EDITH WHARTON - An Encounter with the Berkshires


(chapter by Honey Sharp from the book Edith Wharton - An American Garden)


As her gardens at The Mount, her letters, and her autobiography, A Backward Glance[1], reveal, Edith Wharton,“The Hermit of Western Massachusetts”, as she referred to herself,[2] joined others drawn to a Berkshire Arcadia. By weaving together a passion for writing with that of design and gardening, she succeeded in carving her own personal “secluded paradise”.

The Berkshires’ bucolic landscape: its majestic views, streams, lakes, and valleys were a magnet for Wharton. Escaping Newport’s “trivialities”—and the seaside, of which she was never particularly enamored—she celebrated the Berkshire hills. As she put it:


“... the truth is that I am in love with the place-climate, scenery, life & all and when I have built a villa—and have planted my gardens and laid out paths through my bosco, I doubt if I will ever leave here.”[3]


Siting her villa on a knoll overlooking Laurel Lake with a view to the village of Tyringham beyond, Wharton incorporated and emphasized a less tame, more wild landscape. Although acclaimed for her formal Italianate gardens, the manner by which she sculpted the larger landscape reflects her respect of the region’s topography and flora.

Wharton held a keen appreciation for the Berkshires’ rugged limestone outcroppings, woodlands, and native plants, including wildflowers and ferns, which she loved. Invariably, she would also come to respect its unpredictable and harsh climate—a reality she often bemoaned to her friends.[4]

Not only her estate but her writings as well also reveal a sensitivity to New England’s historical and cultural traditions: its clapboard houses, church steeple tops, dark red barns, rambling stone walls, and dooryard gardens. And, as her novel, Ethan Frome so poignantly portrays, she was acutely aware of the bleaker side of rural life.         

By juxtaposing, integrating and contrasting the Old World with the New, Wharton endorsed an eminently American tradition. From the nation’s inception, the pattern of borrowing various styles was the norm—yet another illustration of the American melting pot.

Although inspired by a Lincolnshire country manor, The Mount, built in 1901, was painted white. It also donned typical dark green New England shutters. Its long, romantic approach from the road, designed by Wharton’s niece, Beatrix Jones (later, Farrand, 1872-1959), was framed by an allée of sugar maples. The surrounding woodlands and its paths overflowed with Wharton’s favorite plants: ostrich and Christmas ferns, elderberries, trillium, and purple fall asters—all native to the Northeast. And, unlike many of the Gilded Age estates in her neighborhood, the effect was informal and unpretentious. A pioneer in landscape design, she believed that landscaping should seek a seamless connection between classical form and nature.

Ultimately, her underlying philosophy was one of regional context. As Stephanie Copeland, the President of Edith Wharton Restoration, mentioned in an interview, “Edith advocated that Americans not replicate European gardens. Instead they should be inspired by their classical design while remaining conscious of the setting.”[5] Seventy-five years earlier, Mrs. Daniel Chester French wrote:


“Edith did not approach landscaping with preconceived ideas trying to make it like some other beautiful place to which the lay of the land bears no resemblance whatever.” [6]


The Berkshires’ Early Days: A Very Brief Overview

A certain myth continues to linger that the Berkshires’ popularity arose during the Gilded Age. True perhaps for Lenox, a relatively sleepy town until the late 19th century, this was not the case for Sheffield, Great Barrington, and Stockbridge, where a pastoral life had been beckoning for decades. As cities were growing congested in the mid-19thcentury, escaping to the country became de rigeur.  

To gain a perspective however, upon the world Wharton encountered in this western corner of New England at the turn of the century, one needs to take a step further back in time.  

 In 1739, Reverend John Sargeant built the Mission House, an outpost of British colonists. Originally located along the banks of the Housatonic River, south of Great Barrington, Sargeant moved it to Prospect Hill in Stockbridge, known at the time as Indiantown.[7] Responsible for negotiating the terms of the town’s settlement with the famous Mahican leader, Chief Konkapot, Sargeant’s prinicpal mission was to educate and convert the “pagans”—or, Stockbridge Indians, as they came to be known. Not long thereafter, the Reverend Jonathan Edwards founded the Stockbridge Congregational Church; he later became president of Princeton University.  

In the early days of the American Revolution, Henry Knox, in his legendary January march from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston, would also learn first hand about the local terrain. As David McCullough writes in his book, 1776[8]:


“Snow in the Berkshires lay thick, exactly as needed, but the mountains, steep and tumbled and dissected by deep and narrow valleys, posed a challenge as formidable as any.” In the words of Knox, we climbed peaks “from which we might almost have seen all the kingdoms of the earth.”


