Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Edith Wharton at War: Civilized Space in Troubled Times

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Edith Wharton at War: Civilized Space in Troubled Times

Article excerpt

In a crucial scene in A Son at the Front (1922), Edith Wharton's only full-length novel about World War I, the artist protagonist, as news of the horrors escalates, comes to see

man as a defenceless animal suddenly torn from his shell,

stripped of all the interwoven tendrils of association, habit, background

.... flung out of the human habitable world into naked

ether, where nothing breathes or lives. (183-84)

The passage vividly portrays widespread feelings of vulnerability before the terrifying new techniques and technologies of the Great War, which many Americans identified with Germany. The delayed entrance of the United States into the war led Wharton's impatient friend and fellow expatriate, Henry James, in his last year, to become a British citizen, an "apostasy" that at first shocked even other long-time fellow (emigres like painter John Singer Sargent(1) but that carried in its wake even their--maybe especially their--bitter understanding.

Wharton shared James's perspective, though not his choice, believing that Americans should "make every sacrifice to atone for the cowardice of their government."(2) She implored Robert Grant, a Boston jurist and fellow novelist, to "proclaim everywhere ... what it will mean to all that we Americans cherish if England & France go under, & Prussianism becomes the law of life,"(3) and assuring him that "all the wild rumours of `atrocities' are true, & are understated."(4) In A Son at the Front, sympathetically portrayed characters exclaim that "this isn't war--it's simple murder!" and that "Germany was conducting it on methods that civilization had made men forget"; one of them even calls "Germans not fit to live with white people" (90, 92, 133). All of this is from a woman who was "nourished in infancy on a German Bible,"(5) who took "refuge" in Goethe and Schopenhauer "when everything else bec[ame] meaningless,"(6) and who in 1913 found Berlin "the model modern town" in its "cleanliness, order, & general perfection."(7) Yet in 1932 she confided to a friend that she couldn't "get used" to the Germans "even now and even in homeopathic doses."(8)

Wharton's writings about the war, however, are rarely so overtly racist, or so focused on personal atrocities. Instead, they portray, rather literally, "man as a defenceless animal" thrust not simply out of necessary shelter but out of the buildings and grounds that make human life and relationships possible. The waging of World War I displaced people, destroyed farms and villages, made rubble of institutions, made the earth itself less habitable. In particular, the historic architecture of France, valued both as evidence of high civilization and as civilizing in its effects, became suddenly, frighteningly vulnerable. When news spread of cathedrals, town halls, towns themselves flattened in minutes, and of men trapped in filthy trenches and murdered or mutilated outside them by weapons of terrible force and accuracy, many otherwise sane Anglo-Americans retreated into the most primitive kind of racism. However, Wharton's most substantial contribution to the literature of World War I--in fiction, essays, journalism, and letters--is not this chauvinist lapse of an otherwise formidable intellect but the way she concretized her concerns, the realism with which she portrayed French civilization in the actual physical structures that the Germans threatened and destroyed.

Wharton's lifelong engagement in architectural issues surfaced in two early books, The Decoration of Houses (1897), written with architect Ogden Codman, and Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904), in extensive reference in her fiction and travel writing, and in her building of The Mount in 1904 and her reconstruction of a house in Newport and two villas in France. Furthermore, like James, she had already lamented American architectural inadequacies, observing sardonically how American wealth and energy tended to create uninhabitable places,(9) and she supported fully the impetus toward "City Beautiful" that had overtaken American civic sensibilities by the turn of the century. …

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