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!
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.
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.
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 EdithWhartonsLibrary.org, 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.