What a Library Means to a Woman

Edith Wharton and the Self-Made American Archive

Project Overview:

This book makes a claim for the centrality of libraries to the mythos of self-making in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century American culture, focusing on Edith Wharton as its primary case in point. When she died in 1937, Wharton left behind a library of nearly 5,000 books that included many rare collector’s editions and association copies. What became of the collection following her death, however, sheds light on turn-of-the-century anxieties about the death of the bibliophile. Wharton lived through an era of growth and change that saw the rise of the public library system in America, and her fiction furthermore permits us to contemplate the relationship between the practice of private collecting and the rise of the institutionalized hoard. This book tells the story of Wharton’s library, placing its rather remarkable narrative in conversation not just with Wharton scholarship but also with the wider fields of book history, archival studies, material and print culture, and histories – including pathologies – of collecting.