Ordinarily, a postcard from a prehistoric site among the papers of the Osborn family would be curious but somewhat unremarkable. After all, the collection’s main protagonist, Henry Fairfield Osborn, was a well-known paleontologist who by its August 1923 postmark had been at the helm of the American Museum of Natural History for 15 years. Closer examination reveals a surprise, however, since the postcard bears the signature “Edith Wharton.”
Wharton wrote it from Les Eyzies, in southwestern France, while on a tour of French prehistoric sites. According to her note, Wharton’s initial visits were in preparation for one to Tuc [d’Audoubert], one cave of the Trois-Frères complex only discovered in 1912. It is regarded for its trove of Paleolithic art, including two exceptional sculptured bison found there. Wharton also writes that Denis Peyrony, a teacher turned archaeologist who had opened the museum at Les Eyzies in 1918, had spoken of a “wonderful new cavern with sculpture” at Haute Garonne. (This is apparently a 3.5 foot headless bear sculpture discovered that summer.)
Despite its brevity, the postcard offers a fascinating snapshot of the flurry of prehistoric discoveries during the early 20th century. Yet, as we’ll see, it also turns out to be a loose thread leading to a rather interesting revelation.
There is, at least initially, some dissonance imagining the literary Wharton, and man of science, Osborn, as acquaintances. On the other hand, these were members of the New York’s upper crust whose paths may conceivably have crossed. Moreover, there’s reason to believe that the intellectually curious Wharton would have been familiar with Osborn. Although Wharton’s reputation now shades Osborn considerably, he was then a public figure. In addition to heading up AMNH, Osborn was the author of a number of both popular and scientific works on evolutionary biology. This bibliographic output is even alluded to by Wharton who mentions his book coming along “in the motor.”
For what it’s worth, the book is almost certainly Men of the Old Stone Age, a popular look at the period. According to royalty reports from his publisher, Charles Scribner’s Sons, it was also by far the most lucrative of his published works from its appearance in 1915. This is curious since a number of scholars have pointed out that it was primarily through the unheralded labors of his staff that Osborn’s publications came to fruition. This may help to explain why the staff surreptitiously derided him as a “sulphur-bottomed whale” as Kevin Padian noted in 2004.
While many of Osborn’s scientific contributions as a whole were already being discredited before his death in 1935, in 1923, Osborn remained a man of distinction. Osborn and Wharton’s common social standing, and public personas thus provide a perfectly feasible explanation for the exchange. Yet it left a gnawing hunch for something more tangible. Fortunately, a contemporary newspaper article obliges: among the 15 honorary degrees Yale University awarded at its June 20, 1923 commencement were Henry Fairfield Osborn (Doctor of Science) and Edith Wharton (Doctor of Letters). The graduation precedes Wharton’s postcard by only two months, making it pretty hard to ignore the occasion as a precursor to Wharton’s note.
Having a concrete date warranted a look at Osborn’s journals. Although they usually only record his life in snippets, this time around they did not disappoint (at least not entirely). After a few words about the procession to Yale’s Woolsey Hall, Osborn scribbles “Superb music + dignity. Enter the great Hall. I sit next to Edith Wharton – we converse on Race.”
“Race?!” We’ve previously learned that Osborn’s interests in scientific racism have tainted his reputation as a scientist so his interest in a chat on the subject isn’t so surprising. What is unexpected is him recording it as the topic of conversation with the eminent author, Edith Wharton.
Of course, he wouldn’t have seen it as so incriminating. But this leads only to more questions, especially with regard to Wharton whose views on the subject are more opaque than Osborn, and have been the subject of scholarly work in recent years. We are then left to speculate about whether Wharton’s postcard should hold any more meaning than to remind us once more how omnipresent many of the deplorable views he and his compatriots shared were, even in “polite” society.
Ultimately, we can’t indict Wharton without sufficient evidence. But we can acknowledge that it doesn’t appear Osborn’s views offended her, at least so much that she didn’t read his book, and write to let him know about it. A fuller discussion of the implications is something for Wharton scholars but suffice to say, like many historical discoveries, what exactly was said between them all those years ago is likely to remain a mystery.
This post is by Ted O’Reilly, Curator of Manuscripts.