Wavering on Wharton’s Waverley

Village streets paved with literature

By D. Silverman

“On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York”—and, thus, we’re launched into The Age of Innocence.

“EDITH WHARTON” BY EDWARD HARRISON MAY, 1870. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

(Though Edith Wharton’s novel is set in the 1870s, the opening could almost arrive circa 1970—with Nilsson as Elektra at the Met.)

Some weeks later, and 12 chapters on, we observe: “As the young man strolled up Fifth Avenue from Waverley Place, the long thoroughfare was deserted… as Archer crossed Washington Square, he remarked that old Mr. du Lac was calling on his cousins the Dagonets, and turning down the corner of West Tenth Street he saw Mr. Skipworth, of his own firm.”

Waver-ley? I thought. What’s that about???

As I’ve since learned, when Sir Walter Scott died in 1832, within months some enterprising literarily-inclined residents proceeded to rename a long stretch of Sixth Street to “Waverley Place”—after the late writer’s first venture into fiction: Waverley; or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since.’

Somewhat ironically, Waverley, the novel, is a romantic tale of a bunch of titled English aristocrats staging a Jacobite rebellion over who will be King, or win the maiden, or something like that (full disclosure, I tried reading it, really I did—not my cup of tea).

Keep in mind that in 1833—after Sir Walter dies and the Villagers memorialize him in sacrifice of the alliterative Sixth Street to a beacon of Bonnie Prince Charlie—the last surviving signer of our Declaration of Independence was barely in his grave (that was Charles Carroll, outliving Scott two months, and he himself immortalized via Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn).

Regardless, Waverley Place was established. And within decades that nettlesome second-e was forsaken—not unlike the Bonnie Prince—and we were left with the ever-so-Villagey Waverly Place.

(Scott, in a preamble, mentions fashioning the name Waverley as “an uncontaminated name, bearing with its sound little of good or evil, excepting what the reader shall hereafter be pleased to affix to it.”)

In principle I think it a grand notion to affix cultural themes to thoroughfares. Another nearby instance is Irving Place, evidently named in honor of the author, Washington, within his lifetime.

Should the inconvenience and cost of changing a street name prove impedimental, I foresee starting with easy pickings, those where the tribute alters but the signage stays.

For example, we might simply rechristen Christopher Street in memory of Isherwood; or Charles St for Dickens; Jane St for Jane Austen (or Charlotte Brontë); Thompson for Virgil (bit of a stretch, but as Waverly lost an e, Virgil could gain a p); Jones for Bill T.; Perry for Tyler—well, you get the idea.

(Currently, these streets are named for, respectively: landowner, same landowner, different landowner (man named Jaynes), a general, a doctor, and a naval commander.)

Those old enough to recall the early days of this current century may well remember a multi-year brouhaha as Washington Square was renovated and the central fountain shifted a score-odd feet eastward to better align with Fifth Avenue. Many rationalizations were given for the move. Some even suggested that the cost would be recouped by improved property values on lower Fifth—where, apparently, those residences newly gaining fountain views would eventually pay more in taxes (or some such trickle-down).

Left unexplored in that proposition was: that if a fountain sightline positively impacted property values, presumably the folks on (Virgil) Thompson Street who lost water-views also saw their property values plummet. (Boo-hoo for NYU!)

Which brings us ’round to Wharton’s young man, Newland Archer, as he strolls up Fifth Avenue from Waverley Place in the 1870s. Behind him, a slightly-used fountain was recently ensconced, having been carted away from the S.E. corner of Central Park—and later to be nudged over a bit. The current basin replaced an earlier and much larger one—next time you’re there, note the four cast-iron globe lamps positioned around the fountain, those approximate the hundred-foot diameter of the original 1852 pool in the Square.

Wharton’s characters, placed in the period of her childhood, depict the crustiest of the upper crust of New York society, girding against the encroaching Gilded Age; when there were still but a handful of families who all knew each other—and bearing the haughty demeanor we might now call having “their nose in the air.”

Anyone near the fountain today with their nose in the air—or to the ground, for that matter—might detect a different whiff of high culture. So, while re-endowing streets with literary allusion, we might well accord the fountain’s newly bestoned surroundings: “The Age of Innocence Plaza.”