"Not Precisely War Stories": Edith Wharton's Short Fiction from the Great War

By Olin-Ammentorp, Julie | Studies in American Fiction, Autumn 1995 | Go to article overview

"Not Precisely War Stories": Edith Wharton's Short Fiction from the Great War


Olin-Ammentorp, Julie, Studies in American Fiction


On June 28, 1915, Edith Wharton wrote to her publisher Charles Scribner regarding both her experiences in wartime France and her plans for writing in the near future. "I have been given such unexpected opportunities for seeing things at the front," she reported, "that you might perhaps care to collect the articles (I suppose there will be five) in a small volume to be published in the autumn" - the volume that was to become Fighting France. She added,

Some months ago I told you that you could count on the completion of my novel by the spring of 1916 [the never-completed novel Literature]; but I thought then that the war would be over by August. Now we are looking forward to a winter campaign and the whole situation is so overwhelming and unescapable that I feel less and less able to turn my mind from it. May I suggest, during the next six months, giving you instead four or five short stories, not precisely war stories, but on subjects suggested by the war?(1)

Wharton never wrote the "four or five short stories" she mentions here, but she did write three: "Coming Home" (1915), "The Refugees" (1919), and "Writing a War Story" (1919).(2) Barbara White, reflecting particularly on "Writing a War Story," remarks that "Wharton must have been anxious about resuming her career after the war . . . . As a short-story writer she seems to have returned in a sense to her early years and started anew."(3)

Indeed Wharton's writing was interrupted by the war, at least by her own standards. She remarks in A Backward Glance that although she "was tormented with a fever of creation" during the war, she did not have time to write much: "between 1914 and 1918 I had time only for 'Fighting France,' 'Summer,' a short tale called 'The Marne,' and a series of articles, 'French Ways and Their Meaning.'"(4) Although many writers would consider this a respectable output for four years, even in peace-time, Wharton did not. The idea of Wharton "resuming her career" suggests a hiatus that never actually occurred; however, Wharton's view of writing, and indeed of the world, changed sufficiently during the war that she could indeed be said to have "started anew" after the war. She remained the same skilled writer she had been since the production of The House of Mirth; however, her shaken sense of reality was inevitably reflected, in both content and style, in the nonfiction and the short fiction that proceeded from the war.

Wharton's initial reaction to the war epitomizes the mixture of emotions with which she would view the war as a whole, and which would shape much of her writing about the war. Writing to Bernard Berenson ten days after the mobilization of France on Aug. 1, 1914, Wharton remarked:

It is all thrillingly interesting, but very sad to see one's friends going to the slaughter.

There is so much to say that I won't begin now - but, oh, think of this time last year! Hasn't it shaken all the foundations of reality for you?(5)

The first sentence reveals Wharton's ambivalence: enthusiasm mixed with fear of loss. At the outset of the war she finds it not simply interesting but "thrillingly interesting" - making the remainder of the sentence ("but very sad . . .") almost impossible to take at face value. The general nature of this statement, coupled with the stock phrase ("going to the slaughter") reflects the fact that Wharton had not felt any personal sense of loss so early in the war.(6) The tone of this letter contrasts markedly, for instance, with her heart-broken letter to Bernard Berenson after Ronald Simmons' death in 1918.(7) If the first part of this letter sounds the note of war-interest, the next sounds the ground-note for much of her writing about the war: "Hasn't it shaken the foundations of reality for you?" The sense of a shaken and altered reality, as well as a disturbed sense of the unreality of war, manifests itself in a number of forms in Wharton's war writing, particularly clearly in Fighting France. …

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