The Spirit of Edith Wharton on Long Island (or, how Edith Wharton almost stopped me from spreading salacious gossip)

by Andrew Rimby

My bedside table calendar, the continued presence of Wharton’s spirit

It was around 11:40am when I attempted to reopen my laptop so I could login to the Zoom that would open up the portal for me to discuss Walt Whitman’s influence on Edith Wharton’s poetics. But, the dreaded phrase “Working on Updates” popped up on my computer and the percentage slowly increased as I watched the clock inch closer to 12pm (the time when the lecture was to begin). I joined the Zoom on my cell phone and explained to Jeff Zeh, the Port Washington Library programming coordinator, that these updates should be finished soon and I would then access my Zoom on the laptop. Well, the stars were not aligned. Or Mercury’s retrograde was playing tricks on me. Or something even more mystical had occurred…

Wharton’s ghost had taken over my laptop!

Before I had closed my laptop, I read over all my Google slides and was quite proud of the erotically charged lens applied to Wharton’s prose and poetics. For example, one slide discloses an unpublished short story, “Beatrice Palmato” in which Wharton writes an explicit sex scene. I am obsessed with this slide, since, on the left, it includes Wharton at her writing desk, and on the right, a portrait of William Morton Fullerton, Wharton’s lover who was a well-known bisexual journalist and most likely inspired Wharton’s steamy poem “Terminus”.

But, Wharton’s affair was not the only incident that inspired her reflection on erotic poetics………………………

You guessed it! She was deeply inspired by her reading of Whitman’s poetry, specifically Leaves of Grass, which she began reading in 1898 after her friend Walter Van Rensselaer Berry gifted it to her. So, I was quite eager to open up my presentation and have the Port Washington Library immersed in all things Whitman and Wharton, and thought nothing of closing my laptop. But, when I tried to log in 20 minutes before the talk… the strangest thing happened. A large message blared on my screen “Checking For Updates” and then the dreaded “Working on Updates.” The percentage slowly started to climb up, and the clock hand quickly beckoned closer to 12 pm. Well, I had to login to the Zoom lecture somehow to at least let the organizer Jeff know that I was waiting and next to some form of technology. That’s when Wharton’s ghost didn’t stop me since I had my secret weapon… the Google Pixel phone! 

Oh yes, my phone had Zoom installed and that erotic PowerPoint was going to be opened. I knew that the scandalous, gossipy, steamy nature of Wharton’s unpublished erotic literature might be unexpected, but to have a visit from her ghost! Oh! it was like I had become Lily Bart in The House of Mirth and was now faced with how to avoid societal scandal.

But, I made it through the talk on my phone and thankfully Jeff had the slides all ready to be shared so maybe Wharton was just not up to 21st century technological prowess? Anyway, I did get to share the audio of the BBC’s dramatization of The House of Mirth on my phone so it all worked out in the end. 

Soon the YouTube video of my talk will be posted, but in the meantime, here’s a preview of what I discussed and of course my favorite slide images! 

Wharton’s “Long Secret Nights”: A Queer Gilded Age Inheritance 

The Gilded Age is bookended by the passing of two Long Island poets, William Cullen Bryant, in 1878, and Walt Whitman, in 1892, but, for one prolific writer, Edith Wharton, the Gilded Age sets the stage for the formation of her poetics and her identity as a professional writer. In this talk, I’ll explore Wharton’s infatuation with Whitman’s poetic voice and how it influenced her own writing. We’ll look at a selection of her texts that contain traces of Whitman’s openly homoerotic language and even direct allusions to him. Two literary questions that structure the talk include: How does a writer like  Wharton inherit a queer literary voice? And what happens when traditional definitions around the Gilded Age are countered by using a queer literary lens? 

(some of my favorite slides from my June 11th talk)

This Saturday, we’re bringing you an interview with Lev Raphael, and oh, how excited we are! Erika joins me as a guest co-host! Lev has two books in particular that speak to Whartonian themes: Rosedale in Love and The Edith Wharton Murders.

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