Leaves of Grass

Edith Wharton profoundly admired Walt Whitman; there are two editions of Leaves of Grass in The Mount’s library. The 1897 edition, heavily marked and fragile from use, was given to her in 1898 by her good friend, Walter Van Rensselaer Berry. Wharton first met Berry during a summer holiday in Bar Harbor, Maine, when she was twenty-one and unmarried. Despite their apparent compatibility, Berry left to pursue his legal career. Sixteen years later, in 1897, they renewed their friendship, which would become one of the most profound and sustaining relationships of Wharton’s life.

Wharton reminisced that as a child “Leaves of Grass was kept under lock and key, and brought out…only in the absence of ‘the ladies’ to whom the name of Walt Whitman was unmentionable, if not utterly unknown.” As an adult, however, she came to admire his singularity. “He sees through the layers of the conventional point of view and of the conventional adjective, straight to the thing itself…and to the endless thread connecting it with the universe.

Walter Berry’s inscription, in his neat lawyer’s handwriting, is a quote from Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “Who can stray from me? I follow you whoever you are from the present hour.” The full stanza, marked by Wharton, perhaps hints at their relationship. When Berry died in 1927, Wharton wrote, “all my life goes with him” and requested to be buried next to him.