On visiting the Scribner Archives and being locked in a graveyard with Aaron Burr

houseofmirthThe Charles Scribner Archives at the Princeton University Library are a rich source for anyone doing research on Edith Wharton. They’re a rich source for research on other authors, too, for that matter, but I was there for Wharton and the edition of The House of Mirth I’m preparing for the Complete Works of Edith Wharton (CWEWh).

Charles Scribner’s Sons was Edith Wharton’s publisher at the start of her career, and she remained with the publishing house for many years until she moved to Appleton with The Reef, a break that was more like a breakup. As Hermione Lee describes it:

Charles Scribner never quite got over the divorce, and in 1921, still hoping to capture future novels,” he wrote sadly: “The loss of your books was the greatest blow ever given to my pride as publisher.”

Scribner’s published The Valley of Decision and The Joy of Living (1902),Wharton’s translation of Hermann Sudermann’s Es Lebe Das Leben, a 5-act drama.joyofliving, which sports a grayish-green cover unlike the familiar red binding used for most of her books.  Wharton supervised every aspect of the publishing process with great attention, and, when she finally moved to Appleton and they mimicked the familiar red Scribner’s binding for The Reef and Summer. 

 

Back to the archive: The correspondence between Wharton and various people at Scribner’s is voluminous, charming, witty, and businesslike. There are restrictions on photography in terms of number (no more than 10% of any folder, box, or collection) and use, however, and every image must be approved by a librarian before you take the picture, so I can’t reproduce anything here. Here’s a link to the finding aid, and you are sure to find something you need to see: https://rbsc.princeton.edu/collections/archives-charles-scribner%E2%80%99s-sons2018-07-27 18.37.48-1

How does Aaron Burr enter into this narrative? Well, Burr went to Princeton, which his father, Aaron Burr, Senior, had founded (as The College of New Jersey) and of which his maternal grandfather, the famous preacher Jonathan Edwards, had assumed the presidency when the senior Burr died when Aaron Burr was two years old.  I figured that Burr was probably buried in the Princeton cemetery, a short walk from the campus.

When my CWEWh colleague Carol Singley and I walked all around the cemetery after a day in the archives, however, we couldn’t find a way in. The graveyard is surrounded by a fence of iron spikes, and all the gates we saw were locked. We figured out which was Burr’s grave and left it at that.

2018-07-27 16.44.06-1The next day, I returned,  found an open gate, and went to the grave. It’s the white stone in front of the graves of his father (right) and grandfather (left).

A light rain had started to fall, along with some rumblings of distant thunder. I had stood there for a while, trying (with my rusty Latin) to read the lengthy inscription on his father’s grave.

When I went back to the open gate, it was locked, chained shut with a padlock. I wandered the perimeter a while longer, but all the gates were locked.

It would be a better story to imagine staying there as night fell and the thunder and rain intensified, and for a minute I imagined that was what was going to happen. Instead, I looked up the cemetery’s web site on my phone, called the emergency number, and was directed to an open gate that I hadn’t seen on either of the two trips. A prosaic rescue beats an exciting story any day, though, especially when the rain is really coming down.

I wondered after that why no one had put up a sign for clueless tourists like myself indicating either (1) that the gates were locked at a certain hour or (2) that there was an open gate to be found elsewhere. But Aaron Burr didn’t suffer fools gladly, and after teaching his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and other writings for so many years, I’m morally certain Jonathan Edwards didn’t, either.

 

 

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