As settlements grew, the landscape changed. From the Mahicans, to the English and the Dutch, the Housatonic River’s fertile valley and its surrounding hills were constantly being reworked according to human needs. Deriving from the Mahican word, "Ou-thot-ton-nook", or "Beyond the Mountains", the river ran between two ranges: the Berkshire and the Taconic. Once steep mountains, they had been sculpted by glaciers for millennia. The last glacial retreat occurred about 10,000 years ago, leaving in its wake large boulders and what turned out to be rocky and thin soil.

Native Americans traveled seasonally from the Hudson River to the Housatonic to fish for shad, salmon and fresh water mussels, hunt for ducks and mallards. They also grew crops such as maize and beans in the river's rich floodplain. Eventually in 1628, the Mahicans settled in the area due to a rift with the Mohawks over the control of the fur trade.

The waterways also provided easy access for the settlers. Soon, other routes opened as well. In 1807, a stagecoach began operating along the “Stockbridge Turnpike”; horses changed at The Red Lion Inn. Soon, compact town centers began to appear along the Housatonic and its tributaries, the Green River and the Alford Brook.

As Europeans gradually made their way inland, they cleared dense, old growth forests for prized wood such as chestnut, oak, and hickory. These nut-bearing trees had replaced large hemlock stands, once cut and burned by the Mahicans. Deforestation became the norm.

With widespread logging, farming, and grazing, the land was altered. Not only did settlers grow corn and grain crops but staples as well such as potatoes, cabbage and carrots that kept during the long winters. They also established extensive dairy and sheep farms, importing Merino sheep from Portugal as early as 1807. Such farms grew into a major industry and source of revenue, and by the late 19th century, 70% of the Berkshires was open land.[9]

Shaker, Dooryard and Picturesque Gardens

Perhaps most efficient and “successful” in working the soil were the Shakers. A communal, religious, and self-sustaining society, founded in Great Britain by Mother Ann, the Shakers established what would become renowned, well-designed farms at the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield as well as in Tyringham, and in New Lebanon, just over the New York border. Hancock Shaker Village, founded in 1783, once spanned thousands of acres. It remained active and was a model for almost two centuries.

While the Shakers designed and built handsome architectural structures as well as practical and elegant tools and furniture, they devoted the land to agriculture including herb cultivation. Processed for medicinal tonics and tablets, they were for sale to the “World”. More significantly and ahead of their time, the Shakers also developed high quality seed packets. Enhanced during the Victorian period by fanciful and elaborate graphics, Shaker seed packets, promoted in catalogues, were among the first to hit the marketplace.

For private landowners of the early period, typical colonial dooryard were first huddled close to the family home. Consisting of neatly formed enclosures, they “kept the memory and the fear of wilderness at bay.”[10]

As 19th century New England life gradually grew safer and somewhat less demanding, people began to indulge in more sophisticated landscapes. From maintaining dooryard enclosures, gardeners, in particular women, (some with the help of hired help), began experimenting with ornamental plants and flowers—many imported from Europe, and some, ironically, making full circle.

As gardeners cared for trim flowerbeds, some defined by gravel paths and clipped shrubs, cultivated outdoor spaces offered a sense of order. They also became an excellent source for displaying worldly success and refinement. (Later, statuary and fountains would further raise the bar).

Joining with—and perhaps leading by example— the rest of the country, the Berkshires saw major shifts in landscaping and architecture styles. With the rise, for example, of the Gothic Revival movement, the “picturesque” or “gardenesque” grew immensely popular in the 1840’s. Associated with the architect, Alexander Jackson Davis, in the Hudson Valley, Andrew Jackson Downing (1817-1854), America’s first landscape architect, advocated for the thoughtful integration of buildings and their surroundings. Downing’s books, Rural Residences and The Architecture of Country Houses, among the first of their type in the country, grew much in demand.

