There’s a new book on display at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s estate in Lenox.
Technically, it’s a very old book – 99 years, to be exact.
Its appraised value is $12,500, but to its new owners, it’s priceless.
The book in question — 365 pages long and missing its jacket — is a first-edition, sixth-printing copy of Wharton’s novel “The Age of Innocence.” The story, about a love triangle in 1870s New York society, earned Wharton the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1921. A collector donated it to The Mount last month to help the estate celebrate the book’s centennial.
On the inside cover is Wharton’s own bookplate, the one she used in her library at her property in Southern France. On the opposite page is her autograph.
“This is a librarian’s dream,” Nynke Dorhout, The Mount’s librarian, said. “Her signature is so gorgeous.”
When she first saw the book in person, Dorhout said, “my heart stopped.”
Wharton — who wrote 40 books over 40 years and didn’t publish a novel until she was 40 years old — lived at The Mount for almost 10 years in the early 1900s, writing “The House of Mirth” and “Ethan Frome” there.
The property traded hands over time — it was a girls’ school and a theater space at one point. In 2002, the nonprofit Edith Wharton Restoration Inc., which now runs the property, had a grand reopening for visitors. Now tours take groups through Wharton’s bedroom where she wrote in bed, surrounded by her dogs, and through the spaces where she entertained literary friends such as Henry James. The property is also known for its gardens; Wharton was a skilled horticulturist and designer, and The Mount’s Italian and French gardens have made it a prime Berkshires destination, sometimes for weddings.
Scholars also visit to look through Wharton’s personal library. They’re especially interested in how she annotated books, and how other works might have influenced her own.
That’s why this copy is so important, Anne Schuyler, director of interpretation and visitor services, said. The Mount isn’t looking for the oldest books; the ones the writer owned herself are the “gist of our library.”
The Mount had already been planning a yearlong celebration of the anniversary of “The Age of Innocence,” one of Wharton’s most popular novels, which has been adapted for stage and screen, most notably by Martin Scorsese in 1993. The film starred Daniel Day-Lewis as New York lawyer Newland Archer, Winona Ryder as his society fiancee, and Michelle Pfeiffer as his love, the Countess Ellen Olenska.
The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, making Wharton the first woman to receive a Pulitzer, but it’s hard to say how much she valued the prize, the Mount staff is quick to point out. The honor was supposed to go to Sinclair Lewis for “Main Street,” but the Pulitzer board reversed the jury’s decision after some decided “The Age of Innocence” better supported American values. Wharton, though, had written the novel as social critique. She wrote to Lewis saying she was upset that the prize had been taken away from him. In one of her own later books, “Hudson River Bracketed,” she seems to mock the Pulitzers with a prize she names the “Pulsifer.”
The Mount’s staff will share stories like this at celebratory events. Their calendar includes a June 21 discussion, “In Conversation: 100 Years of Innocence” featuring Wharton scholars Arielle Zibrak and Sarah Blackwood and, on Aug. 28, an outdoor screening of Scorsese’s film.
The book’s journey to Wharton’s home is a circuitous one, which is no surprise to the staffers at The Mount. Old books tend to go on adventures, they say.
The story begins with a 1921 letter sent from Wharton to her sister-in-law and business manager. In the missive, Wharton thanks her sister-in-law for mailing her a sixth-printing copy of her novel, which includes revisions Wharton had made since the first run.
Wharton, who died in 1937, left her personal library to two people – William Tyler, who was the son of a friend, and her godson Colin Clark, who was 6 years old at the time. Tyler’s collection, believed to be made up mostly of Wharton’s books on architecture and art history, was destroyed when a London warehouse was bombed during World War II, but Clark’s books survived and wound up in the hands of antiquarian book dealers. One of those dealers sold most of Clark’s collection to The Mount in 2005.
But some books weren’t there, including this copy of “Innocence."
Wharton’s copy eventually wound up in the hands of businessman and book collector Norman D. Bassett, founder of the library supply company Demco. He put his own (very large) book plate in the volume under Wharton’s.
The Mount doesn’t know how the copy returned to the antiquarian market, but the man who eventually bought it was Dennis Kahn, a semi-retired New Jersey lawyer with a second home in the Berkshires. Kahn, whose sister-in-law is a George Orwell scholar, had found a new hobby — collecting old books. He’d become interested in Wharton and began hunting for her first editions.
“I started going to rare book shows. I got to know the dealers,” he said.
He found this book from dealer Sarah Baldwin, and figured out it was the copy sent to Wharton by her sister-in-law, the one Wharton mentioned in her own letter. He admits he was a little surprised that collector Bassett had placed his own book plate in the edition.
“It’s like me getting a first edition of Shakespeare and signing it,” he said, laughing. (The Mount staff also says Bassett’s book plate in this kind of edition is unusual.)
Kahn had planned to will it to The Mount, but with the anniversary, he and his wife, Andrea, decided to make the gift now. They did so on Wharton’s birthday, Jan. 24.
“It was a very happy occasion for me because I thought it had a lot more impact and value by giving it to the Mount. It had a lot more value to them, particularly emotional value.”
Susan Wissler, The Mount’s executive director, said she’d be thrilled if other collectors kept The Mount in mind when scouring sales for important books. On her Wharton wish list?
“Her first collection of published poetry,” Sue said. “Published by her parents, for friends.”
For those on the hunt, it’s called “Verses” and has a very simple cover. There weren’t many copies made, but they could be out there somewhere.
This story has been updated to correct the names of participants in one of the anniversary events at The Mount.
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