Calling all Esherick fans and readers! Off the Shelf is an Esherick-like twist on the classic book club. It provides the opportunity for bookworms, Esherick fans, and local community members alike to explore Wharton Esherick’s legacy through the artist’s own richly stocked bookshelves, as well as recently published books that illuminate Esherick’s artistic networks and enduring legacy. 

Wharton Esherick’s first edition copy of Winesburg, Ohio featuring Wharton’s clippings on Anderson

Off the Shelf: The Wharton Esherick Museum Book Club

Join us at the Wharton Esherick Museum for Off the Shelf: The Wharton Esherick Museum Book Club. Off the Shelf is an Esherick-like twist on the classic book club, and provides the opportunity for bookworms, Esherick fans, and local-community members alike to explore Wharton Esherick’s legacy through the artist’s own richly stocked bookshelves as well as recently published books that illuminate Esherick’s artistic network and enduring legacy. Each meeting takes place in Esherick’s 1956 Workshop and features an exclusive look into WEM’s special collections and archives to explore materials related to the month’s book. Discussions will be moderated by friend of the museum, WEM board member, and Director of West Chester University Special Collections, Ron McColl, and will feature occasional guest specialists.

Wharton Esherick’s book loan list, ca. 1940s

Wharton Esherick’s life intertwined with many prominent writers of his day, such as Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson. Esherick worked with many authors and publishers during his lifetime to craft woodblock print illustrations for newly published and reissued books. In many ways, Esherick’s journey in wood and three-dimensions began with the woodblock prints he created for Mary Marcy’s Rhymes of Early Jungle Folk (1922). Esherick was also quite the book collector. He often lent out books that were significant to him so that friends and patrons could experience them, too. What can we learn about the broader context of Esherick’s life, work, and the time in which he lived through the books he worked on, read, lent out, as well as through the writers he considered close friends?

Books like Sister Carrie, Winesburg, Ohio, and Cane, written by Esherick’s comrades, illuminate many issues the artist’s work responded to and the societal tensions the Esherick family experienced as they experimented with crafting an intentional life in Paoli. These books allow us to explore questions such as: what was it like for a cosmopolitan family to move out to the country? Did the reality they find live up to the ideal they imagined? How does Esherick’s hand-crafted legacy relate to the new world of consumerism described by Theodore Dreiser?

About the Club

Off the Shelf: The Wharton Esherick Museum Book Club is an in-person program at the Wharton Esherick Museum. We will hold meetings the second Wednesday of each month from 6:30-8:00 p.m., beginning on April 10th, 2024. For each meeting we will gather in the 1956 Workshop to discuss a select text and enjoy light fare, refreshments, and community! In addition, each meeting will include a trip into the Studio to examine relevant archival and special collections material.

If you don’t already have the book or want to make sure you have the same copy so that we’re all on the same page (literally!), we recommend purchasing the relevant texts here or you can follow the links below.

Photograph by Anne Todd

Join the Club

To join us for Off the Shelf, just reserve your spot in the sessions below! Limited space available for each session.

Price: $30 per session | $20 for members
Not a member? Learn more!

If you do not receive a confirmation email after registering, be sure to check your spam folder. If you have questions, feel free to call 610-644-5822 or email [email protected].


Wednesday, April 10th, 6:30-8:00 p.m.

Book: Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio (1919)

» Purchase book here

Winesburg, Ohio is one of the most influential works of modern American literature. Anderson’s short story cycle is set in a fictional, pre-industrial Ohio town and deals with issues of loneliness, isolation, and coming of age. Writers like Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Esherick’s friend Jean Toomer would draw on Winesburg’s formal innovations. Sherwood Anderson and Wharton Esherick developed a lifelong friendship after meeting in Fairhope, Alabama in 1920. Esherick visited Anderson at his home outside of Marion, Virginia where the two edited Sherwood’s work and Esherick carved sculptures from Virginia white pine. Prior to Anderson’s death in 1941, he asked Esherick to design his grave marker, a testament to their deep friendship and mutual admiration.

Wednesday, May 8th, 6:30-8:00 p.m.

Book: Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (1900)

» Purchase book here

Arguably one of the most important novels of the twentieth century, Sister Carrie follows Carrie Meeber’s downfall at the hands of modern society around the turn of the twentieth century. Dreiser’s novel highlights emergent features of daily life from sweatshops to department stores that have become part and parcel of our lives today. This rich text addresses issues of gender, class, and labor, among many other topics. Dreiser and Esherick first met at the Hedgerow Theatre in 1924 and subsequently developed a close friendship. Between visiting one another the two corresponded frequently and saved each other’s letters. Over time, Esherick made a number of pieces for Dreiser, including a snakewood cane, a carved caricature bust, and a padauk writing table.

Wednesday, June 12th, 6:30-8:00 p.m.

Book: Wendy Lesser, You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn (2017)

» Purchase book here

The world-renowned architect Louis Kahn left a large footprint on Esherick’s hillside when he collaborated with Wharton on his 1956 Workshop. Kahn and Esherick also collaborated on the Margaret Esherick House in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia. We’ll have an incredibly unique experience reading about the life and work of this architect inside of one of his buildings. Wendy Lesser is a writer, editor, and art critic who founded the Threepenny Review and authored several works of nonfiction. Her biography of Louis Kahn published in 2017 received the Marfield Prize and PEN America Los Angeles’ 2018 literary award in research nonfiction. Lesser’s book draws on extensive original research, interviews with Kahn’s children, colleagues, and students, and visits to the built environments he created across the world. 

Wednesday, July 10th, 6:30-8:00 p.m.

Book: Katherine Mansfield, The Collected Stories (1945)

» Purchase book here

Katherine Mansfield was a modern writer born in New Zealand and became best known as a pioneer of short fiction in the early twentieth-century. Her psychologically acute work often explores issues of gender, sexuality, class, and feelings of anxiety. While living in London during the 1910s, she became a close acquaintance of the Bloomsbury Group that included writers like Virginia Woolfe and E.M. Forster, and formed a close friendship with the novelist D.H. Lawrence, for whose 1925 collection of essays Esherick made his whimsical porcupine print.

Wednesday, August 14th, 6:30-8:00 p.m.

Book: Jean Toomer, Cane (1923)

» Purchase book here

Jean Toomer’s Cane is a short story cycle mixing prose, poetry, and stagecraft that resists simple classification. Cane is a text that takes readers on a journey from the post-Civil War South to the great city of Chicago, before making a homecoming to a Georgia valley. Toomer was a writer of biracial background, who had a complicated association with the Harlem Renaissance movement. Later in life, Toomer turned to spiritualism under the influence of George Gurdjieff. In 1934, the writer married Marjorie Content, a long-time friend and client of Wharton Esherick, and the couple moved to Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Esherick illustrated Toomer’s series of Mill House Pamphlets, while Toomer mentored Esherick’s son Peter during the summertimes.