Fifty years later, Wharton and Ogden Codman adopted a different perspective. Their best-selling book, Italian Villas and their Gardens, endorsed a formal approach. The Mount’s principal gardens, set below an elegant marble terrace, defined by axial lines, pleached linden trees and clipped boxwoods that led at one end to a sunken Italianate garden and a bosco, and at the other, a fanciful parterre were a clear illustration of this. Still, Wharton, like Downing, never veered from endorsing harmony with nature.[11] As she put it: "He should remember ... that each step away from architecture was a nearer approach to nature."[12]

Thus, the Berkshires did not shy from seeing a stylistic pendulum would swing from the Colonial to the Picturesque; from the Continental to the Neo-Colonial. No matter what the needs or fashion of the period would call for, a fundamental reality persisted. Thus, as the Mahicans, the early settlers, the hired gardeners, and the gentlemen farmers (and gentlewomen farmers such as Wharton) would learn, working the land in New England, while offering many gifts, remained a challenge.

Village Improvement Societies

Coupled by the pursuit of civility and order, the passion for horticulture came to permeate daily life in the Berkshires. The Laurel Hill Association, established in Stockbridge in 1853, was the first village improvement society in America. Dismayed by the condition of the Stockbridge cemetery—or Burial Ground as it was commonly called—and the sorry physical state of the town: “...its muddy streets, dearth of trees and fences in the last stages of degradation”, Mary Hopkins Goodrich, founded the organization. Often on horseback, she actively recruited members to her cause and became later known as a “female Paul Revere” by the Garden Club of America.

Named after a property donated to Stockbridge by the Sedgwick family, the Laurel Hill Association transformed a former wilderness outpost into a tidy and pristine New England village. Lining the streets with American elms and sugar maples, adding a small fountain or two with a splash of brightly colored annuals, the Association broadened the definition of gardening. “We mean to work till every street shall be graded, every sidewalk shaded, every noxious weed eradicated ... in short, till art combined with nature shall have rendered our town the most beautiful and attractive in our ancient commonwealth.”[13] Over a century later, the illustrator, Norman Rockwell—with the ongoing support of the Association, and the town fathers—ensured Stockbridge would remain an icon.[14]

Tourism and Resort Life

In an ironic twist of fate, Yankee villagers also played a significant role in drawing the urban intellectual elite and tourists of the Country Place Era. As Alan Emmett states, “By carefully husbanding their land, the farmers of fertile New England river valleys had inadvertently shaped scenery that, in its combination of the wild and the bucolic, impressed sophisticated observers with its beauty.”[15]

As word spread of the upper Housatonic valley’s breathtaking scenery, artists, writers, and their benefactors began to flock and eventually settle in Berkshire County.

Instrumental for putting the region on the map was Stockbridge’s grande dame par excellence and America’s first best-selling female novelist, Catharine Sedgwick. Her distinguished family’s salon drew writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and William Cullen Bryant and artists such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Church. While capturing the sweeping majesty of the American wild, the artists of the Hudson River School were also drawn to a more subdued yet rustic landscape where man and nature could live in harmony.

Entrepreneurs such as the Boston banker, Samuel Gray Ward (1817-1907), and his wife, Anna, were also pioneers in building a Country Place Era community. Friends of the Sedgwicks and inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson, they championed a 19th century version of a back-to-the-land movement. (Ultimately, their descendants, and those of the neighboring Tappan family, dedicated the land to more cultural purposes: Tanglewood, the site for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer season and founded in the 1930’s). 

Soon after the Civil War, as Northeast cities were growing polluted, the urban, wealthy and sophisticated gentry sought a paradise lost. The appeal of New England soon grew into a cult.

However by now, all was not a simple farming or woodland community where oak had supplied barrels, chestnut, house construction and hemlock and oak bark, the tanning of skins. Soon, hydropower from various streams and rivers was tapped to supply the energy for gristmills, sawmills, and cotton mills which all thrived throughout the 19th century.        

The railway is perhaps the most responsible for transforming the Berkshires. While opening the gates to tourists and “second home owners”, it also encouraged major industry such as iron ore furnaces, furnished by local charcoal from the burning of trees, and paper mills. (Still today, the Crane and Company in Dalton continues to produce paper for the American currency). Prestigious limestone and marble quarries also supplied marble for national monuments in Washington D.C., Boston, and New York City. It so happens that it also provided material for The Mount.

As rail lines opened from Boston and New York, tourists could more easily visit what Mark Twain called: the “American Lake District”. They came in droves. And, due to increasing demand, both The Curtis Hotel in Lenox and The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge began to offer separate cottages. The term, “Cottagers”—a somewhat modest term—was soon adopted. As such residences began to resemble more palatial estates, one can easily understand why Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner called the period the “Gilded Age” in their 1873 book that bemoaned the corruption and excesses of the Grant administration.

