An Examination of Imperialism in Edith Wharton's Travel Writing

Christine Kelley
Elizabethtown College

Keywords: Edith Wharton, travel writing, imperialism, France, Morocco


Edith Wharton, one of the greatest fiction writers of the 20th century and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence, was not only talented at crafting stories but was also renowned for her travel writing. A body of her travel literature centers around her experiences in France, her opinion of their culture, and her observations on the lives of French women. By using Mary Louise Pratt's Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation to make a critical evaluation, it becomes apparent that Wharton's travel writing, though useful for the growing tourism industry in the early 20th century, showed a biased preference for France, which lauds the "superiority" for French culture over the more "primitive" French colony of Morocco. Edith Wharton Abroad: Selected Travel Writings 1888-1920 excerpts essential chapters from Wharton's Motor Flight through Paris and In Morocco. Sarah Bird Wright—the editor—suggests the two works are in dialogue with each other because they feature the changing landscapes in each country due to rapidly evolving transportation systems (i.e., roads for automobiles), while contrasting Wharton's views on culture. In reality, the differences between the two cultures portrayed in each book make for a more fascinating study of Wharton's drift towards expatriation from the United States, to her identification with France as her home later in life, and her participation in France's colonization of Morocco after WWI.  

As a privileged New Yorker—a member of pseudo aristocracy in the United States—Wharton was able to spend portions of her life touring Europe. Much of Wharton's childhood was spent abroad. Born during the American Civil War, her family's real estate fortunes took a plunge in 1866, and they had to relocate to Paris. Driven out by the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the Jones' (Wharton's maiden name) moved on to Italy and Germany. Europe allowed the child to become acquainted with multiple languages and literatures. Later in life she would tell a friend about "the curse of being brought up" in Europe because it remained "eradicably in one's blood" (Lewis, 1975, p. 19). After her marriage to Edward Wharton in 1885, the two would make an annual trip to Italy (p. 57). Unlike average Americans, they were members of a leisure class, the very upper class society that Wharton criticized in her novels. Although Italy was her first love, Edith Wharton spent the latter part of her life touring and later, expatriated, in France.  

Wealth allowed the couple to spend periods abroad among other literary personages, including Henry James. In fact, Henry James would accompany Wharton during a Motor Flight through France. The book was serialized by Scribner's in 1908, an important year because she was first beginning to consider eventual expatriation. The tour, which occurred in 1904, also marked a shift in Wharton's preference for traveling: France replaced Italy as her preferred European destination (Bird, 1995, pp. 4-5). France was evolving, too, towards modernity. Rather than relying on the rail lines, these travelers used the relatively new technology, the motorcar.  

During this period, Bird asserted, travel writing was shaped by the observations of an "educated amateur—the amateur whose qualifications were not formalized and whose journeys were free of constraints of a narrow academic focus" (1995, p. 9). Pratt's objective was to portray travelers around the same times as highly educated men—colonizers—who tried to both claim land for Europe and maintain their innocence by presenting scientific, romantic, survival, or sentimental accounts. These divergent views are less important in the portrayal of France than in her narrative on Morocco where romantic and sentimental qualities were employed to help justify colonialism and to create a touristic appeal to raise capital for France. Wharton may not have been college educated, but she had class advantages that allowed her to become a polyglot. She had natural writing talent. Her celebrity as a published and recognized author boosted appeal for her travel narratives. Furthermore, she had a keen eye for detail, a descriptive skill, and the sensibilities of a connoisseur; her depictions in travel writing truly transported readers to the time and place of her destination. Wharton's travel writing, in general, exhibited themes such as dislike for destinations laid out in guidebooks and dissatisfaction with architectural restoration (Bird, 1995, p. 11). She allegedly had an aversion to mass tourism.  

