Summering in Newport

by Anna K Williams

“Newport represented the escape from duty into an atmosphere of unmitigated holiday-making.” – Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

Summer is officially here! In Gilded Age America, the start of the summer season was the cue for the wealthiest and most famous families from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and the South to flock to Newport, Rhode Island. The seaside city, located on Aquidneck Island, already had a rich history by the mid-nineteenth century. It had been home to a thriving Native settlement, served as a refuge for Anne Hutchinson and her followers—banished from Boston for their religious beliefs—and flourished as a leading and busy seaport. The British army’s occupation of Newport during the Revolutionary War devastated the city, but it soon rebuilt as a summer resort, appealing to visitors with its untouched landscapes and colonial architecture.

Newport is today often best known for its “summer cottages”—or ostentatious mansions commissioned by America’s elite during the Gilded Age—such as Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s The Breakers, an Italian Renaissance-inspired villa with seventy rooms designed by Richard Morris Hunt. However, many artists, writers, and thinkers also gathered in the City by the Sea. The James family—including theologian and writer Henry James Sr., novelist Henry James Jr., philosopher and psychologist William James, and diarist Alice James—lived in Newport on several occasions, while radical abolitionist and writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson and his wife settled in the city after his Civil War service. Novelist Edith Wharton, born into an old New York family, summered as a child and young woman at Pen Craig, and she later bought her own Newport home, Land’s End, and enlisted architect and decorator Ogden Codman Jr. to help her remodel it. Both Henry James and Edith Wharton depicted Newport life in several of their novels and short stories, often turning a critical eye on its competitive and coded social life. Thanks to extensive preservation, many of Newport’s mansions and homes still stand, waiting to transport visitors back to the city’s golden era. Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence or Henry James’s “The Sense of Newport” provide an equally evocative glimpse into Newport’s intricate social world.

The New England Quarterly has published extensively on all periods of Newport history. To learn about Williams James, his cousin Minny Temple, and their time in Newport, read Alfred Habegger’s New Light on William James and Minny Temple, which appeared in our March 1987 issue. If you’re interested in finding out more about the experience of African Americans—as much a part of the city’s history as the Gilded Age elite—see Exercising Their Right: African American Voter Turnout in Antebellum Newport, Rhode Island, by Richard C. Rohrs, from the September 2011 issue. And to step back into Revolutionary Newport, read T. Cole Jones’s “Displaying the Ensigns of Harmony”: The French Army in Newport, Rhode Island, 1780–1781, from the September 2012 issue.

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