The Architectural Imagination of Edith Wharton: Gender, Class, and Power in the Progressive Era
Annette Benert

About the Author :
Annette Larson Benert became intrigued by Edith Wharton and American architecture some twenty years ago in seminars on American urban culture. In the following years, architectural rambles in Europe and the U.S. have generated hundreds of slides for literature courses and the library at DeSales University, where she teaches American and British literature, women’s studies, film studies, and Africana studies. Her most recent articles have appeared in Arizona Quarterly, Studies in the Novel, Twentieth-Century Literature, and Edith Wharton Review. In 1988, when her two children were off to college or other adventures, she bought a small house on a sunny lot in Bethlehem and became an ardent gardener. She is also an active Quaker, feminist, and choral singer.

Recent movies, books, even news pieces have returned Edith Wharton to prominence as a major American novelist. However, few readers have taken her architectural work as seriously as she herself did, or noticed its profound effect on her career. The purpose of this book is to track Wharton’s architectural and literary achievements in tandem so as to reveal their complex relationship. Like her writing career, the book begins and ends in her fierce attachment to traditional values, moves from her early delight to Italy to her midlife despair for France, and centers in the brilliantly crafted structures and spaces of the early New York novels.

This pattern illustrates that Wharton’s treatment of the built environment is the more compelling in that it was complex, and even contradictory. Her architecture and travel books, like the letters throughout her life, most of which remain unpublished, celebrate the aesthetic values of the privileged classes, embodied in houses, public buildings, even streets. However, the early fiction graphically portrays both the dehumanizing spaces that the poor inhabit and the source of those structures in the hierarchies maintained and enforced by the wealthy.

It is the thesis of this book that Wharton’s best work embodies this tension, the beauty and grace of elegant houses and public spaces, juxtaposed to their powerful effects on those with little access to them or little control of physical spaces at all. The early novels showcase her impatience with her native country, the pretensions of the newly prosperous, the ineffectuality of the old families, and a nature romanticism that reified class and gender privilege. In her last two decades, however, streets and houses are no longer the protagonists of social forces but simply the expressions of her disdain. Hard stone and hard wit, both, are gone, as though casualties of the Great War, leaving Edith Wharton stranded with language alone, and a kind passion, cultivating her gardens.

As the book’s title suggests, Wharton’s work also embodies many of the ideals, challenges, and contradictions of the Progressive Era. American ambition for a visibly world-class status, concerns for the poor and the immigrant, pride in democracy and opportunity, plunges into terrified nativism—all appear in Wharton’s early work. Contemporary concerns about the environment, built and natural alike, and about antipathies between class and ethnic groups, give new importance to her wise and potent insights. In attending to her imaginative uses of private houses, public buildings, and urban spaces, Wharton’s readers can feel renewed appreciation of her brilliant images and evocative language. This book illustrates how much we have yet to love about, and learn from, this complex, contradictory, and challenging ancestor.

ISBN 0-8386-4106-7, $52.50

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