Gilded Age spaces, actual and imagined: Edith Wharton as a spatial activist and analyst

Renee Dara Somers, University of Rhode Island


This dissertation seeks to alter the reductive classification of Edith Wharton as “the upper class, Old New York, author of fiction” by re-imagining her place in American literature and culture. Viewing Wharton as a spatial activist accomplishes this task; she devoted much of her life to exploring the relationships that exist between people and their built environments. Wharton's spatial activism can be found in her interior design, her architecture, her landscape artistry and her life in general as much as they can be located in her literary texts. Her theories of space are practiced and materially executed, in addition to being expressed in her writing. ^ I explore Wharton's theories of space in Newport, Rhode Island during the Gilded Age because this was when the town was transformed from a rustic seaport to a playground for the fabulously wealthy. The built environment played a pivotal role as social, economic and personal conflicts were enacted among public and private spaces. Wharton stood squarely in the middle of these conflicts and directly participated in them. Chapter 1 surveys the complexity of Newport's cultural environment to explain how Wharton became interested in spatial semiotics. I focus on avenues, ballrooms, hotels and mansions to show that space was no longer space in Newport: it was politics. Chapter 2 traces Wharton's development as a theorist of space from her earliest childhood years to her later adult ones. Here, I discuss Wharton's architectural and interior design practices at her two Newport homes, Pencraig Cottage and Land's End. Chapter 3 examines two short stories, “Mrs. Manstey's View” and “The Lamp of Psyche,” to show Wharton's concerns with money, power, gender and space. Chapter 4 explores The Decoration of Houses and The Mount as texts that demonstrate Wharton's boldest effort to defy the boundaries that were imposed upon her. Chapter 5 situates The House of Mirth alongside three Newport narratives to show how that place was still on her mind. ^

Subject Area

Literature, American

Recommended Citation

Renee Dara Somers, "Gilded Age spaces, actual and imagined: Edith Wharton as a spatial activist and analyst" (2003). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI3103726.