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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?

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!


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.

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.

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!

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


Mid-Season Highlights

It’s been an exciting season thus far at The Mount, with beautiful weather, a full schedule of fun and informative programming, and of course, the arrival of new faces and old friends to tour Edith Wharton’s home.

Also exciting is the spread of Whartonmania this summer!  Anne Kingston detailed how Wharton’s timeless literary formula continues to inspire today’s readers and writers in “Why Edith Wharton haunts us still” for Maclean’s.  And Bethanne Patrick wrote a favorable review on The Washington Post website on Stephanie Clifford’s new Wharton-inspired novel, Everybody Rise.

We’re eager to share with you our mid-season highlights, which can be found below!


The Mount celebrated the release of journalist and cultural critic Kate Bolick’s new book, Spinster: Making A Life of One’s Own, with a book launch in May (photos by J. Kyron Hanson).

2015-06-05 18.32.17Charles Giuliano, publisher/editor of Berkshire Fine Arts, came to The Mount in June to celebrate his first book of poetry, Shards of a Life, with a book launch and reading.


On July 3, The Mount partnered with The Lift Ev’ry Voice 2015 Festival to present a community picnic.  Over 700 visitors came to enjoy the sounds of The Heth~Bradley~Houston Band, as well as delicious Latin cuisine from Lucia’s Latin Kitchen (photos by Susan Geller).

150720_0019David McCullough Cropped

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough came to the Berkshires in July and gave a sold-out lecture on his book, The Wright Brothers, as part of The Mount’s Summer Lecture Series (photos by John Seakwood).

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.



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


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.