Image: Winslow Homer, Long Beach New Jersey, 1869, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
At Books@Work, we look for the spark that happens when faculty expertise meets participant experience. In this post, we try to capture some of that dynamic, sharing reflections from both a professor and participants. We begin with Hiram College Art History Professor Lisa Safford’s summary of her approach to a seminar on Edith Wharton’s (1862-1937) Age of Innocence (1920), which she taught at Cardinal Health in Solon, Ohio. Participant responses are shared below.
I began by introducing the author and her life story. As the daughter of New York’s elite, Wharton brings an informed eye to the City’s upper crust of the 1870s. We talked about what it is like to write about an earlier time period – the equivalent of writing about the 1960s today, but without the benefit of the film camera. Instead, art and material culture can help the 1870s “come to life” for readers.
We used photos, prints, journal illustrations of the period to try to understand the 1870s from the vantage point of 1920, the year in which Wharton published The Age of Innocence. By 1920, there were new things never imagined in 1870 –automobiles, airplanes, telephones and electricity, all in their infancy. Women had just won the right to vote after seventy years of struggle, and a world war and Spanish flu had massacred tens of millions of people world-wide. The quaint realm of upper-crust New York City and its mores in the immediate post-Civil War era must have seemed like a long ago dream.
As an art historian, I used material culture to visualize the seemingly innocent age Wharton recalled, focused on four themes:
- The class-segregated geography of New York City (imagine that Manhattan north of 42nd St. was mostly farm land)
- The “Robber Barons” (John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt and their descendants, among others) who were prototypes for some of Wharton’s characters
- Evolving gender relations in the post-Civil War era
- The impact of the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era and World War I on Wharton’s writing
Let me share with you some of the images we examined as a group. Image 1 below shows Wharton as a young woman, dressed in the latest fashion, perhaps imported from Paris, as May Welland’s clothes were in the novel. The clothing speaks to what I believe was a concerted effort by designers to immobilize elite women and render them as still-life objects rather than engaged humans on an equal footing with men. The impossibly tight corsets and massive rear bustles (steel ribbed versions of which were patented in 1870), forced women to recline, rather than sit, rendered movement arduous (fainting spells were common), and kept carriage riding to a minimum. Thus, elite women were largely confined to the home. Portraits of women in this garb were quite common in the late nineteenth century, as shown in Image 2 below, a painting by John Singer Sargent (1852-1925), appearing in the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown.
We used the costumes of class and gender as a segue to the physical geography of class in New York City in the 1870s. The city of Wharton’s youth was an isolated island, with no bridges, only ferries to connect to the outside, as shown in Image 3 below – a historic map of New York City from 1865. No more than 400 elites controlled New York, building colossal mansions on Fifth Avenue, and rarely venturing to the lower island districts where the poor lived. The Vanderbilts’ mansions are shown in Image 4.
Elites maintained a clearly gendered sense of space, championing Victorian ideals of domesticity even as new labor realities and political movements challenged these conceptions. Images 5 and 6 below illustrate the growing anxiety at the rising political influence and initiative of women, who not only demanded the vote, but in 1873 formed the Women’s Temperance Union to control men’s ill conduct induced by liquor consumption. In The Discord (1865), the question of who wears the pants is explicit, while in The Age of Iron: Man as He Expects to Be (1869) the answer is made painfully evident. In this alarmist masculine dystopia, women occupy the public sphere while the men do housework.
Wharton wrote a subtle, but very rich tale of love, lust, duty, reputation, internal conflict, choice, limitations and resignation. Along the way, she paints a vividly detailed picture – with sardonic wit and tender nostalgia – of the life and times of the era of her youth. As we discussed the story Wharton tells, I used images to guide readers toward the poignancy of Wharton’s writing within the context of the times in which she lived.
The Books@Work participants deeply valued the way Lisa “made the class interesting by having photos and incorporating what she knows of art history.” This approach facilitated an open discussion about the text, one that left many of the participants surprised. One participant put it this way: “I didn’t think I was going to enjoy it as much as I did. Lisa took a very different approach, because of her background being an art history professor, so she was able to delve into some of the history of New York and I found that fascinating.”