Thursday, September 16, 2010

Edith Wharton and War

From the New Republic:
Books and Arts
Edith Wharton’s War
Was the novelist hopelessly enamored with battle?

Elizabeth D. Samet

Edith Wharton’s War
What Are Soldiers Looking for When They Return Home? Three Men’s Journeys.
For Memorial Day: Captain Whitten Was My Student

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: “It was 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.”

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