Lenox — I spent time in Edith Wharton’s turn-of-the-century drawing room on Monday morning — 119 years since the American novelist had been in residence at the Mount — conversing with three powerful and inspiring contemporary women whose voices currently permeate the literary world. Sue Miller, Patricia Park and Dayna Tortorici are this year’s Edith Wharton Writers-in-Residence; the three finalists were selected from a pool of over 70 applications. Our lively conversation ran the gamut from the challenges Wharton faced — namely being discouraged from achieving anything beyond marriage and subsequently being overshadowed by her male contemporaries when she did emerge as a writer — to the life experience a reader ultimately brings to a piece of literature, and whether or not this “learning curve” tapers off at some point. Ultimately, we agreed that Wharton commands supreme among the writers of her day, even if this distinction took 100 years (“The Age of Innocence” was published in 1920) to be fully realized by readers, scholars and critics alike. “We are very pleased to be able to promote and support creative writing, with a particular focus on women,” said Susan Wissler, executive director of the Mount. “The challenges that Wharton faced as a female writer still occur today, so we are happy to be a champion of female writers.” While the extended conversation, “Writers in the House,” has been cancelled, settle in here for an insightful look at how contemporary writers are looking at and responding to Edith Wharton’s legacy.
Hannah Van Sickle: What was your first exposure to Wharton and what struck you about her work?
Sue Miller: “For me, it was high school, with “Ethan Frome,” an often-required text [that] I really detested. It wasn’t until much later, as an adult, that I read “House of Mirth” and then “The Age of Innocence.” I was not inclined toward [Wharton] because of that first experience in high school. And I think [my teachers] didn’t teach it very well.”
Patricia Park: “My first experience was with “The Age of Innocence” in high school as well. I am from Queens and I went to high school in the Bronx, and to read this work about New York society opened my eyes. It’s about a particular class of society and, for me, I was traversing [a path from Queens, about which Wharton writes] known as an immigrant, blue-collar series of communities, and I had to cut through Manhattan every day on my four-hour [round-trip] commute. I would think about these neighborhoods — when I would stop in Washington Square — and how Edith Wharton and her milieu would commune. [Wharton has a line about grocers], my family are grocers, and I really connected with this picture: We both were native New Yorkers, but we had such different versions of New York. To me that was very illuminating.”
Dayna Tortorici: “My first exposure to Wharton was also in high school — “The Age of Innocence.” It’s kind of amazing to fathom this now, but I was in an honors course for English — a two-year course during junior and senior year — and Edith Wharton was the only female novelist we read. I was impressed by it right away, because she was an ‘exceptional woman’ to be included in this canon. I think Edith Wharton is the kind of novelist you come to appreciate more as you are a bit older — just as the life of regret and restraint, and having to live within the dictates of society, those tensions are not immediately apparent to a 17-year-old. I loved Wharton right away.”
HVS: How has Wharton proved inspirational for you?
SM: “Just the notion of her being a woman — I did not read many [female authors] at all [in college] — which I find remarkable and astonishing. I read Henry James and others of the era, but [Wharton] was really neglected. Some of it is this sense of coming to her, and being grateful for her. I had to defend her at the Boston Public Library, they had a [Hundred-Year Retroactive Book Award of 1919], and I was arguing for [“House of Mirth”]; that was a great treat, to mount a defense of Edith Wharton, and it really made me read it much more thoroughly and carefully than I probably would have otherwise. That enriched my sense of her, as well as the complexity and deliciousness of her writing.”
PP: “We talk a lot about diversity in books now, and I was trying to situate Wharton’s work in her day and the sheer range of the kind of writing that she does. There were lines from “House of Mirth” that stayed with me as each kind of genre of New Yorker, or character, tried to ascend. [Wharton] shows that diversity of class — who is allowed in, and who is not — and her customs surrounding privilege in the same geographical landscape that I write about, that’s always stayed with me.”
DT: “The mere fact of her existence is inspirational — once there is a model, you don’t have to work as hard as [Wharton] did to clear a path. One thing I find inspiring about Edith Wharton is she is an incredible social critic with the vantage point of an incredibly privileged but nevertheless subjugated woman in this period where coming out of the Victorian era, even incredibly privileged women are shut out of public life as soon as they are married. So [in] a novel like “The Custom of the Country,” she still uses what is an incredible story to introduce her theories and theses and social critiques — as well as her interest in sociology and anthropology — [about] the way the structure of marriage and society leads not only to the stunting and stifling of women’s subjectivity, but you also see the way that the sexes in heterosexual relationships sort of destroy each other. And I think that what’s inspiring about that is you don’t need to leave the realm of the domestic to make an incredibly powerful social critique–something that, decades later, second-wave feminists will argue the personal is political. Without at all being a didactic, soapbox feminist, her novels demonstrate that there’s a lot of material that can be mined there for literature. The fact that she can take a very superficially narrow subject–such as the lives of these relatively well-off people–and make an argument about the structuring of American society is amazing.”
SM: I’m in the sewing room, a cheerful space at one end of the front of the house, so I have windows on two sides of the room. To the front, I look out over the sweeping lawn to the beaver pond, and beyond that, to the lake — to the side: woods. I’m up and walking around the room a good deal, so I’m appreciative of these vistas.
HVS: How has being in residence at the Mount influenced your writing, either in content or process? And in which space have you been working?