Thus with the growing pollution of cities and the conviction that interaction with nature was beneficial, the Berkshires saw a veritable explosion of Cottages. Instead of competing with the seaside Newport and Bar Harbor resorts, the “hill country” estates complemented them. As the whirlwind, seaside life would wind down; its summer residents would flock to the hills for autumn color and good air.[16]

Edith Wharton and the Country Place Era


 “Now I was to know the joys of six or seven months a year among fields and woods of my own ... On a slope overlooking the dark waters and densely wooded shores of Laurel Lake we built a spacious and dignified house, to which we gave the name of my great-grandfather's place, The Mount. There was a big kitchen-garden with a grape pergola, a little farm, and a flower-garden outspread below the wide terrace overlooking the lake.”[17]


By the time Wharton came to visit her mother-in-law in Lenox in 1899, over sixty Cottages were up and running. Endowed with money, the plutocrats, including the Morgans, Vanderbilts, Westinghouses and Astors, continued to assemble vast showcase properties. For their mansions, they hired prominent architects such as McKim, Mead, and White, Carrere and Hastings, and Delano and Aldrich; for their gardens, Frederick Law Olmsted, Beatrix Farrand, and later, Fletcher Steele.

Harkening back to the European Medieval, Renaissance and Romantic periods, Gilded Age estates reflected a profound stylistic trend in the country. It crystallized the apogee of an American pattern: frenzied borrowing dominated by eclecticism and historicism.

To make it all possible, large teams of Italian masons, French cooks, English chauffeurs, and Irish servants were engaged. Only thanks to them could such complex operations run smoothly—a luxury that soon ended in the 1920’s...

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the local farmers who had shaped the very scenery that was now so highly prized were struggling. As agriculture moved to the Midwest (where soil was far richer and less rocky), they sold their land off at dirt prices to eager city buyers. The accumulation of what proved to become vast estates was on a scale not seen since early colonist days. For example, the Secretary of the Navy, William Whitney, purchased four dozen farms that totaled 11,000 acres for a game preserve. Covering the towns of Lee, Lenox and Becket, the preserve featured elk, buffalo, moose, angora sheep and pheasants.[18] Competing with it down the road in Great Barrington, the owner of Folly Farm, Frederick Pearson, a famous electrical engineer and entrepreneur, accumulated 13,000 acres. His farm featured rare deer from England, ponies from Wales and pheasants from Hindustan.

Wharton shunned such lavish and blatant expansive indulgences. Furthermore, she never shied from being outspoken about the excesses of ornate houses and gardens. Bellefontaine (now Canyon Ranch), modeled after Le Petit Trianon, was one of her vitriolic targets. [19]Having purchased in 1901 the 113-acre Sargent Farm from Giorgiana Sargent, a watercolorist, and a distant relative of John Singer Sargent’s, Wharton instead sought to pursue a more low-key, country life that allowed her to focus on her gardens and writing.

Forever adventurous, she explored the countryside for pleasure, inspiration and at times—yes, acquisition—of plants (not land). Often accompanied by friends such as, Henry James or Bernard Berenson, her forays or, “motoring trips”, to the remote hilltowns of Ashfield and Savoy, led to her exposure to a more austere, bleak and desolate Berkshires. Here she would develop a profound sensitivity to the disadvantaged—a theme similar to her stark portrayal of urban poverty, as in her novella, The Bunner Sisters. 

In Summer, and in particular, Ethan Frome, she captured rural isolation or: “half-deserted New England villages”. Never embracing a naive, or sentimental point of view, she even experienced the darker side of the Berkshires at her Lenox villa. As she voices in her letters, she could be overjoyed by a “mass of bloom” and then feel weighed down by the “spare, reluctant New England way”...[20]

Inspite of what proved to be more seasonal trials and tribulations, she remained committed to The Mount. Just as she had worked closely with her architects, Ogden Codman and Frances Hoppin, she collaborated with her niece, Beatrix Farrand. Together, they designed the approach to the villa from the road and the Mount’s first garden: a large vegetable bed adjacent to the stables.

Wharton also developed a solid relationship with her gardener, Thomas Reynolds, whom she highly respected. “The most wonderful incident of my return was the finding here of my devoted and admirable head gardener ... He couldn't miss the first long walk with me yesterday afternoon, the going over of every detail, the instant noting, on my part, of all he had done in my absence, the visit to every individual tree, shrub, creeper, fern, ‘flower in the crannied wall’ - every tiniest little bulb and root that we had planted together!”[21]

Such extensive plant visits included a profound appreciation for native flora rather than, as she put it, “some millionaire’s orchids”.[22] Thus, she directed her staff to selectively cut trees with every effort to retain or supplant the native ones. While the term, “native plant” had not come into use, Wharton was a champion of New England species. By fostering what she called “the untrimmed growth of the woodland”, she incorporated a number of woody and herbaceous plants. As a steward of the land, she demonstrated a sophisticated, modern approach—not seen by many in her day.

