A Modern Stroll Through Edith Wharton's New York
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Who was Edith Wharton?
When it comes to fashionable, turn-of-the-century New York Society, nobody captured it better than American-born classic novelist Edith Wharton.
Wharton wrote from experience; born, raised, and married into the elite New York society, she is known for constructing novels both critical and nostalgic, delving into the often arbitrary rules of society through characters that either break them or conform to them. Often, they do both.
Edith Wharton lived through a time that saw some of the greatest technological and societal changes in the history of the US. She was also incredibly well-traveled for her time, so these two elements combined allowed her a unique opportunity to reflect on the rules of the old order from the perspective of the new.
From her autobiography, A Backward Glance (which is an absolutely wonderful read and sadly underrated), she writes:
"That I was born into a world in which telephones, motors, electric light, central heating (except by hot-air furnaces), X-rays, cinemas, radium, aeroplanes and wireless telegraphy were not only unknown but still mostly unforeseen, may seem the most striking difference between then and now; but the really vital change is that, in my youth, the Americans of the original States, who in moments of crisis still shaped the national point of view, were the heirs of an old tradition of European culture which the country has now totally rejected... its smallest fragments begin to be worth collecting and putting together before the last of those who knew the live structure are swept away with it."
Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence
I've read quite a few Edith Wharton works in the last year and have gained an even deeper appreciation for her wit, intelligence, and piercing observations.
Among these is one of her most famous works, The Age of Innocence. This novel tells the story of Newland Archer, a "gentleman lawyer" of the highest New York society, who is preparing to wed his love, May Welland, thus expanding and cementing the two families into one great American dynasty. May is the absolute picture of the ideal Victorian female: virtuous, beautiful, and well-educated in the art of being a society lady. While Newland admires and loves her for these qualities, he also wishes to make her more worldly, well-read, and adventurous. He's a man of two minds with the proverbial cake he wishes to both have and eat.
Enter, May's cousin, the Countess Olenska, who has come back to New York after fleeing a disastrous marriage to a European Count. She is all the things May is not, and Newland becomes quickly intrigued by her disregard of the rules of society that have so dictated his own behavior.
Newland must decide: does he continue with what is expected of him and make a good match to the beautiful and devoted May, or does he defy society and live the free and unencumbered life of which he dreams, symbolized by the enigmatic Countess?
The Age of Innocence earned Edith Wharton a Pulitzer Prize, making her the first woman to receive the prestigious award.
A Tour of Edith Wharton's New York
Edith Wharton was born on January 24th, 1862, so this Sunday will be her 159th birthday. In honor of the occasion, I've collaborated with Bethany from BethanyLooi.com, who currently resides in New York City, to take you on a literary tour of Edith Wharton's New York, this time taking you to several of the New York City sites that set the backdrop of The Age of Innocence.
All photos of New York are courtesy of Bethany.
It's worth noting that having grown up primarily traveling Europe, Wharton thought New York City as ugly as could be:
"One of the most depressing impressions of my childhood is my recollection of the intolerable ugliness of New York, of its untended streets and the narrow houses so lacking in external dignity, so crammed with smug and suffocating upholstery. How could I understand that people who had seen Rome and Seville, Paris and London, could come back to live contentedly between Washington Square and the Central Park?
Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance
Clearly, Wharton doesn't pull any punches when it comes to her disdain of the New York City aesthetic. She also goes on to claim it is "hide-bound in its deadly uniformity of mean ugliness." Ouch.
I wonder if she would be pleased or further disappointed in the New York City of today, which is very unlike the city as she knew it.
Here's what Bethany has to say:
I just love the way Wharton describes life in New York City in the 19th century. While reading, I couldn’t help but picture those locations in my head and realize this is where Wharton also imagined her characters walking and living!
I didn’t intend to initially before reading, but after loving the book so much (highly recommended if you haven’t read it yet!) I set out to see those locations for myself and snapped a few photos so you too could come on the tour.
Unfortunately, a few of the locations don’t exist anymore, and some are just general street names, but I did my best to explore and find what I felt would be the closest to what Wharton described.
Here are 6 locations you can visit in New York City that are mentioned in The Age of Innocence.
1. Academy of Music New York
In the opening scene of the The Age of Innocence, the characters are found watching an opera at the Academy of Music New York. This was a real opera house in Manhattan, but unfortunately was demolished, and now the Consolidated Edison Building sits at its former location on East 14th Street and Irving Place.
The building takes up almost a whole block, so I took this shot from 15th Street and Irving Place.
2. University Place & Lower Fifth Ave
In Chapter 4, Archer visits Mrs. Manson Mingott. It’s mentioned that she doesn’t live in the area where most families in their set live. Wharton writes that the house is “though not, of course, as venerable as certain other old family houses in University Place and lower Fifth Avenue.”
University Place and lower Fifth Avenue is the area by Washington Square Park. I walked along University Place looking for some houses that could potentially be one of those old family houses.
Constance's side-note: if you do find yourself strolling here, you may as well pop in and try Amorino Gelato, which is delicious.
3. East Thirty-Ninth Street
In chapter 9, Archer wonders what May’s drawing room would look like: “He knew that Mr. Welland, who was behaving 'very handsomely,' already had his eye on a newly built house in East Thirty-ninth Street."
I set out to look for what Archer’s house may have looked like by walking along the E 39th Street from Fifth Ave to 1st Ave and found one facade that could’ve been his home.
Wharton also mentions, “The neighborhood was thought remote,” and it was, considering you’d have to walk about 2 miles from Washington Square Park to around E 39th St. But what mattered to Archer was that "the plumbing was perfect."
4. Grace Church
A pivotal point in the story in chapter 19 starts at Grace Church. “Archer, at a signal from the sexton, had come out of the vestry and placed himself with his best man on the chancel step of Grace Church.” (as for the bride, you'll have to read and find out for yourself)
This is one location I know for sure is the exact spot Wharton had in mind when she wrote the book. It’s located less than half a mile away from Washington Square Park.
Don’t forget to walk around the entire block to get a good look at the church from all angles.
5. Union Square
In chapter 28, May drops Archer off at Union Square in her brougham (a horse drawn carriage): “May’s brougham awaited her at the door, and she was to drive Archer to Union Square, where he could pick up a Broadway car to carry him to the office.”
This is another location that although probably looks very different than in Wharton’s time, is still there, and I can imagine was also a busy part of the city as it is today, just with horses instead of cars.
6. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
One of the most memorable scenes in the book takes place in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in chapter 31, where Newland and Countess Olenska plan to meet.
"Somewhere we can be alone," he insisted.
She gave a faint laugh that grated on him.
"In New York? But there are no churches... no monuments."
“There’s the Art Museum - in the Park,” he explained, as she looked puzzled. “At half-past two. I shall be at the door…”
When Archer gets there, he prophetically says of the Met: "Some day, I suppose, it will be a great museum."
It’s mentioned that the pair wandered down a passage to the room where the 'Cesnola antiquities' mouldered in unvisited loneliness.” I searched for if there was a Cesnola collection at the MET currently and found out there is. It’s where the MET holds their Cypriot artifacts. I ventured to the collection and found a glass case, which I could imagine Archer looking at.
“Presently he rose and approached the case before which she stood. Its glass shelves were crowded with small broken objects - hardly recognizable domestic utensils, ornaments and personal trifles - made of glass, of clay, of discolored bronze and other time-blurred substances.
'It seems cruel,' she said, 'that after a while nothing matters... any more than these little things.'"
Have you ever scoped out any literary locations in New York City?
Pin this now to reference the next time you're in New York and want to find some really cool literary sites.