Introducing Edith Wharton to the Students of Today

By Debbie Kallman, M.A. Student, Department of History

Little did I know that the UMass Public History Program trip to the Berskshires last autumn would lead to a rewarding internship this summer at The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts. The Mount, designed and built in 1902, is the onetime home of Edith Wharton (1862-1937), the celebrated novelist and the first woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This Gilded Age mansion now operates as a historic house museum. In addition to tours of the house and gardens, the site offers a wide range of public programming. The Mount’s on-site school programs were particularly attractive to me. These programs, designed for grades 7-12, in the fields of social studies, language arts, and art and design, provided an opportunity to link the public historian’s important role as an educator with my personal love of literature.

Debbie Kallman in Mrs. Wharton's Library

Debbie Kallman in Mrs. Wharton’s Library

The Mount’s on-site school programs explore Wharton’s life and work, the significance of her Berkshire writer’s retreat, and Gilded Age America.   These programs attract approximately 600 students per year, and while most are drawn from Massachusetts schools, The Mount also attracts students from New York school districts. Sixty to seventy percent of students attend private schools while the remaining thirty to forty percent are drawn from public schools. My supervisor, Kelsey Mullen, was quick to explain that attending a private school is not necessarily an indicator that a student comes from a privileged background. It became essential for me to link Edith Wharton and her world to students from diverse economic and cultural backgrounds and who may have different academic interests other than literature.

Three projects comprised my internship. The first two involved writing educational units for two of The Mount’s current on-site offerings. I selected two social studies programs. For each program, I wrote three pre-visit lesson plans, a step-by-step program for the on-site visit, and two post-visit lesson plans. Each lesson plan included source documents, key vocabulary terms, and activities. I adapted learning objectives and activities for each age group. It was essential that the field experience be integral to the learning outcomes of the unit and tie to the Common Core standards. As many of these students may not know who Edith Wharton was or may not be familiar with her work, these units offer an opportunity to introduce students to Wharton, to the time and place in which she lived, and to draw connections from Wharton and her world to the present day. The issues of wealth disparity, labor relations, working conditions, and class and cultural differences explored in both of these educational units still exist in the present day. Finally, what local connections could I make for the students?

In the first unit, entitled “My Dear Governess: A Portrait of Anna Bahlmann, ” I introduce students to the art of biography but also to issues of class and gender during the period beginning with the Gilded Age and ending midway through World War I when Bahlmann died. Anna Bahlmann worked with Wharton for over forty years–first as her governess and later as her secretary. Irene Goldman-Price recently published the edited letters from Wharton to Bahlmann. These letters offer students a glimpse into the world these two women shared. The primary learning objective for students is to closely read excerpts of these published letters and other sources, visit The Mount to learn more about the day-to-day life of each woman, and then to extract key pieces of information from these sources and their site visit in order to write a biographical sketch of Bahlmann.

A second unit, “Making the Picture Prettier: Edith Wharton and the Fictional Lens,” explores Wharton’s 1907 novel The Fruit of the Tree, juxtaposed against the child labor photographs of Lewis Hine (1874-1940). Wharton’s novel and Hine’s photographs critically depict early twentieth-century mill life in New England. Hine traveled throughout the country photographing child laborers at work in an effort to influence state and federal child labor legislative reform. Wharton’s complex novel addressed early twentieth-century social issues including labor and working conditions at a fictional New England Mill. The purpose of this unit is to explore how these artists framed their work. What did they omit? What did they include? Who were their intended audiences? What may have been the purpose of their work? Were they attempting to influence political action or were these artists simply drawing attention to important social issues of their time? Finally, students are asked to consider how these social issues resonate in the twenty-first century.

The third project is still in progress. As summer ends, I am adapting the current physical exhibit Edith Wharton and World War I to an online format. The exhibit focuses on Edith Wharton’s humanitarian work during World War I. Wharton founded a number of charities and relief organizations during the war and made numerous trips to the front to deliver medical supplies. The current exhibit has been on display for several years and will be taken down in the coming year. Adapting this exhibit to an online format provides future patrons with an opportunity to learn more about Wharton’s often overlooked activities during the war and how the war impacted Wharton both personally and professionally. Mullen helped me to understand that patrons typically visit an online exhibit for less than five minutes. Therefore it is critical that the exhibit capture and hold the audience’s interest so that they experience most if not all of the exhibit. My task will be to edit the images and text in the current exhibit, write a script for the online exhibit, conduct additional research, potentially incorporate new materials, and determine navigation for the exhibit. This promises to be a challenging project for this future public historian, but more importantly it will insure that the scholarship manifested in the current exhibit lives on to be enjoyed by others in future years.

Debbie Kallman with Andrew Hitzhusen portraying Wharton's butler Alfred White and Anne Schuyler portraying Wharton's secretary Anna Bahlmann

Debbie Kallman with Andrew Hitzhusen portraying Wharton’s butler Alfred White and Anne Schuyler portraying Wharton’s secretary Anna Bahlmann

This internship introduced me to the complexities of educational program delivery in a museum setting. While developing school programs that conform to educational standards is indeed important, the public historian grapples with larger issues in terms of how best to tailor programs to the interests of the intended audience yet also fit into the museum’s overall mission and values. How can we link past and present through educational programs? How do we navigate sensitive issues including class, ethnicity, and gender? What activities would be relevant to the learning objectives but also interesting and engaging to students? Similarly, when adapting a physical exhibit to an online format, it is not simply a matter or replicating material on the museum’s internet pages, but rather it is vital to consider the viewer’s needs and perspectives. What would our “typical” patron want to learn? How do we best structure the exhibit and navigation for ease of use? What should be the ratio of images to text? Should there be audio bites? Does the material better lend itself to a chronological or thematic format? These are a few of the many larger issues that the public historian must consider when developing programs–yet contemplating these and other issues are also what lends appeal to the work of the public historian.

I would encourage any public history student pondering a career in museum and site interpretation to consider the program and educational aspects of the field as these roles are rewarding and truly make a difference and a summer internship is a great way to learn and experiment with program delivery.

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1 comment
  1. One other possible “hook” you might consider for students otherwise disinclined is that Edith Wharton wrote ghost stories. “Afterward,” in particular, is a classic. Such a lead-in is by no means as serious as the three projects you describe (and they are good projects, I must add). Yet sometimes a lighter touch may prove useful.

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