So you want to write a letter to Edith Wharton

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Figure 1. EW was as poised in her letters as she is in this photograph.

After reading so many letters to as well as from Edith Wharton last month at the Beinecke Library, I had a few thoughts, not all of them reverential, on writing letters to Edith Wharton.

First of all, her letters are a joy to read because her command of the language is–can I say perfect? Even if you can’t make out a word at first, you know that the sentence is grammatical and that the defect lies in your ability to read her handwriting, not in the letter itself. This is immensely helpful in deciphering the letter and also an inspiration to the rest of us, who’ll then resolve to write more gracefully.

But suppose that you’re one of her contemporaries, and you want to write a letter to her. What then?

With apologies to Wharton scholars for the hasty generalizations below, here are a few tips:

  1. If you’re a close friend or family member, you’ll know the right tone to take, and the exchange will be friendly, funny, and great to read.
  2. If you’re an editor with whom she has a good professional relationship, such as Edward Burlingame or Rutger Jewett, you can expect friendly and witty letters as well as the immemorial authorial complaints about sales and advertising and the number of periods to use in an ellipsis.  Let’s just say that Mrs. Wharton and common sense do not agree with current recommendations from the Modern Language Association.
  3. orangeine

    Figure 2. Lily Bart might have been marginally safer with Orangeine than chloral hydrate, although it, too, could be deadly.

    If you’re a random fan, she might keep your letter, as she did the one from the president of the Orangeine Company, who was delighted to see her mention the product in The House of Mirth and in effect offered her an endorsement deal, if I remember correctly. Needless to say, she didn’t comply.

  4. If you’re trying to get her to address your book club, autograph a copy of a book, give her an award (except the Pulitzer Prize), give you a few pithy words explaining her literary philosophy, or any of the other requests that famous authors must get by the thousands, the answer is no.  You might get a frosty but polite letter back from her secretary, roughly as follows: “Mrs. Wharton never speaks in public,” “Mrs. Wharton has made it a rule to reserve autographs for her close friends,” or  “Mrs. Wharton appreciates the honor but is unable to attend,” etc.
  5. If you’re a member of a literary rights agency such as Curtis Brown, most of the time you will have to address your correspondence directly to “Mrs. Wharton,” but all the letters you receive will be from her secretary and will begin “Mrs. Wharton begs me to remind you” or another such phrase. In other words, you have to talk directly to her, but she responds through a secretary–which, if you think about it, makes sense given the constraints on her time. Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 8.59.41 AM
  6. If an underling or someone unfamiliar with Wharton slips and addresses her as “Miss Wharton”–you will certainly hear about it, and not in a good way.

The peak “letter to Wharton” experience may be this one, which is at the Lilly Library. It’s  a form letter written to EW from GLOBE: THE INTERNATIONAL MAGAZINE, dated Aug. 6, 1936. It begins “Dear Miss Wharton: Will you write for us?” and asks her to write a short, “intimate” piece for the magazine.  It concludes, “We hope you will go to bat for us. … the deadline was yesterday.”

I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when Mrs. Wharton read this one.

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