What a Library Means to a Woman

Edith Wharton and the Will to Collect Books

2020
Author:

Sheila Liming

What a Library Means to a Woman

Examining the personal library and the making of self

Sheila Liming explores the connection between libraries and self-making in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American culture, from the 1860s to the 1930s, focusing on Edith Wharton and her remarkable collection of books. She argues for a multifaceted understanding of authorship by linking Wharton’s literary persona to her library, which was, as she saw it, the site of her self-making.

A generous reassessment of Edith Wharton and materialized cultures. With this exceptional interpretation of the modern bookshelf, Sheila Liming offers page after page of unanticipated insight into gender and literary production. This is mandatory reading for those of us committed, like Wharton, to harboring ‘an ethos of collecting’—and for those of us, like this brave critic, committed to Wharton herself.

Scott Herring, Indiana University

When writer Edith Wharton died in 1937, without any children, her library of more than five thousand volumes was divided and subsequently sold. Decades later, it was reassembled and returned to The Mount, her historic Massachusetts estate. What a Library Means to a Woman examines personal libraries as technologies of self-creation in modern America, focusing on Wharton and her remarkable collection of books.

Sheila Liming explores the connection between libraries and self-making in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American culture, from the 1860s to the 1930s. She tells the story of Wharton’s library in concert with Wharton scholarship and treatises from this era concerning the wider fields of book history, material and print culture, and the histories (and pathologies) of collecting. Liming’s study blends literary and historical analysis while engaging with modern discussions about gender, inheritance, and hoarding. It offers a review of the many meanings of a library collection, while reading one specific collection in light of its owner’s literary celebrity.

What a Library Means to a Woman was born from Liming’s ongoing work digitizing the Wharton library collection. It ultimately argues for a multifaceted understanding of authorship by linking Wharton’s literary persona to her library, which was, as she saw it, the site of her self-making.
What a Library Means to a Woman

Sheila Liming is assistant professor of English at the University of North Dakota. She has contributed to The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, McSweeney’s, and the Chronicle Review..

What a Library Means to a Woman

A generous reassessment of Edith Wharton and materialized cultures. With this exceptional interpretation of the modern bookshelf, Sheila Liming offers page after page of unanticipated insight into gender and literary production. This is mandatory reading for those of us committed, like Wharton, to harboring ‘an ethos of collecting’—and for those of us, like this brave critic, committed to Wharton herself.

Scott Herring, Indiana University

This imaginative, deeply learned study illuminates the role of libraries and books for Edith Wharton, but it also provides an important examination of what the art of collecting books in the late nineteenth century tells us about how women writers and readers created networks of intellectual labor and ambition. Lyrically written and brilliantly argued, Sheila Liming’s study is also an indispensable meditation on the act of collecting and the unseen worlds ordinary and extraordinary readers and writers created through it.

Stephanie Foote, author of The Parvenu’s Plot: Gender, Culture, and Class in the Age of Realism

What a Library Means to a Woman

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction

1. The Library as Space: Self-Making and Social Endangerment in The Decoration of Houses and Summer

2. The Library as Hoard: Collecting and Canonicity in The House of Mirth and Eline Vere

3. The Library as Network: Affinity, Exchange, and the Makings of Authorship

4. The Library as Tomb: Monuments and Memorials in Wharton’s Short Fiction

Conclusion

Notes

Index