Edith Wharton in Morocco
by Stacy E. Holden
Edith Wharton was one of the most famous American writers of the early twentieth century. Her portrait of high society New York captured both the glamor and conformity of the Gilded Age. While her masterpiece novels Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence made her famous, she also wrote a popular travelogue describing her trip to Morocco in the early days of the French Protectorate. More than just a travelogue, In Morocco highlights a pivotal moment in world history and how American artistic and literary connections to Morocco have shaped political perceptions about the place.
Scholars talk about Western travel writing as a tainted literary genre. Most travel to a foreign land for a short time, not long enough to dispel set notions about the place described in their work.
This was certainly the case with Edith Wharton, who wrote a travelogue after a mere five-week trip to Morocco in 1917. France had colonized Morocco five years before, and war in Europe led to looming famine as France moved Moroccan men and wheat to the Western Front. Despite the political and economic dislocation of the time, Wharton peppers In Morocco with fantastical images of djinns, flying carpets, and even an encounter with “a princess out of an Arab fairy tale.”
“Everything that the reader of the Arabian Nights expects to find is here,” she wrote.
Such romanticized descriptions of this North African kingdom exemplify “Orientalism.” This term signifies preconceived notions conveyed as real knowledge through literature and works of artistic creation. Hierarchical in its representations of Western attitudes toward the East, such falsified images long supported European imperialism in the Middle East and North Africa.
Given such defects, how can historians make use of In Morocco as a primary source?
Wharton’s opinions about Morocco mattered...a lot. She had widespread popular appeal with ordinary American book buyers, and she had access to elite networks of American power.
Situating Wharton among her friends and peers helps explain this book’s significance. The childhood friends of Wharton included a future president and much of the US diplomatic corps. President Theodore Roosevelt was a lifelong friend. Her next-door neighbor Daisy married Henry White. A diplomat, White would negotiate in 1906 the Treaty of Algeciras, which banned Morocco’s colonization, and in 1919 helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris, which sanctioned it. Wharton kept up a lifelong correspondence with Henry Cabot Lodge, who was the father of her friend Bay and a Senator who prevented the US from joining the League of Nations.
When Wharton moved permanently to Paris in 1907, she extended her social networks. Most of her French associates advocated imperial expansion. Her close friends included future Prime Minister André Tardieu and future Nobel Laureate André Gide. She was a regular houseguest of Jean Jules Jusserand, France’s ambassador to the US from 1903 to 1925.
Wharton remained in France when the Great War broke out. She secured special permission to travel to the Western Front as a war reporter for Scribner’s Magazine, a popular American periodical. Her articles flouted the official US policy established by President Woodrow Wilson. Instead of neutrality, Wharton urged Americans to sympathize with France’s lot and join the war.
France’s colonization of Morocco in 1912 had aggravated the tensions between France and Germany that led to the Great War. France broke the Treaty of Algeciras by setting up a Protectorate in Morocco, and the US government refused to recognize it. A technicality, but an important one: the US could not enter the war on the side of a country violating international law.
In her war reportage, Wharton set out to convince Americans to support France’s colonial takeover in Morocco. She stopped in Crévic, a town destroyed in the Battle of Lorraine in late-1914. This was the hometown of Hubert Lyautey, the Resident General of Morocco. The Germans had deliberately bombed his family home, she explained to readers. Lauding Lyautey, she declared him “one of France’s best soldiers, and Germany’s worst enemy in Africa.” He proved, she wrote, “France was strong and prosperous enough for her colonies to thrive and expand without fear while she held at bay on her own frontier the most formidable foe the world has ever seen.”
Lyautey himself extended an invitation to Wharton to visit Morocco as his guest in late-1917.
By that time, President Wilson had ended American neutrality. The Senate had declared war on Germany, and American troops began arriving in Paris by summertime. Wharton greeted them with a speech and a copy of her book French Ways and Their Meanings. The Supreme Commander of the US Army moved into an apartment on Rue de Varennes, the same street where Wharton lived.
Lyautey arranged for an exhibit of traditional Moroccan crafts and modern Western inventions. He used this Foire de Rabat as an excuse to invite Wharton and other luminaries to Morocco, people who could spread word of France’s goodwill. Today, we’d call them “influencers,” with the product they sought to endorse, promote, and market being an extractive colonial regime.
