Sunday, 22 June 2014

The Stylographic Pen of Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton Source Masslive

He drew out a note-case and one of the new stylographic pens. "I've even got an envelope - you see how everything's predestined! There - steady the thing on your knee, and I'll get the pen going in a second. They have to be humoured; wait - " He banged the hand that held the pen against the back of the bench. "It's like jerking down the mercury in a thermometer: just a trick. Now try -"
She laughed, and bending over the sheet of paper which he had laid on his note-case, began to write. Archer walked away a few steps, staring with radiant unseeing eyes at the passersby, who, in their turn, paused to stare at the unwonted sight of a fashionably-dressed lady writing a note on her knee on a bench in the Common.

Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence, first published 1920 

In Edith Wharton's literary masterpiece the pen used by the unconventional Countess Ellen Olenska is itself unconventional. Newland Archer, born and bred in the suffocating environment of New York's aristocracy, finds himself in love with the free-thinking Ellen and her unorthodox ideas. It is Newland himself that carries the novelty pen and travelling to Boston on false pretences sneaking away from his future wife meets Ellen in the park and encourages her to write a note refusing the advances of her estranged husband. Countess Olenska represents an escape from Newland's regulated and predictable world, she breathes a different air in a world alive with uncertainty and newness where pens have to be humoured to write and where fashionably dressed ladies write letters sitting on a park bench in Boston. 


If the Livermore stylographic pen was the first ever on the market, then Wharton's pen is an anachronism since the story takes place in the early 1870s and the pen was patented  in 1884.
Dunlap patent stylographic pen, patented in 1884;
an ad of the Stylographic Pen Co. Boston


  1. Why is it that this post has me detesting Edith Wharton? I know the name, of course, and some of her novels' titles, although I've never read any. I'm sure they're good, and that I probably ought to read them. I'd probably learn something.

    Still, Palimpsest's credited photo of Mrs. Wharton has me seething with raw bigotry. Why? About the time she was writing, she and her East Coast pals were unduly benefiting from astounding changes in world economic relations. America's cheap grain and other farm products after the American 1861-1865 War undermined European farmers. Those scions of European farmers came to the States as extraordinarily cheap labor for factories that were producing for the American Western market. Rails, bridges, and so on.

    One Italian immigrant to the States wrote in an immigrants' newspaper (I hope my memory's okay): "The streets are not paved with gold. The streets are not paved at all. I'm the guy who's paving the streets."

    Meanwhile, a recently united Germany (ca. 1871) had become an astonishingly sophisticated player on the international scene, which frightened so much of the Anglophone community on either side of the Atlantic.

    I'm confident Mrs. Wharton's portfolio benefited from all that contumelious stuff. I want to like her writing, and warm up to her thoughts, but there's something in me that won't let it happen.

  2. Oops, sorry, that's my post above. Jack/USA

  3. Under this premise you cannot read any of the world's great literature.

  4. I'm likely less bigoted about Mrs. Wharton and her circles than I've made myself out to be. Still, there's an American literature, what I very loosely call "East Coast literature", that's often well-regarded, which baffles and infuriates me.

    Example: Richard Yates's "Revolutionary Road". I liked the book, and the movie. Ennui and angst amid a post-WWII America bursting with material prosperity. The broad irony was real enough. But, I still had the bad feeling of reading about characters who seemed to not know how startlingly good they had it.

  5. Haven't read Revolutionary Road but Wharton's Age of Innocence is a critique of NY aristocracy.

  6. Thanks, and BTW, and note a stylographic pen patented by a Canadian inventor as early as 1875. Jack/USA