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Edith Wharton’s War

Was the novelist hopelessly enamored with battle?

Edith Wharton is not a writer most of us probably associate with war. With the frosty, treacherous, yet bloodless drawing-room battles of Gilded Age New York, yes. With the stink and smoking gore of a trench on the Western Front, no.

And yet there Wharton was in France, for the duration of World War I: working vigorously on behalf of numerous charities and relief organizations, sending dispatches from the front back to American readers, publicly and privately making the case for the United States to join the fight. In 1917, she was awarded the French Legion of Honor for her efforts.

Having lived in Paris for long stretches since 1907, Wharton had made France her home by the time war broke out in 1914. In addition to divesting herself of her increasingly bizarre husband Teddy, Wharton left behind The Mount, their Palladian-style country house in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. Recently I participated in a literary festival there as a member of the panel “Channeling Edith Wharton: Writers in Wartime.” Although I grew up in Massachusetts, I had never before visited The Mount, much less channeled its original owner, who several times toured the Western Front in her Mercedes. She described her second excursion there to her friend Henry James with a jauntiness I mistrusted: “Itwas less high in colour than the first adventure, & resulted in several disappointments, as well as in some interesting moments—indeed, once within the military zone every moment is interesting.”

War—as both a general idea and also a feature of our own historical moment—seemed very far from this secluded estate in Lenox, with its elegant house and meticulous garden, its annual “coaching weekend” of horse-drawn carriages. The property’s airy beauty had the effect of intensifying a disjunction to which I cannot grow accustomed: the one between the physical settings of my own life—Central Park, the New York Public Library, the Hudson River, even West Point (martial in tone yet, as a place of learning, somehow rather peaceful)—and the imagined landscapes I carry within, volatile landscapes of a geographically distant war described to me by people fighting it.

One day my mind’s eye might be imprinted with the inhospitable “surface of some alien planet” conjured by a pilot looking for a good place to land his helicopter in the mountains of Afghanistan. The next it might be the “mud cave” depicted by a captain who lives in it with a small group of soldiers surrounded by the stench of the fires in which they must burn their own waste. During my visit to The Mount, the scene I was trying—am still trying—to piece together had only just taken place in Kandahar City, where Chris Goeke, a lieutenant I knew well, was killed when his unit was hit with small-arms, rifle, and rocket-propelled-grenade fire.

The disconnection between my external and internal worlds can occasionally prove dizzying. I wouldn’t call what I feel at such moments guilt exactly, or regret, for it isn’t that I think I should be doing something else or that I wish myself (to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Henry V) anywhere but where I am. Nor is it the case that I feel unsuited to the particular role I inhabit, as I surely would were I to find myself on a battlefield rather than in a classroom. Nevertheless, living so far behind the lines presented to my imagination requires a psychological adjustment. And I haven’t adjusted yet.

Meandering through Wharton’s house into Teddy’s sun-splashed den, across the terrace, and upstairs to the “Henry James suite,” I eventually found, as if in response to my discomfort, an exhibit on “Edith Wharton and the First World War,” which begins unprepossessingly in what was the guest bathroom. There I studied a series of placards and photos telling the story of Edith Wharton’s war.

Wharton was disgusted by American neutrality, contemptuous of Woodrow Wilson and his pacifist “apologists,” persuaded that the war was, in the words of her recent biographer, Hermione Lee, “somehow an inevitability, a product of a decaying civilization.” Wharton evidently shared a disturbing faith in war as a kind of purgative with her friend and contemporary Theodore Roosevelt even if her propagandizing zeal never reaches quite the fever pitch of Roosevelt’s own writing on the subject. Her French poilu is an uncomplicated patriot: “Wherever I go among these men of the front,” she wrote in 1915, “I have the same impression … that the absorbing undivided thought of the Defense of France lives in the heart and brain of each soldier as intensely as in the heart and brain of their chief.”

As I made my way through the exhibit and later through Fighting France, Wharton’s account of her life in wartime Paris and visits to the Western Front, I grew impatient with the romantic strains in which she was capable of discussing war. Here, she describes a column of troops viewed from her car: “Close as the men were, they seemed allegorically splendid: as if, under the arch of the sunset, we had been watching the whole French army ride straight into glory.” But she knew where they were really going.

Indeed, Wharton’s wartime experiences and attitudes seemed in so many ways the reverse of my own. She was physically close to the war yet somehow fundamentally aloof from its combatants: she refers to the wounded as “poor bandaged creatures” in her letter to James. I have watched the current war unfold from a great distance, but the soldiers I know form the core of my emotional life. The harder I tried to channel Wharton, the more frustrated I became, for her war writing is undeniably exuberant, rich with a sense of exhilaration that would seem to preclude unvarnished reflection on the chaos and destruction all around her.

Wharton was seduced by the “fabulous and epic” movements of an army on the march and by the “concentrated energy” of modern warfare. She was susceptible to jingoism and overheated paeans to sacrifice. Yet there are moments in Fighting France when her novelist’s eye for the unexpected or oblique exposes the incompleteness of that other narrative. When Wharton takes advantage not of her eyewitness proximity to the trenches but rather of the distance and off-kilter perspective that her non-combatant status and relative safety made possible, she seems able to report authentically the terror of the war.

As I read, I discovered that Wharton was on some level attempting to reproduce the disorientation she was experiencing: leaving the front, she explained in Fighting France, “is like coming down from the mountains.” Toward the end of the book I encountered a description of a picnic lunch arranged on the side of a ridge protected from an opposing German artillery battery. The passage feels frivolous until you realize how self-aware it is: “As we sat there in the grass, swept by a great mountain breeze full of the scent of thyme and myrtle, while the flutter of birds, the hum of insects, the still and busy life of the hills went on all about us in the sunshine, the pressure of the encircling line of death grew more intolerably real. It is not in the mud and jokes and every-day activities of the trenches that one most feels the damnable insanity of war; it is where it lurks like a mythical monster in scenes to which the mind has always turned for rest.”

Wharton, it turns out, was not blind to the faces of the wounded, whose experiences had had the effect of “burning them down to the bare bones of character.” Nor was she oblivious, while driving through landscapes in the “first sweet leafiness … of spring,” to “the choking air of present horror” that seemed always to wait just around the next bend. In Wharton’s attempts to articulate the sensation produced by the collision of tranquil scenes with vivid imaginings of war’s annihilating force, I discovered a version of my own war vertigo. The state of mind Wharton describes is akin to the one I experienced as a visitor to her house—one of those settings to which a mind might ordinarily turn for rest—coming face-to-face with what she called “the whole huge and oppressive and unescapable fact of the war.”

As I drove home early the next morning, my route took me over gently curving back roads through farm country and quaint New York villages. Admiring the view, accelerating occasionally to pass a poky horse trailer, I thought of what an officer had recently written to me about his experience climbing to an isolated Afghan outpost at 9,000 feet: “It is pretty country here,” he said, “if it weren’t for the war.”

Elizabeth D. Samet is a professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy and the author of Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point. The opinions she expresses here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense. 

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