tour was in the drawing room several of our ghost chasers heard noises coming from the library.  The many photos taken revealed mysterious orbs around us and unexplained misty images.  This is my second year of “ghost hunting” at The Mount and I do believe that the spirits of the people who once lived here remain among us.

Right: It’s been a spooky season so far!  Maline Thai caught this strange figure in the Stable window on the July 1st Ghost Tour.



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Free Fun Friday at The Mount!

On June 26, The Mount welcomed over 950 visitors for Free Fun Friday, a program made possible with the support of The Highland Street Foundation.  Families, friends, and couples admired Wharton’s beautiful gardens, toured her spacious home, and explored the unique sculptures on the grounds.

Enjoy these wonderful photos of Free Fun Friday at The Mount by John Seakwood Photography!




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The Mount Announces The Edith Wharton Writer-in-Residence Program, Application Deadline August 31

(Lenox, MA)— The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, MA is pleased to announce The Edith Wharton Writer-in-Residence, a two-week residency offering writers the opportunity to work and create in the house Wharton built as a writer’s retreat. The program is open to writers and scholars of demonstrated accomplishment who are currently working on a new piece of writing. Applications open on July 1, 2015 and will be accepted through August 31, 2015. For additional information including submission guidelines, please visit

For the past two years, The Mount has informally offered the use of the house to writers. In 2014, authors Francesca Segal and Kate Bolick worked in the house during the winter months. Segal and Bolick are both avid fans of Edith Wharton. Segal’s The Innocents, is a retelling of The Age of Innocence set in a modern suburb of London. In Bolick’s bibliomemoir, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, Wharton makes an appearance as one of her five “Awakeners”, women from the last century whose genius, tenacity, and flair for drama have influenced her life choices. This past March, writer and scholar Natalie Dykstra found inspiration in Wharton’s library, working on an article on 19th century pressed flower albums, which she titled “Enduring Beauty.”

“Thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor, we are able to take an idea we have been experimenting with and make it official,” said Susan Wissler, executive director of The Mount. “The Edith Wharton Writer-in-Residence brings writing back to the property while supporting and celebrating contemporary writers.”

About the Program

What: A two-week residency for one writer at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s Home in Lenox, MA. Residents will receive a work space at The Mount, a $1000 food and travel stipend, and lodging for the duration of their residency. Residents must provide their own transportation.

The principal responsibility of the resident is to spend time further developing his or her creative work.

Who:  Writers and scholars of demonstrated accomplishment are invited to create, advance, or complete works-in-progress during their time at The Mount

When: Residencies will be held in February or March each year. The specific length of each residency will be determined in consultation with the resident.

Where: Residents will complete their residency at The Mount in Lenox, MA. Edith Wharton designed The Mount, a Georgian revival mansion, on a wooded parcel on the shores of Laurel Lake and lived there from 1902-1911. It was at The Mount, which she called her “first true home,” that Wharton came into her own as a writer and produced some of her most iconic works.

Today, The Mount is a National Historic Landmark and a museum that celebrates the artistic, literary, and humanitarian legacy of Edith Wharton.

To apply:

Applicants must provide a proposal, to include:

  • CV or resume
  • Statement of purpose outlining project, residency, and career goals (Max. 1000 words)
  • Writing sample of approximately 1,500 words
  • Submission by email to

About The Mount:

The Mount is a National Historic Landmark and cultural center that celebrates the intellectual, artistic, and humanitarian legacy of Edith Wharton. We engage a diverse audience by providing context to Wharton’s life and achievements through our educational and public programs and the conservation and preservation of her historic estate and gardens.

Each year, The Mount is host to over 40,000 visitors. Daily tours of the property are offered May through October, with special events throughout the year. Annual summer programming includes a joint exhibit with SculptureNow, Wharton on Wednesdays, Music After Hours, and the celebrated Monday Lecture Series. Exhibitions explore themes from Wharton’s life and work.

