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Edith Wharton's New York is an Open Book at Society Library

By Amy Zimmer | March 8, 2012 8:31am
Edith Wharton in New York City, 1884.
Edith Wharton in New York City, 1884.
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The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana

MANHATTAN — As literary lovers across the city celebrate the 150th anniversary of Edith Wharton’s birth, the city’s oldest library is joining the festivities with an intimate look at the famous author and the ties her family had to the nearly 300-year-old institution.

Wharton’s father, George Frederic Jones, was a shareholder and member at the New York Society Library. Her cousin and co-executor of her will, Frederic Rhinelander King, was a trustee and chairman of the board. 

The library conducted research into ledgers revealing the books that Wharton’s father borrowed and tapped King’s family for never-before exhibited family portraits and letters from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist to King for its show, "Edith Wharton’s New York City: A Backward Glance."

The show opens March 15 and runs through December 31. 

The library is also displaying first editions from its collection of Wharton’s famous books, “The House of Mirth,” from 1905, and “The Age of Innocence,” from 1920. The Mount, the museum run at Wharton's estate in Massachusetts, is lending books the author read as a child, including the bible Wharton read at night.

"When you see this beautiful book and the others, it’s a very direct connection to the person you’re trying to understand," said Harriet Shapiro, the show’s curator. "This was an interesting world, and the Joneses had been part of the New York Society library for generations. It means a great deal to us to bring this to the public, and we’ve had the good fortune to find material that’s rare."

Born Edith Newbold Jones on Jan. 24, 1862, Wharton was part of a prominent New York clan whose wealth and social standing inspired the expression, "Keeping up with the Joneses." During the mid-19th century, when her father was involved with the library, the collection was on University Place in Greenwich Village. He would walk there from the family’s home where Wharton was born just off Fifth Avenue at 14 West 23rd St., Shapiro said.

"That’s where the center of New York City was at the time," said Shapiro, noting that the library moved to its current Upper East Side location at 59 E. 79th St. in 1937, the year that Wharton died in France.

Wharton’s father borrowed books in French by Gustave Flaubert and others, since the family read French. He was an avid reader of poetry and also borrowed many "modern novels," Shapiro said.

Though there’s no way of knowing who read these books, Shapiro noted, "His wife, Lucretia, loved modern novels, but she didn’t allow her daughter to read them. She was very strict."

Wharton was not a member of the library when she was growing up in New York because it was not appropriate for a young woman in her circle, Shapiro said. She was, however, a copious reader in her father’s library.

"It was a world limited by decorum and etiquette and class consciousness that controlled daily life," Shapiro said. "It created the pearl and oyster shell and grit of daily experience that really shaped her writing in her books, like ‘The House of Mirth’ and ‘The Age of Innocence.'"

The gilded social world amid the old New York brownstones and its intercontinental heiresses captured by Wharton — and now in the spotlight with the popular television show, "Downton Abbey," which features an American among the British aristocracy — is long gone. It was disappearing during the writer’s lifetime, but Shapiro wondered what Wharton would have thought of the world of today with people walking around in shorts and earbuds for their iPods.

"Her world was so structured," Shapiro said. "Everything has changed, but the beauty of her fiction and the passion it evokes remain."