A Motor Flight through France explored the historical backdrop of the country by the "flight of the motor, pausing here, and here, and here again to note how France understands and enjoys and lives with her rivers" (Wharton, 1995, p. 111). Because these were the early days of the automobile, she noted how the "demands of the motorist are introducing modern plumbing and Maple furniture into the uttermost parts of France, those romantic old inns" (p. 118).   However, other than for her personal comfort, Edith Wharton did not support architectural renovation; in fact, the changes she observed focus on the effect of modern conveniences rather than new roads. Wharton and her companions visited ancient chateaux, and she provided a brief history of each. She placed France in historical context by architecture. The castle villages she encountered were defined by their appearance: "Both Rambouillet and Maintenon are characteristically French in their way of keeping company with their villages […] Valencay bears itself with greater aloofness, bidding the town 'keep its distance' […] The impression is grander yet less noble" (Wharton, 1995, p. 121). The landscape, too, offered contrast. She lamented that the typical French country town is "dry, compact, unsentimental, as if avariciously hoarding a rich past" (p. 120). Yet, nearby they encountered scenery that is "extremely picturesque" (p. 120). If the town did not follow the "normal," esthetically pleasing Seine landscape with "smiling towns," "bright little cafes on sunny village squares, and "pleasure boats" under "willow shaded banks," she portrayed it as poor, unmodernized, and coarse (p. 116). Edith Wharton loved the French landscape when it complied with her sense of taste and decorum, criticizing it when the area appeared common or everyday.

Although Motor Flight through France created a variegated view of the French landscape, In Morocco  showed Wharton's fascination with the country's people and culture. It seems her unfamiliarity with Morocco influenced her curiosity. Yet, Wharton overwhelming flattered the French who know the "intelligent enjoyment of living" and adhere to "this admirable fitting into the pattern, which seems almost as if it were a moral outcome of the universal French sense of form" (Wharton, 1995, p. 117). Wharton's connection to France's culture and heritage—as a female author—was demonstrated especially by her pilgrimage to Georges Sand's house. The French were worthy of her veneration. They contributed to the society's improvement; they produced women worthy of emulating. Universally, the French conformed to Wharton's sense of good taste, and thus know "how to live." She did not need to explain Gallic customs because she understood their way of life.  

In Morocco, Edith Wharton was outside her element. By the time she journeyed to this Arab land, France was a European nation actively involved in colonizing the country. It had only been a French colony for three years. General Lyautey, who invited Wharton to visit, was working on improving Moroccan infrastructure for French commercial enterprise. When Wharton arrived in September 1917, Morocco's interior had only recently been opened to Europeans. Before this development, the country was an expensive, difficult, and dangerous place to travel: "Wharton's trip through Morocco was a clear indication of how much faster, easier, safer and more protected travel had become. On the first leg of her journey, Wharton motored through an immense region of palmetto desert and fallow land" (Hunter, 2010, p. 62). In 1918, commercial European travel began in Morocco (pp. 59-61). Once In Morocco  was published in 1920, it became a useful guidebook for travel in this new tourist destination.

Wharton, herself had witnessed the First World War in France and identified herself more firmly with the French people than she had when her permanent residence was in the United States.   Although Wharton represented a compounded outsider, one senses ease in her French travels that was absent in Morocco. Morocco was entirely foreign to her. Because her purpose was to attract tourists, her motives for writing were both esthetic and colonialist. Plus her role in creating an interest—through travel literature—in this French colony undermined her dislike of tourism. It also implicated her as a conspirator in the anti-conquest: "the strategies of representation whereby European bourgeois subjects seek to secure their innocence in the same moment they assert European hegemony" (Pratt, 1992, p. 9).  

Evaluating In Morocco  is tricky because it produces negative and positive viewpoints for interpreting Moroccan folkways. The narrative focuses on a different contact with the country by paying attention to Morocco's art, architecture, and folkways—areas of study that had been previously neglected by most writers. Her Western readership was stirred by Wharton's excitement about this exotic land, which "To the traveller returning from the East, robs the romantic scenes of western Europe of half their charm" (Wharton, 1995, p. 187). At points, Wharton's observations seem innocent enough—in fact, almost complimentary to the colony and its people. But Morocco is obviously an "other" or inferior country for her. She attempted to justify Arab inferiority against Europeans; Morocco was a land filled with barbarous nomads and imprisoning harams. It was also a vibrant, exotic bazaar open for increasing France's wealth.   Thus she was—like writers examined by Pratt (1922)—exploiting the native people by helping to further the economic interests of her adoptive France.  

