I’m just getting going on writing this first chapter — I’m at that terrible beginning part where I can’t figure out what to say first — so I’m not researching as heavily right now. Still, it’s nice to put some things together and remind myself why this project is fun.
I chose this piece, a modern performance of an old-time banjo song, to correspond to the excerpt below about “negro melodists.” Hugh Reginald Haweis names it as a song one might have heard by African-American performers abroad at the turn of the century.
Sometimes while reading Wharton, it’s easy to forget that these types of American culture were happening in concert with the more rarefied air of Renaissance art scholarship (like the Berensons did, below).
Bernard Berenson (1865 – 1959)
It’s kind of hard to imagine, but Renaissance art wasn’t always the hot tip when it came to collecting. In fact, a market for Old Master paintings didn’t take off in the US until the early 1900s. When it did, American art historian and attribution-poineer Bernard Berenson was perfectly poised to become the preeminent authority on the topic. He helped Isabella Stewart Gardner grow her art collection; he was praised by William James for his manner of applying “elementary psychological categories to the interpretation of higher art”; and, importantly for my research, he served as friend, reader, and traveling companion to Edith Wharton.
Mary Berenson (1864 – 1945)
Born Mary Smith, Berenson’s wife was also an art historian. According to Wikipedia, she is now thought to have helped Berenson write some of his influential books on Renaissance art. Sadly, as happens all too often, she has been overshadowed by her husband and his memory. Her writing appears to be entirely out of print, though Harvard has an extensive archival collection dedicated to her and her husband.
The daughter of Philadelphia Quakers, she had attended Smith College and then the Harvard Annex (later Radcliffe College) as one of its first eight students. She studied Berkeley, Hegel, and other philosophers, and recalled how once, after hearing the English art critic Edmund Gosse mention the “sacred word Botticelli” during a Harvard lecture, she looked at her brother, essayist Logan Pearsall Smith, “with eyes brimming with emotion and excitement,” and exclaimed: “Oh Logan! We are at the very centre of things!”
Madame de Trezac had lately discovered that the proper attitude for the American married abroad was that of a militant patriotism; and she flaunted Undine Marvell in the face of the Faubourg like a particularly showy specimen of her national banner. The success of the experiment emboldened her to throw off the most sacred observances of her past. She took up Madame Adelschein, she entertained the James J. Rollivers, she resuscitated Creole dishes, she patronized negro melodists, she abandoned her weekly teas for impromptu afternoon dances, and the prim drawing-room in which dowagers had droned echoed with a cosmopolitan hubbub.
— Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country
For a random assortment of photos, quotes, video, and other items tangentially related to my thesis, check out nonmodernist on tumblr.
And as always, you can follow all my grad school adventures in real-time via the “grad school is forever” tag on tumblr.