Fuse Books: Edith Wharton’s The Mount Sponsors the First Annual Berkshire Wordfest
With the establishment of Wordfest, a celebration of writing in America with talks, interviews, panels, and book signings, The Mount seems to be coming into its own in ways that make it more alive than ever before.
By Roberta Silman
When we first built our home in the Berkshires in the early 70s, I remember going with my husband and our children and my parents to Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, which had become the quarters of a newly established theater company called Shakespeare & Company and the setting for all their plays. And what a setting it was! Rooms representative of the Gilded Age where actors dramatized Wharton’s witty stories and a wonderful sloping lawn where we would bring lawn chairs and be drawn into the most magical performances of Shakespeare’s plays.
The company, founded by two extraordinary women, Kristin Linklater and Tina Packer, had built a wooden stage where lawn and forest met, and, as the plays unfolded, sometimes using the terrace of the beautifully sited house, we were utterly enchanted by the comedies and tragedies and history plays.
Wharton had lived in Lenox for only a short time, but in that time she had created an elegant home and gorgeous gardens, as well as Ethan Frome, her great novella set in a fictional town based on Stockbridge. She entertained lavishly, and her most famous guest was her fellow writer, Henry James. After her death and over time, the gardens had virtually disappeared, and the place had a lived-in shabbiness that no one really noticed considering all the wonderful things that were happening there.
As the years passed, Linklater went her own way and is now a professor of drama at Columbia University, and Packer became the director of the company. Several years ago the Board of the Mount decided it was time to try to make The Mount its own Edith Wharton headquarters, and Shakespeare & Company departed for a new campus on Kemble Street in Lenox. That was when, in the words of a friend, it risked becoming another “dead house.”
The place was spruced up, refurbished by various interior decorators (some rooms are more successful than others), the gardens restored magnificently to the specifications that Wharton left behind, and the tours of the house, which had gone on even when Shakespeare & Company was there, became more detailed and, probably, more accurate. But for the first year or so it felt empty, which it was considering the energetic activity that had gone there for so long, and in danger of becoming the dead house my friend had predicted.
Fortunately, though, it did not. A terrace café was soon installed, “Selected Shorts” performed there at least once a summer, and a lecture series was established—all by its earlier director, Stephanie Copeland, who also insured that Wharton’s own library find its way back to The Mount, intact. Unluckily for Copeland, she made that huge purchase just before the economic meltdown and thus left Wharton’s home in a precarious position; for a short time its very existence was threatened. But after a vigorous fund-raising campaign that continues and under the direction of Susan Wissler, who worked with Copeland and succeeded her, The Mount seems to be coming into its own in ways that make it more alive than ever before.
On July 23–25 it will be host to its first Wordfest, a celebration of writing in America with talks, interviews, panels, and book signings. Among the writers who will attend are Elinor Lipman, Jim Shepard, Judith Thurman, Dani Shapiro, John Hockenbery, Martha McPhee, and several others—exactly the legacy that Edith might have dreamed of for her beautiful house and grounds, playing host to working writers who will surely offer the Berkshires a lively and interesting weekend.
Roberta Silman is the author of Blood Relations, a story collection, three novels, Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again, and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. She has recently completed a new novel, Secrets and Shadows. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org