Like Wharton's novels—which examined the gender expectations imposed on women around the turn of the 19th century—her fascination with Moroccan women in travel writing eclipsed descriptions of men. She and Mme. Lyautey were invited to meet with the ladies in the Sultan's haram. Although she described the beautiful women as princesses from an "Arab fairy-tale" adorned in "narrow sumptuous gowns, with over-draperies of gold and silver brocade and pale rosy gauze held in by corset-like sashes of gold tissue of Fez, and the heavy silken cords that looped their voluminous sleeves," their encumbering garments signified their imprisonment as concubines (Wharton, 1995, p. 197). Wharton understandably represented Moroccan women as more oppressed than Western women. The ladies in the haram of a chief dignitary in the city of Fez lived a more depressing situation. Wharton compared entry through the tunneled streets to being lowered into a mine. These "pale women in their moldering prison" were encased in a gardenless "subterranean labyrinth which sun and air never reach" (p. 202). The apathy of the younger women bothered her. Even their clothing was melancholy: "Their dresses, rich but sober, the veils and diadems put on in honour of my visit, had a dignified dowdiness" (p. 204).

The crowded Moroccan cities were to Wharton "always a feast to the eye" (1995, p. 188). In Fez, Marrakesh, and Meknes, she represented "vanished civilizations" which had "presided over empires stretching from Spain to the Sahara … Morocco's imperial cities were anchored in the past, possessed a magical charm, had an untouched quality, their narrow and winding alleyways revealing 'the torturous secret soul of the land'" (Hunter, 2010, p. 66). Wharton dwelled on the civilization's past glory, which correlated with Alexander von Humbolt's views on South America mentioned by Pratt. Morocco's cities may be filled with people, but they were inferior to their ancestral versions because they acted as the oppressed colonized, rather than the oppressing colonizer. Their culture and architecture were being systematically subsumed by the French colonists.

Although Wharton has access to the enclosed, privileged world of the palaces, the "sumptuousness" of native life there was represented by the "nomadic nature of African life" where "wild tribesmen" and "half-naked urchins" ride bareback on donkeys (Wharton, 1995, p. 191). They attended the Muslim religious rite of Aid-el-Kebir or The Sacrifice of the Sheep, whose slaughter sent a shiver through the occidental observers. Here she presented the Moroccan men as wild and barbarous: "Instantly there came storming across the plain a wild cavalcade of tribesmen, with rifles slung across their shoulders, pistols and cutlasses in their belts, and twists of camel's hair bound about their turbans" (p. 191). However, Wharton did make an attempt to understand the unfamiliar here; she compared the Muslim right to "Semitic rituals," but then referred to the ritual as "dark magic," rooted in these "mysterious tribes" of North Africa. She created a Romantic image for tourists enamored by Scheherazade's One Thousand and One Nights. Morocco appeared luxuriously exotic and thrillingly barbaric.

Unlike the travelers in Mary Louise Pratt's Imperial Eyes, Edith Wharton wrote about a familiar European country and an unfamiliar, but already conquered, French colony. Wharton simultaneously praised the colonization of Morocco and decried the French influence on architectural refurbishment. She tried to make sense of an "unfamiliar place," to put it in her own terms. Yet, by placing herself as a superior outsider, she failed to avoid blame for French imperialism. France was obviously her preferred destination—by 1918 was living permanently in France and would spend the remainder of her life there. What united both pieces is the underlying portrayal of France as imperialist and superior. Morocco was clearly subjugated in contrast to France. France was cultured, historicized, and praised by the author; meanwhile, Morocco was depicted as foreign, dehistorisized, and "other."


Bird, Sarah Wright.   "Introduction."   Edith Wharton Abroad: Selected Travel Writings 1888-1920.   Ed. Sarah Wright Bird.   New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1995.   Print.
---.   Edith Wharton's Travel Writing: the Making of a Connoisseur.   New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Hunter, Robert F.   "Manufacturing Exotica: Edith Wharton and Tourism in French Morocco, 1912-1920."   Middle Eastern Studies 46.1.   January 2010: 59-77.   Print.

Lewis, R.W.B.   Edith Wharton: A Biography.   New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1975.   Print.

Pratt, Mary Louise.   Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing through Transculturation.   New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 1992.   Print.

Wharton, Edith.   Edith Wharton Abroad: Selected Travel Writings 1888-1920.   Ed. Sarah Wright Bird.   New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1995.   Print.  



©2002-2021 All rights reserved by the Undergraduate Research Community.

Research Journal: Vol. 1 Vol. 2 Vol. 3 Vol. 4 Vol. 5 Vol. 6 Vol. 7 Vol. 8 Vol. 9 Vol. 10 Vol. 11 Vol. 12 Vol. 13 Vol. 14 Vol. 15
High School Edition

Call for Papers ¦ URC Home ¦ Kappa Omicron Nu

KONbutton K O N KONbutton