A look at Edith Wharton's Lenox: Author Cornelia Brooke Gilder discusses her new book, how Lenox shaped Wharton's work

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PHOTO GALLERY | Cornelia Brooke Gilder

LENOX — In 1900, Edith Wharton settled into the Lenox social scene with her husband, Teddy Wharton. Over the next decade, Edith Wharton would build The Mount and become a best-selling author with the "House of Mirth." At the same time, Teddy Wharton's mental health was on the decline and couple's marriage was deteriorating.

In her new book, "Edith Wharton's Lenox," author Cornelia Brooke Gilder, of Tyringham, takes a look at how a decade of summers in Lenox helped shaped the author and her work. She recently sat down with The Eagle to talk about how the book came about:

Q. You've written several books about the Berkshires including "Houses of the Berkshires: 1870 - 1930" with Richard S. Jackson Jr. and "Hawthorne's Lenox: The Tanglewood Circle" with Julia Conklin Peters; what prompted "Edith Wharton's Lenox"?

A. I had years of research, just this culmination of years of material I began slowly sifting through. It's based on this series of Thursday afternoon conversations I would have with my invalid mother [Louisa Ludlow Brooke] and her friend, Julia Conklin Peters, in the 1990s. We had a system. I just knew these two old ladies, who knew each other their whole lives, who could work in tandem at jogging each other's memories and could tell me about a world that is not written down. They were both little girls born in 1909 and they were both interested in the stories adults were telling Edith Wharton closed this house in 1911 when they were babies. But they really did know the Lenox reaction, because they grew up with Teddy Wharton being a really pathetic old man tottering around Lenox when Edith had moved to Paris and had become a successful novelist. That sort of tells a different story than any of Edith Wharton's biographers.

Q. What makes "Edith Wharton's Lenox" different from other books and biographies written about her?

A. They're looking at Edith Wharton's life and I'm looking at bringing a context to describe this period of her life, which is really important because it was the threshold between becoming an architectural writer and sometimes-short-story-published author to being a leading novelist of the American literary world. The Lenox decade is so important to understand Edith Wharton.

Q. How would you describe Edith Wharton's Lenox? Was she part of that whole Gilded Age group as people assume?

A. First of all, she would have never used the term Gilded Age. That is a sort of modern term picking up on the Mark Twain book 'The Gilded Age.' They just thought they were people living their lives. Lenox, during this first decade of the 20th century, was probably at its peak of fashionable society as a summer and fall resort. But it had quite a long reputation and its reputation was built on this literary coterie of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Fanny Kemble. But new writers and artists were coming like Daniel Chester French and an intriguing guy, Thomas Shields Clarke. There were many people who were just rich families, but they most always had interesting angles: hobbies, interests, collections. There was a lot of interest in breeding farm animals — cattle, sheep. There was a lot of interest in model farming. So it attracted a different type of person than Newport, where you had access to the sea. Here you could buy substantial tracts of land and farm on an experimental level. But they were also extremely cosmopolitan. People were running to the Lenox Library to read books in French. They were multilingual and spent great sections of their time abroad.

Q. Do you think people will be surprised by how involved Edith Wharton was in the Lenox community?

A. It was true that the biographers have not been so interested in that side or have not had the time to go through the issues of Lenox life or Berkshire resort topics that I've spent time with, so it doesn't feature so much in other works. I hope they will be intrigued by the fact that she was interested in the French Reading Room in Lenox Dale and would hand on her French periodicals to it. I hope that people will be intrigued by the extent of her contacts with other members of Lenox's social colony. Because her husband knew them all, she had an entree right away. But they were all intrigued by who Teddy Wharton had married. She was obviously a dynamo even before she became a published author. People in Lenox liked dynamos until they saw themselves in print and then it becomes complicated.

Q. What do you hope people take away from this book?

A. I'm hoping all sorts of local people will see a new angle on Edith. I'm also hoping it has a bigger market with those people who are interested in Edith because it has little glimpses of her character and her interests that are way beyond the Berkshires. There's her interest in the humane society; her architectural interests and the ways of reading her works and connecting them with real people.


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