Wharton’s arrived in Tangier on 25 September 1917. French officers planned her trip with care. An official car took Wharton from Tangier to Rabat. After visiting the Foire de Rabat, she set out with her handlers for Salé, Moulay Idriss, Casablanca, Volubilis, Meknes, Fez, and Marrakesh.
Wharton’s subsequent descriptions of Morocco show no hint of her otherwise keen eye for detail. As an author, she had developed a reputation for describing the minutiae of daily life. She had done so in her novel The House of Mirth (1905), which brought to life Manhattan’s elite Knickerbocker society, and in Ethan Frome (1911), set in a rural town in Western Massachusetts.
Instead, Wharton described Morocco through the prism of Orientalist imaginings. The desert fascinated Wharton, and she designated Morocco a barren land. Wharton claimed to be “desert motoring” just sixty miles south of Tangier, a Mediterranean climate. She refers to the desert thirty-eight times in her travelogue, even though she never traveled further south than Marrakesh. Located to the West of the High Atlas Mountains, Marrakesh is not in the desert.
The author’s fabrications serve a political purpose. Early on, Wharton asks her American readers to replace any isolationist thoughts with a new understanding of global entanglements. At the wall of Rabat’s Casbah des Oudaya, she looks down at the Bouregreg estuary and proceeds to describe, “breakers rolling in straight from America send their sprays to the lowest stone.”
Her narrative technique encourages readers to support an alliance with France even as this country extends its imperial reach. Wharton’s descriptions of Morocco’s barren lands highlight a need for development and so for Western tutelage. “Living in ignorance and grossness,” she writes, “these gifted races, perpetually struggling to reach some higher level of culture from which they have always been swept down by a fresh wave of barbarism, are still only a people in the making.”
In Morocco disseminates Wharton’s racialized and condescending views of Arabs to her extensive book-buying public. She shares with readers her belief “that the political stability which France is helping them to acquire will at last give their higher qualities time for fruition.”
As Wharton crossed from Spain to Morocco by ferry, Secretary of State Robert Lansing had yet to dot that final “i” and cross that last “t” on the document that would officially recognize the Protectorate. He would do so on 20 October 1917, while Wharton was in Morocco. The next day, American soldiers entered trenches in Lorraine, only twelve miles from Crévic, Lyautey’s hometown.
In Morocco has been neglected as a primary source. Wharton is neither a reliable or a credible witness to the experiences of colonized Moroccans, so it is easily dismissed. Wharton scholars disparage the derivative prose of In Morocco, while historians belittle its ethnic essentializing.
Yet this work provides a window onto central issues of Wharton’s day. It suggests the policymaking influence of Wharton, a female author who never held formal political office. In doing so, In Morocco can help historians understand how the US moved from opposing to supporting European imperialism in Morocco, eventually embracing interventionism as a foreign policy norm.
George C. Herring, The American Century and Beyond: US Foreign Relations, 1893-2015 (Oxford University Press, 2017).
Amy Kaplan, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of US Culture (Harvard University Press, 2002).
Alice Kelly, ed. Edith Wharton: Fighting France, from Dunkerque to Belfort (Edinburgh University Press, 2015).
Hermoine Lee, Edith Wharton (Vintage, 2008).
Claudine Lesage, Edith Wharton in France (The Mount Press, 2018).
Susan Nance, How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790-1935 (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
Julie Olin-Ammentorp, Edith Wharton’s Writings from the Great War (University Press of Florida, 2004).
Andrew Priest, Designs on Empire: America’s Rise to Power in the Age of European Imperialism (Columbia University Press, 2021).
Sarah Bird Wright, Edith Wharton’s Travel Writing: The Making of a Connoisseur (Palgrave Macmillan, 1997)
Douglas Little, American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East since 1945 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2002).
Meet Our Guest: Stacy Holden
Stacy E. Holden is an Associate Professor of History at Purdue University. Her research focuses on the modern Middle East and North Africa as well as American engagement with the Arab world. She is the author of The Politics of Food in Modern Morocco (University Press of Florida, 2009) and A Documentary History of Modern Iraq (University Press of Florida, 2012). She is currently writing a book about Edith Wharton’s 1917 trip to Morocco.