- The Architecture of Manners: Henry James, Edith Wharton, and The Mount
When he visited the largest private house in the country—George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore—in February of 1905, Henry James was dumbstruck. He wrote his friend Edith Wharton from the “strange, colossal heart-breaking house” in Asheville, North Carolina, that “the desolation & discomfort of the . . . whole scene—are, in spite of the mitigating millions everywhere expressed, indescribable.” James went on:
but I can’t go into it—it’s too much of a ‘subject’: I mean one’s sense of the extraordinary impenitent madness (of millions) which led to the erection in this vast niggery wilderness, of so gigantic & elaborate a monument to all that isn’t socially possible there. It’s, in effect, like a gorgeous practical joke—but at one’s own expense, after all, if one has to live in solitude in these league-long marble halls, & sit in alternate Gothic and Palladian cathedrals, as it were—where now only the temperature stalks about—with the ‘regrets,’ sighing along the wind, of those who have declined. 1
By James’ fanciful analysis, it would seem that it is precisely because of the “mitigating millions everywhere expressed” that Biltmore is “indescribable.” The size and volubility of the estate overpowers any more subtle expression and leads instead to an eerie silence. James points specifically to just why this is so. If we follow his path of associations, and recall his fascination with colloquial metaphor, we see that James’s claim that he “can’t go into” his subject has an easily overlooked, quite concrete, meaning: James can’t go into the subject of Biltmore, because the house has literally no interior for him to go into. James ties the size [End Page 298] of the subject (too big for the space of a letter) to the size of the house itself (“gigantic”), implying that the house has no proper interior—its “league-long” halls are home only to the weather, the “temperature,” and the “wind.” In The American Scene, James’s account of his return tour through this country after a twenty-five year absence, James explicitly makes this charge against the new houses of the rich: “The custom rages like a conspiracy for nipping the interior in the bud, for denying its right to exist, for ignoring and defeating it in every possible way.” 2 The chilly drafts of Biltmore extinguish “social possibilities” and stifle expression. No one wants to travel a thousand miles to sit in a big cold house in the Smoky Mountains, and so there is little to report, except for the “big subject,” which is, of course, that there is so little to report.
While she could stomach far more extravagance than James, Edith Wharton would have easily recognized these structural flaws behind Biltmore’s indescribability. 3 Wharton had co-authored a book on interior decoration, The Decoration of Houses (1897), in which she detailed just why so little of interest seemed to happen in the fashionable rooms of the well-to-do. Instead of cozy rooms where one could sit by the fire and write a letter or have an intimate chat, a raw craving for public approval ruled modern design. Houses were brutally opened up: their grand front entrances and large windows exposed them to public view. Significantly, Wharton notes, the writing table, once a central fixture in the family drawing room, had been replaced by “that modern futility, the silver-table.” As a result, “the writing-table is either banished or put in some dark corner, where it is little wonder that the ink dries unused and a vase of flowers grows in the middle of the blotting-pad.” 4 In ceasing to be homes, houses had all but evicted the literary side of life. They gave up depth and narratibility for the sake of publicizing wealth. “‘Oh, yes; we were awfully dear, for what we are and for what we do,’” the mansions along the New Jersey shore boasted pathetically to James. 5
In this essay, I analyze the extraordinary degree to which James and Wharton believed that physical conditions, established by both architecture and place, could...