This August I’m hosting a literary interview series at Edith Wharton’s country estate, the Mount, and as the date draws near I find myself wondering what the grande dame herself would think of such an enterprise. My hunch is she’d have mixed feelings.
When the novelist and her husband, Teddy, moved into their just-built mansion in Lenox, Massachusetts, in 1902, the locals wondered if Wharton would become the new Catharine Sedgwick, the best-known female novelist of the 1830s, who’d maintained a literary salon in town. The Berkshires had long been lousy with writers. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and William Cullen Bryant had lived in the area. The famous first meeting between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne took place in 1850 on nearby Monument Mountain; for the next two years, they lived 6 miles apart. After Hawthorne died in 1864, tourists flocked by the hundreds to the little red house where he’d written The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance. Maybe Wharton’s arrival would replenish the ranks?
Alas, salon-presiding was way too art-for-art’s-sake for this pragmatist. She considered art central to civilization, a virtue to be integrated into daily life, not handled with kid gloves and kept separate. And yet, the fact that she strove with her books to reach as wide a readership as possible indicates she might be at least grudgingly amenable to literary programming taking place on her property. In our era of disappearing libraries and bookstores, author appearances are a vital way to keep literature alive in the public eye. (Also, there is the more gauche matter of keeping alive the Mount itself, now that she’s no longer here to fund it.)
I’ve long admired the Mount as a rare instance of an “autobiographical house”: Wharton designed it herself, according to the architectural principles she set forth in her first published book, The Decoration of Houses, and closely oversaw its construction. Only now am I appreciating her gifts as a hostess. Wharton was a social woman, and it was here, far from the fashionable Newport resort scene she’d grown up with, that she was finally able to reject the highly regulated yet completely mindless fraternizing of her privileged class—endless afternoons spent “paying calls”; suffocating weeklong house parties requiring countless changes of dress and vapid dinner-table conversation—and entertain on her own terms.
Wharton wasn’t merely in pursuit of the so-called good life; she was out to master what she called “the complex art of civilized living,” an elegant balance of work, art, and leisure. She built her value system directly into the estate, which is something of a live-work space writ large. All through the summer and fall, she’d host a steady stream of houseguests without putting a dent in her own productivity.
“I need scarcely tell you that I am very happy here, surrounded by every loveliness of nature & every luxury of art & treated with a benevolence that brings tears to my eyes,” wrote the famously fastidious Henry James to a friend during a stay at the Mount in 1904. In another letter, he assures his correspondent, “You needn’t bring supplementary apples or candies in your dressing bag,” adding that the Whartons are “kindness and hospitality incarnate.”
Happily for American literature, sadly for those of you who own summer houses and we who visit, Wharton didn’t follow up her decorating guide with one on entertaining. And so, after consulting her biographies and interviewing Anne Schuyler, curator and house manager at the Mount, I’ve come up with my own: I’m calling it The Hosting of People. Wharton may have been born into the original 1 percent—it’s said her family inspired the idiom “keeping up with the Joneses”—but even those of us without the means to summer on her scale can mine great entertaining lessons and best practices from her approach. (I’m especially looking forward to channeling her genius for scheduling the next time I go in with friends on an Airbnb house rental.) I think I’ll use the following, said by her friend the printer Daniel Berkeley Updike (no relation to John, that I know of), for the blurb of my book:
“I do not remember any house where the hospitality was greater or more full of charm than at the Mount. As one thinks of it in retrospect, the word ‘civilised’ comes to one’s mind.”
The Hosting of People
Chapter 1: Police the Guest List
Only invite people you really like—otherwise there’s no point. By the time Wharton moved into the Mount, at age forty, she’d been dutifully playing society wife for 17 years. Finally, she was able to entertain whomever she wanted. She deepened her relationships with selected childhood friends, and made new ones in Lenox. As she came into her own as a novelist (her breakout book, The House of Mirth, was published in 1905), she made a point of spending as much time as possible with the many likeminded people she was meeting through her work, many of them editors, publishers, academics, and fellow writers like James, a frequent, favorite guest.