For more information, visit


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MassLive 6-01-15


June 1, 2015

“SculptureNow, The Mount exhibit 28 sculptures in Lenox”

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New for 2015

What’s new at The Mount for 2015?  Summer programming is back, SculptureNow returns, and we’re really excited about several new initiatives, including:

“The house and gardens being full of visitors enjoying this very special place that Edith Wharton created.” -Rebecka McDougall, Communications Director

“Easy! Being outside on the Terrace all day long – working in the Terrace Café!” -Lynn Sciacca, Café Manager

“I think I’m most excited to welcome people and activity back to the property. It gets lonely here in the winter months, without the constant stream of visitors passing through the gates, and I’m looking forward to unexpected encounters and conversations with both new and familiar faces.” -Kelsey Mullen, Director of Public Programs and Education

A colorful view of the Main House, by Grounds Superintendent, Chad Donovan-Hall.

A colorful view of the Main House by Chad Donovan-Hall, Grounds Superintendent at The Mount.


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Edith Wharton’s Workshop

Last summer, when director Susan Wissler asked me to be this year’s writer-in-residence at The Mount, I replied with a laugh and a rapid-fire “yes, yes, yes.” When asked what room I wanted to occupy during my two-week residency, I also didn’t hesitate: the library, with its French doors opening to the wrap-around terrace and a view of the Berkshire mountains, the same view I’d tried to commit to memory on my first visit to The Mount in the summer of 2012.

That year, I gave a talk on my book, Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life, as part of The Mount’s Summer Lecture Series. I arrived on one of those liquid-gold July afternoons, the light shimmering on the landscape. My talk was held in the converted carriage house, where Wharton had originally stabled her horses and later parked her cars that she liked to take on expeditions along winding Berkshire roads. I remember the faces in the crowd that day, as the lights dimmed and the first of Clover’s photographs (she was a gifted photographer in the early 1880s) was projected on a nearby screen. After my talk and a gracious service of tea, I ambled down the road through a canopy of trees to Wharton’s white stucco, three-story mansion for a treat: dinner with guests on that terrace facing Laurel Lake and the mountains beyond.   A Palladian staircase off the terrace leads to a sunken garden and a second garden planned by Wharton’s niece, the gifted landscape designer Beatrix Ferrand. That evening, as I heard the wind whoosh through the evergreen trees, I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

It’s been more than six weeks now since I’ve returned home from my residency at The Mount. The weather has warmed and spring is here. But I think often of those days in cold, snowy March. I’ve worked in some beautiful spaces over the years: the main reading room of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., with its high ocular ceiling and iron clock; the stately reading room at the Massachusetts Historical Society; the small but perfectly proportioned room in the Sturgis Library on the Cape, with Captain Sturgis’ 19th c. book collection lining the walls. But spending ten days writing in Wharton’s library was different somehow.

Here was my pathway every morning on the mansion’s second floor from the servant’s kitchen through the formal dining room and living room to the library – the last window is one of the library’s French doors.

Dining Room

This view, where the axis of each room lines up with the next to form an enfilade or corridor, is a distinguishing feature of the house, borrowed from the grand European homes.

The library itself is not imposing. Like the other rooms, its size feels just right, conforming to how Wharton described what a library should be in chapter XII of her 1897 Decoration of Houses:

The general decoration of the library should be of such character as to form a background or setting to the books, rather than to distract attention from them. The richly adorned room in which books are but a minor incident is, in fact, no library at all.


The furniture, rug, and curtains are not Wharton’s, but all the books that line the three walls between four French doors are hers. They are all “good editions in good bindings,” as she prescribes in Decoration, and were purchased back by The Mount in 2005. The story of that purchase is itself a fascinating tale, as told by one of my favorite writers, Rebecca Mead, in the April 28, 2008 issue of the New Yorker. Every once in a while even now, a book comes back. Wharton’s copy of Jane Eyre came back 2½ years ago. Madame Bovary is still missing.