As her writings and the period photographs reveal, The Mount featured a wide spectrum of white pines, ash trees, American elms, hemlocks, sugar maples, and black birches—all native to the Northeast. Majestic American elms frame the panoramic vista to the lake; white pines act as a backdrop to the sunken garden, and sugar maples line the long entrance drive. Although some have disappeared from old age or disease, some remain. Standing today near the forecourt, for example, is a tall black birch. Next to it is a Princeton American elm, recently planted in honor of The Mount’s historian, Scott Marshall.

In the spring, New England wildflowers such as both red and whiteTrillium (Wakerobin), Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot), Tiarella wherryi (Foam flower), Asarum canadensis (ginger), and the charming and intriguing Arisaema triphyllum (Jack in the Pulpit) run rampant throughout the woodlands.

Later, as the glories of fall set in, typical New England purple asters, Wharton’s favorites, take their place amidst a carpet of ferns, highlighted by the intriguing berries of shrubs such as Sambucus racemosa (elderberry) and Actea rubra and alba (red baneberry and doll’s eyes). These berries run the gamut from shiny black to porcelain white with a small black dot (hence the term, doll eye) to ruby red.

In the Italian tradition however, the color green, in all its shades, remained her favorite. Combined with her enthusiasm for texture in the garden, Wharton’s widespread use of ferns should come as no surprise. At the Mount, these included native Christmas, Interrupted and Sensitive ferns, still found en masse in shady areas throughout the property.

More evocative, however, than any photographs, are her words. In her letters and autobiography, she poetically pays tribute to the stillness of naturalistic retreats, filled with “that beautiful white silence that ... enabled me to possess my soul.”[23] Taking a step away from the more civilized gardens, she relished in “the perfume of my hemlock woods...the sylvan sweetnesses of The Mount.”[24]

In her brief encounter with the Berkshires, she was one of the few in her era that revealed the spirit of the place. Years later, after moving to France in 1911, she wrote, “The impression produced by a landscape ... or a house should always... be an event in the history of the soul.”[25]
[1] Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance (Appleton Century, NY 1934)

[2] Letter to Bernard Berenson

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Don’t talk to me about this climate! I don’t think anything has grown an inch since last year.” Letter to Sara Norton

[5] Honey Sharp, A Garden Reawakened, The Restoration of the Gardens at The Mount

(Berkshires Week, 2004)

[6] Memories of a Sculptor’s Wife (Houghton Mifflin Company, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, MA, 1928)

[7] In the 1920’s, Mabel Choate moved The Mission House, now a Trustees of Reservations property, again to Main Street in Stockbridge. She hired Fletcher Steele to design its neo-colonial gardens.

[8] 1776 (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2005)

[9] As early 20th century photographs from The Mount indicate, the terrace vista was far more vast than today.

[10] Alan Emmett, So Fine a Prospect: Historic New England Gardens, (University Press of New England, Hanover, NH, 1st edition August 1997) 

[11] Her library also featured The Wild Garden by the British designer, William Robinson.

[12] Italian Villas and their Gardens, (Century Company, NY, 1904)

[13]Mary Hopkins Goodrich at the founding meeting of the Laurel Hill Association

[14] While Edith Wharton also participated in village improvement societies, she was not always overjoyed. “I am so tired of Library meetings, Village Improvement Committees and Flower Show Committees that I know just how you feel!” Letter to Sara Norton, 1904

[15] Alan Emmett, ibid

[16] Unlike many of her period, Edith Wharton enjoyed The Mount from May to October.

[17] Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance (Appleton Century, NY 1934)

[18] Much of the land later became the October Mountain State Forest.

[19] Speculation has it that her niece, Beatrix Farrandwas responsible for the design of some of its gardens.

[20] Letter to Sara Norton, 1907

[21] Letter to Morton Fullerton, 1911

[22] ibid.

[23] Letter to Sara Norton, 1904

[24] Letter to Bernard Berenson, 1911

[25] Edith Wharton, The Writing of Fiction, (Scribners, NY. 1924)