collections

The Book of the Homeless (1916)

The Book of the Homeless, edited by Edith Wharton; 1916; Charles Scribner, New York.

Edith Wharton is best known today for penning such popular novels as The House of Mirth (1905) and her Pulitzer Prize winning The Age of Innocence (1920). A lesser known fact about the eminent American author is the role she played in the war effort during World War I. A frequent traveller to Europe, after her marriage deteriorated she decided to move permanently to France, and when war broke out in 1914 she threw herself headlong into the French war effort, dismayed at the United States’ lack of engagement. One of the first causes she undertook was the opening of a workroom for unemployed women, which soon flourished into a thriving sewing business. When the Germans invaded Belgium in the autumn of 1914, Wharton helped to found the American Hostels for Refugees in Paris and later the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee, which helped to secure fleeing Belgians shelter, meals, clothes, and eventually employment. The following year Wharton used her literary contacts to begin to put together The Book of the Homeless, a compendium of essays, art, poetry, and musical scores whose profits were used to fund civilians displaced by World War I. The roster of contributors is highly impressive — with fifty-seven original works from such high-profile celebrities as Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Jean Cocteau, Thomas Hardy, Auguste Rodin, William Butler Yeats, Claude Monet, and Igor Stravinsky. It also boasts an introduction by none other than Theodore Roosevelt in which he praises the efforts of his friend Wharton and urges his fellow Americans to support the war. Wharton also writes a preface in which she describes the process by which the book came to be:

Then the thought of this Book occurred to me. I appealed to my friends who write and paint and compose, and they to other friends of theirs, writers, painters, composers, statesmen and dramatic artists; and so the Book gradually built itself up, page by page and picture by picture. You will see from the names of the builders what a gallant piece of architecture it is, what delightful pictures hang on its walls, and what noble music echoes through them. But what I should have liked to show is the readiness, the kindliness, the eagerness, with which all the collaborators, from first to last, have lent a hand to the building. Perhaps you will guess it for yourselves when you read their names and see the beauty and variety of what they have given. So I efface myself from the threshold and ask you to walk in.

In addition to the 2000 trade copies produced, according to the Huntington Library blog, “a special keepsake edition was printed on French handmade paper in a limited printing of 175 copies, each signed by Updike [the publisher] and housed in a slipcase that also encompasses a portfolio of reproductions of the art works.”

rodin women
Page from the book showing Auguste Rodin’s contribution, Two Women, from an original watercolour sketch.