I put my writing desk and chair next to where Wharton had placed hers, catching the light on my left and facing the far wall lined with more books and punctuated by the fireplace where Wharton and Henry James, a frequent guest, would repair after dinner to read and gossip. Wharton didn’t write in the library. She wrote The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome, her best known novels from her time at The Mount, in her boudoir, where she liked to write in bed in the mornings. Even so, I got a small sense of what she saw when she was in her library. Mostly, I had the view I most wanted – the terrace, pine trees, and the mountains beyond. I didn’t even mind all the snow. It gave the landscape a hushed, less hectic aspect I found comforting. Plus, if I’d been able to open those doors, I wouldn’t have been able to resist going outside, and I’d come to The Mount to work.


I was left quietly alone my first week, as I settled in to finish an article on 19th century pressed flower albums, which I’ve titled “Enduring Beauty.” What are pressed flower albums, you ask? Perhaps you’ve run across a pressed flower in a book of poems or a novel. Prior to the advent of photography in the mid-nineteenth century, young women were encouraged to keep flowers, plucked and pressed and put in albums, as a way to remember the places they’d visited or special occasions. I’d first seen an extraordinary 1839 example, with the colors of its daisies and primroses still detectable, at the Massachusetts Historical Society while doing research for my book on Clover. I couldn’t stop thinking of it—I found those bits and pieces of nature, flattened between pages and often accompanied by a poem, incredibly moving.

My first days I did a lot of up-down, up-down. I call it “writer’s vertigo.” But when that happened, I’d take down one of Wharton’s books (carefully, I promise) to steady me. Many are inscribed and still more have her markings in the margins. Books of poetry, theater, and science, particularly those on evolution; the classics; books on travel, history, philosophy; a Bible prayer book, biographies, and, of course, lots of novels: a whole collection of George Eliot and Henry James, to name just two writers. Hermione Lee, Wharton’s biographer, says that the “most revealing and moving pages in these marked-up books are where Wharton has paused over something that seems to give her advice, on how to live or how to write, or has marked something that speaks to her own circumstances.” A favorite example would have to be a mark next to this passage by Keats: “Do you see how necessary a world of pain and troubles is to school an Intelligence to make it a Soul?” At what point did Wharton make this mark? Hard to know, but his words spoke to her much as her words speak to us. As Lee remarks, “her library is…her education, her inspiration, and her workshop.”

Two weeks in Wharton’s workshop surrounded by the beauty of The Mount and the Berkshires – it’s enough to inspire. Happily, my article is just about ready to be sent out for review – I’ll be sure to post a link at this blog when it’s in print.

Many thanks to Susan Wissler and all the wonderful people who run The Mount (you know who you are)—for the opportunity to spend this time with you, for your encouraging words, cups of tea, and invitations to dinner. Thank you to Nynke Dorhout, librarian extraordinaire, who first invited me to The Mount and for her expertise about Wharton’s books. A special thanks to Naomi and Roger Gordon, who let me stay in their beautiful home nearby. You can find out more about my book on Clover Adams at and can reach me by email at

One more item: The Mount will be accepting applications for next year’s writer-in-residency, starting July 1. Be sure to contact The Mount for more information, and good luck to all the applicants!

Photo credit: Ellen Dykstra

Photo credit: Ellen Dykstra

Natalie Dykstra is an Associate Professor of English at Hope College in Holland, MI. She teaches one semester a year, and in the spring and summer lives with her husband in Waltham, MA. Her first book, Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life, was nominated for the Massachusetts Book Award in 2013.

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First Signs of Spring

After a particularly long winter, we were very excited to see the first signs of spring here at The Mount, including blue skies, pleasant temperatures, sprouting plants in Wharton’s gardens, and the arrival of Yarmey’s Window Cleaning Co. to wash away that winter grime!

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Berkshire Magazine May 2015

Berkshire Magazine

May 2015

                          “Living With Edith”

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