SM: On my first day when I opened the windows, a door started banging somewhere. I checked all the doors in my room and then went exploring, only to find, through a door in the Henry James room, another door, which opened into a beautiful bathroom, fallen into disuse. There was yet another door inside that bathroom that wouldn’t shut all the way. I thought that was the bad door, and Earl came and stuck a shim under it for me.
The next day I opened the window again, and lo! and behold — or listen, anyway — a door started banging somewhere. This time I was more attentive to the way the walls related to the spaces beyond the room, and found it: another “hidden” door, this time in the hall. It was meant to visually disappear — painted the same lovely color as the walls, with no trim around it. It tapped lightly when I pushed it. Aha! I removed the useless shim from the other mystery door and slid it under this mystery door. Then opened all the windows in my room. Silence.
All this seems to me a useful metaphor for the writing of fiction — the wish to present a compelling surface, satisfying in itself to a reader; but which contains mysteries and meanings you find only if you look beyond that surface.
Thank you, Edith.
PP: I’m writing from Edith Wharton’s bedroom during the residency. I can’t believe this is where she used to write in bed in the mornings, flinging her pages to the floor! I’m more of a desk-and-chair kind of writer.
So far I’ve been working on two characters in my novel, who fall in love despite differences in class, race, and circumstances. (Spoiler alert: it’s doomed.) For inspiration, I’m revisiting scenes from “The Age of Innocence” between Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska, who similarly embark on an impossible emotional affair. Wharton is the doyenne of the romance that could never be, and working from her home at the Mount is huge for me.”
HVS: It’s been more than a century since Edith Wharton was in residence here; in your experience, what challenges remain for women in the creative world?
SM: “I am characterized as a domestic writer, and I think that is still seen as a lesser topic to take up. That divide still exists. There are the more ambitious women who write of other things — it isn’t that I haven’t been successful, [more that ] there is a certain critical group that really isn’t interested in reading about domestic issues, family, and so forth. I do think the donnée is there; that’s what I have, and that is what I am interested in doing. I have certainly explored the way families and groups of people within families interact with cultural issues widely in the world, but I still am mostly interested in character and the way we impact each other. And I think that is [seen] as a less critically interesting way of writing for many critics.
PP: There [remain] a lot of questions about the likability of characters, particularly female protagonists of female novelists; when you think about Wharton’s oeuvre, some of her female characters make decisions that might be frowned upon by society. In thinking about this residency and rereading some of her works, I took inspiration from that fact that Wharton did this 100 years ago! When I read reviews of [my first novel], our female characters are held to a higher moral standard. We owe a great debt to Wharton for furthering the complexity of female characters so they are not just these black-and-white dichotomies. That challenge still remains 100-plus years later: Why isn’t the domestic space regarded in the same light? Why do writers like [Jonathan] Franzen and [Jeffrey] Eugenides get to write the domestic novel and are considered literary greats, and females writing about that same space are somehow marginalized?”
DT: In addition to being a writer, I edit books and a literary magazine, [and] I get to see a little of both sides of the professional interaction of writers and editors. I think that women who have children, who have families, who take on the lion’s share of the domestic responsibility, still struggle to make time for themselves as artists and writers and feel guiltier about being “selfish” about their own creative practice. I think that alone is still a struggle for a lot of women. In the past five or six years, I have seen more writers talk about motherhood and writing; there remains a deep psychological struggle for women to take up space and take themselves seriously. [As an editor] I would say, as a rule, I [am] pitched more by men [and] when I reject men’s pitches because it wasn’t the right piece, they are less hesitant to come at me with another pitch. [I have found] women need more encouragement, and I even felt that way as a writer. I found myself not going after opportunities as much; there was this sort of perfectionism that made the rejection feel higher-stakes. And I think that starts in women and girls really young … I think that kind of confidence to strike out, and possibly to fail, is something that women are still figuring out how to do — not through any fault of their own. Our culture encourages their reticence at every turn.
HVS: Wharton’s house is currently full of women, and yesterday was International Women’s Day; what advice do you have for contemporary women pursuing a career in writing?
SM: “This is very personal, but I feel very lucky that I was a single mom for a long time — and I have had a lot of other jobs — but I was always writing. I didn’t publish [a novel] until I was 46. One of the things that made that possible for me is that I wasn’t thinking in careerist terms — when I would get published — I just thought I would always write. And then I began to feel that what I was writing, someone else should be reading. And so I started to think about getting published, but it took me a long time. That gave me space and time to get as good as I wanted to be before anyone looked at anything. And it was an advantage, for me, not to look at it as a career but a thing I loved doing — period. And to let [getting published] be secondary to your own sense of deep accomplishment.
PP: What I would say to any aspiring writer is to find that story that you have to tell before you die — if you were to die tomorrow, that you’d want to get out there — and do all you can to learn the craft, to figure out the best way to tell that story, and then worry about the other things after. Get that story down and out there — the one you are dying to tell because only you can tell it.
DT: I would encourage [young women] to read their predecessors. One of the ways that women derive self-value is through being told they are not like other women, and it’s actually incredibly liberating — and takes a lot of pressure off the individual to be an exceptional woman — when you realize there have always been women doing this. You have Afra Behn, you have Jane Austen inventing free and direct discourse; there are just so many writers you can go back and discover, and Wharton is one of them. Learn that history. It turns out you have more to gain than to lose by learning that you are not going to be the first female genius on Earth. But I would also say you belong here; don’t forget that you belong here. Don’t feel like an intruder or an imposter; women have been here the whole time. And even if their legacy is constantly erased … they are there. You have a tradition; draw strength from that.”