Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Bearing Witness: Edith Wharton's the Book of the Homeless

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Bearing Witness: Edith Wharton's the Book of the Homeless

Article excerpt

I believe if I were dead, and anyone asked me to come back and witness for France, I should get up out of my grave to do it.

--Edith Wharton, "Talk to American Soldiers"

Edith Wharton remembered how "strange" life in Paris became before the onset of World War I: "There were moments," she wrote, "when I felt I had died, and waked up in an unknown world. And so I had. Two days later [3 Aug. 1914] war was declared" (Backward 338). Germany had invaded Belgium, a minor obstacle in its long-planned march to Paris. Great Britain, denouncing Germany's "rape" of Belgium, joined the fray within twenty-four hours. (1) The world had never known a war like the one that ensued, which is as remembered for its scope and the millions of lost lives as for arsenals of weapons that came to include poison gas, flamethrowers, trench mortars, aerial bombardments, and armoured tanks. Wharton responded to the German advance by becoming a philanthropic master of logistics who fed, clothed, and housed thousands of Belgian refugees. To help fund her charities, she edited, with the aid of Henry James and other friends, The Book of the Homeless, a collection of verse, essays, musical scores, and drawings that would, in later years, influence her thinking about the form and function of novels.

Wharton initially agreed to take on The Book of the Homeless because it promised to keep her favourite charities--the American Hostels for Refugees and The Children of Flanders Rescue Committee--running through the winter months (Benstock 317). The project gathered new urgency after the Germans burned Louvain's library of ancient manuscripts and shelled Rheims Cathedral. As a powerful attack on Germans and German culture, The Book of the Homeless provided both an argument for American intervention in the war and a reminder of the values uniting people across nations. To Wharton and her fellow contributors, the Western world had split into two opposing forces, civilization and barbarism or "God and the Devil" (Homeless 129). These extremes remained Wharton's index as she transformed herself into a "propagandist" for the Allied cause. (2) The word propaganda originally referred to spreading the Catholic faith through the Congregatio de propaganda de fide, or "congregation for the propagation of the faith" (Bernays 9). Until World War I, its connotation varied according to context. The word acquired its generally negative associations after the war, when people realized that both sides had used lies as weapons.

To the extent that Wharton and her contributors worked to substitute one set of attitudes for another (Lippmann 26), they functioned as propagandists. (3) They lived through a period of history when victory or defeat seemed dependent upon winning a war of words, which led the editors of even a generally liberal magazine like the Atlantic Monthly to advocate for "sane war-time censorship upon enemy propaganda" (Olds 140) and a tax on German-language publications. From the beginning of World War I, people in Great Britain, France, and the United States were bombarded with slogans urging them to "Make the World Safe for Democracy." Popular films such as To Hell with the Kaiser or Wolves of Kultur suggested that any defense of Germany was unpatriotic. In France, the government controlled the release of casualty figures and arrested violators for being agent provocateurs. In Great Britain, Prime Minister David Lloyd George established the British War Propaganda Bureau to bolster morale. Long before President Woodrow Wilson's declaration on 2 April 1917 that America would be privileged "to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth" (Copeland, Lamm, and McKenna 360), governmental agencies sent speakers across the country drumming up support for intervention. (4) Later the Committee on Public Information hoped to manipulate general opinion by supplying the media with paragraphs that could be inserted into existing articles or broadcasts about the war. …

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