What Did She Really Mean By That?

This post was contributed by Meredith Goldsmith, President of the Edith Wharton Society.  Meredith did research in Wharton’s library in October.

“What did she really mean by that?”

Walt Whitman's image in 1855, included in the 1897 edition of Leaves of Grass, owned by Edith Wharton.
Fig 1: Walt Whitman’s image in 1855, included in the 1897 edition of Leaves of Grass, owned by Edith Wharton.

At some point, almost every reader has asked this question about an author; it’s a question that keeps students engaged and English professors in business. We typically tell students that such questions are impossible to answer, that intentionality is an outworn concept. Yet visits to author’s archives and libraries, such as my recent research visit to Edith Wharton’s library in The Mount, tell a different story. While the texts in Wharton’s library can’t tell us “what she really meant by that,” they complicate this already complicated riddle, challenging us to think about a writer’s context, about what her intentions might be, and about the significance of the books with which she surrounded herself and the role of those books in her life.

I came to The Mount with the specific intention of researching Wharton’s annotations in her copies of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and other books she owned about the poet. It was my first visit to Wharton’s library, which I only knew via the bibliography compiled by George Ramsden, the bookseller who acquired and catalogued the 2,700 books that Wharton left to her godson, Colin Clark (the son of art historian Kenneth Clark). However, Ramsden made only minimal annotations in his bibliography; we know what books Wharton owned and have a basic sense of books with which she was particularly engaged, but we don’t know much more than that.

Until I sat down with Wharton’s copy of Leaves of Grass, all I knew was that she was a passionate reader of Whitman’s poetry, as biographer Hermione Lee tells us and as Wharton recounts in her letters and autobiography. Her fiction occasionally attests to her engagement with Whitman’s poetry, when characters read or study Whitman, or when the protagonist of the novella The Spark, on which I am currently writing a book chapter, realizes that he was nursed by Whitman in the Civil War. I didn’t come to understand the depths of Wharton’s interaction with Whitman’s poems until I held her copy of Leaves of Grass in my hands at The Mount two weeks ago.

Wharton's underlining in Whitman's poem "I Sing the Body Electric."
Fig 2: Wharton’s underlining in Whitman’s poem “I Sing the Body Electric.”

Wharton owned two editions of the poems, one published in 1897 and one in 1916. The first, which she heavily annotated, was given to her by her dear friend Walter Berry and contains his inscription, a quote from Leaves of Grass. The table of contents is full of tick marks, indicating poems that Wharton and her friends may have read aloud at The Mount. More compelling, though, are the markings Wharton made throughout the text. They demonstrate that Wharton read Leaves of Grass actively; on page after page, one finds vertical lines next to passages Wharton seems to have particularly admired. Significantly, many of the passages she marked concern the body and sexuality: in “I Sing the Body Electric,” Wharton underlined the following verse: “The curious sympathy one feels when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body” (l. 158). In “Song of Myself,” she notes the famous first line of stanza 28: “Is this then a touch? Quivering me to a new identity” (l. 619). That Wharton annotated these passages, like many others, prompts us to question assumptions we might have about the author’s straitlaced conservatism. Wharton seems to have embraced the physicality Whitman celebrated in his poetry. Working in the archive can be a tactile experience, as we hold books in our hands and let our fingers linger over the pages; as I went through Leaves of Grass page by page,I received visceral evidence of Wharton’s material engagement with these poems.

Working through Wharton’s texts, I found many other compelling discoveries. Wharton owned two of the most important American texts produced about Whitman in the early twentieth century: Horace Traubel’s With Walt Whitman in Camden (1906; 1908) and Bliss Perry’s Walt Whitman: His Life and Work (1906). These two were annotated carefully. The passages Wharton marked suggested that she was engaged with Whitman’s persona, how he constructed himself as a celebrity, but also with the ambiguity of his identity: in one line she marked in Traubel’s book, she noted the poet’s observation that “I meet new Walt Whitmans every day. There are a dozen of me afloat. I don’t know which Walt Whitman I am.” Wharton too would become a celebrity sensitive to the many images of her circulated through popular culture, and perhaps she identified with Whitman, who actively worked to control his perception in the public eye.

So, “what did she really mean by that?” The lesson of the archives is that we’ll never really know. New pieces of evidence force us to revisit old ones; objects we find generate more questions than answers. After Lily Bart’s death in The House of Mirth (1905), Laurence Selden ruminates on the nature of evidence, wondering whether the letter he has found from Lily to Gus Trenor “explains the mystery [of her death] or deepens it.” The more we learn about Wharton’s reading–made possible by the library at The Mount and the dedicated archivist who maintains it—the deeper the mysteries of her creativity. My first visit to the library only deepened my curiosity about how and why Wharton was driven to create, and I hope that other visitors—scholars, students, and lifelong lovers of literature–will take advantage of this unparalleled opportunity to learn.

Meredith Goldsmith is an Associate Professor of English at Ursinus College, President of the Edith Wharton Society, and Editor of the Edith Wharton Review. Her scholarship on Wharton has appeared in modern fiction studies, American Literary Realism 1880-1920, and Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers.