If Edith Wharton Had Facebooked
I recently spent a week at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, researching engraving's influence on type, graphic design and the way we communicate. For five days I examined—with my bare hands (although many research facilities require cotton gloves) and a Rodenstock three-power loupe covering a 6x6 centimeter area—original specimens of engraving. Three days were spent on copybooks and engraved collections of calligraphy used for teaching writing from the 1600 to 1800s. The rest was dedicated to Edith Wharton's secret love letters to Morton Fullerton and some folders of Mark Twain's personal papers. My purpose was to find interesting examples of American social stationery engraving. Since this is a “tag” that does not yet exist, I go to great lengths defining this category of design and communications history in the hopes that it will become part of our vernacular.
Title page spread from The Universal Penman (Dover Publications), engraved by George Bickham, 1743.
I examined original calligraphic engravings (routine but interesting) to educate myself in a “boot camp,” total immersion sort of way to recognize the look, feel and general organic response one has to loads and loads of real engraving. I handled about 1,450 individual engraved pages contained, primarily, in individual copybooks and one massive 10-volume collection from a gentleman who collected books and books about books, Henry Benjamin Hanbury Beaufoy, who lived from 1786 to 1851. Each volume is more than two feet long and a couple of inches thick. After going through three of Mr. Beaufoy's collections most pertinent to my study, I looked at historic specimens of American commercial engraving such as personal social stationery.
In the days before computers, email and peripheral devices capable of split-second, interpersonal communication, people exchanged written thoughts, emotions and ideas through a letter or its shorter form, a note. For more than 5,000 years since the Sumerians brought us writing, whole industries and selling opportunities have emerged for the creation of ingenious paper products that could transmit handwritten, hand-set and, later, hand “typed” messages.
For centuries it was common to sit at a desk with a pen and piece of paper and write thoughts and desires in longhand and send these via foot messenger or post to one particular person. Think of handwriting as media and paper a technology. Beaufoy recognized the importance of writing literacy and must have considered it a gateway to social and fiscal advancement. In addition to collecting engraved calligraphic specimens he invested heavily in the City of London School, funding educational scholarships, and built the Beaufoy Ragged School for wayward orphans and destitute children (think of a free school where characters such as Dickens' Oliver could learn to read and write instead of stealing).
Spread from The Universal Penman (Dover Publications), engraved by George Bickham, 1743.
Throughout time engraved imagery has been used for the dissemination of religious ideology, to illustrate science, industry and to translate great works of art. The paper upon which professional business correspondence was composed (that is, the letters of doctors, lawyers and statesmen) was engraved as a “safety feature” of authenticity and as a mark of distinction. By the 20th century, engraved letterhead was the accepted business form and also very popular for personal stationery. It has only been in the last 30 years that engraving has fallen from favor and since the 1990s has all but disappeared from regular use.
I was thinking about copybooks, writing literacy, paper technology and American commercial engraving while going through Edith Wharton's love letters. She lived from 1862 to 1937; her affair with Morton Fullerton lasted from 1906 to 1909, and the collection of letters now exist in a box at the Ransom Center measuring .42 linear feet, with the majority from the height of their relationship between 1908 and 1909. Although I was looking for information about substrate, printing, engraved monograms and lettering styles, I could not help but peek into her personal life and found myself reading her words to him. What I observed surprised me.
Edith Wharton in a 1905 publicity shot.
Edith Wharton is one of my personal literary heroes because she wrote with irony about the American upper class, society, their manners and foibles during the fin de siecle. This period in history is a favorite because it seems glamorous and romantic, replete with horse and carriage, candle-lit midnight dinners and sumptuous satin gowns with ostrich-feather hand fans and acres of furs, pearls and diamond studded tiaras. She was friends with Henry James, Theodore Roosevelt and many artistic and influential contemporaries. Wharton traveled extensively, lived abroad and suffered a failed marriage that made her very independent and a bit of an early feminist. Her characters are preternaturally concerned with etiquette, a bit tarnished at heart and they, like Wharton herself, were wont for the use of social stationery.
I enjoy her fiction, her observations about life and love and getting along in polite society. So I was disappointed to scan through her personal prose written to one of the great loves in her life because what I read seemed so prosaic. Wharton's words to Fullerton reminded me of the mundane status updates I'm used to seeing on Facebook, offering personal insights along the lines of, “Oh, the word I used to close my last letter may have been too harsh,” or “Gee, in haste I sent that note last night with a rush courier and maybe the message may have appeared a bit rash or hasty” (the equivalent of today's spontaneous, but regrettable text messaging, perhaps). She also wrote about her disintegrating marriage and day-to-day accounts of travel, whom she visited, what performance or exhibit she attended—some written on “mourning” stationery with its deep black borders. But rather than teeming with passion for a long-distance lover (for periods of time they were separated by an ocean), her letters were often about seemingly insignificant details.
And that got me thinking: What if Edith Wharton had Facebooked? Had she lived in our time and communicated digitally, I wonder what her literature would be like. Looking at five days of cursive writing and personal letters made me realize that her compulsion to jot down her thoughts was no different than ours today when we tweet about what we had for lunch or share some fab link we just discovered. The difference between a letter written longhand and a Facebook post is that one takes a little bit longer (and leaves a more lasting trace), but the purpose is the same. Whether we live on a grand, Whartonian scale or a quieter, more ordinary one, we feel more significant when we share intimacies about ourselves with others. Edith Wharton was an extremely private individual who would most likely be very upset that I can now read about her romantic life (her love letters are publicly accessible at the Ransom Center and many have been published in a book). But would the allure of today's social media have seduced her, as it has so many of us, into utilizing its efficiency at the expense of privacy? And if so, what would the cost be to her, both personally and professionally? Maybe it's good that we'll never know.