Katie Ahern is a PhD candidate at the School of English in University College Cork. She was the recipient of one of our postgraduate travel awards this summer.

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Larz Anderson House Ballroom

With the aid of the Irish Association for American Studies travel bursary, I travelled to Washington DC to present at the Edith Wharton Society conference “Wharton in Washington”. It was the first conference run by the Edith Wharton Society in four years (the last was in Florence in 2012), and proved to be an invaluable opportunity for me to engage with the most recent Wharton scholarship, and indeed to meet many prominent scholars in the field. The conference ran from the 2nd of June through to the 4th and was located on Embassy Row in Washington, split between the Fairfax Hotel and the Larz Anderson House – the Gilded Age mansion truly helped create a wonderful atmosphere for the conference!

My PhD thesis, All Night Long I Walked the Streets, Drunk with my Dreams”: A Comparative Study of Urban Space in Twentieth-Century American Literature’ analyses American novels set in the urban environment to investigate marginalised identities and establish the ways in which neglected identities were conceived of by twentieth-century American writers.  My chosen authors rarely, if ever, have conferences centred on them, and so this conference provided a valuable insight into the work of other, more established scholars as well as facilitating a deeper critical understanding of Edith Wharton’s work.  The conference organisers, Drs Melanie Dawson and Jennifer Haytock, clearly went to great effort to put together thoughtful panels with papers which linked clearly together and created coherent lines of thought. I was excited to meet with scholars I had met previously, and also to hear the biggest names in Edith Wharton studies give their thoughts on the current areas of interest.

The first evening’s keynote speaker was Dr Laura Rattray, Reader in North American Literature at the University of Glasgow, whose publications include the edited collection of Edith Wharton’s unpublished writings, and who is currently one of the foremost Wharton scholars. Dr Rattray delivered a wonderful talk about the developments in Wharton studies in recent years, while also pointing out the absences of scholarship on some areas of Wharton’s writing – specifically a lack of interest in her as a poet and a playwright. The second keynote speaker was the screenwriter and director Christopher Hampton, who gave an interesting and entertaining account of the difficulties he has experienced in his attempts to bring Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country to screen.

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Wharton conference delegates

Conference presentations are always a valuable method to gain new understanding of one’s work and to be able to present my work on Wharton towards the end of my PhD gave me the opportunity to gauge the quality of my own work on one of the authors central to my studies for such a long time. It was fascinating to hear papers from authors whose work I’ve read for years, and to have the chance to discuss my paper and thoughts with them was wonderful. The more established delegates were very welcoming towards new scholars, and thoughtful with their feedback which made the trip both useful from a scholarly perspective and enjoyable.