Edith Wharton’s reputation is finally disentangling itself from the long, fastidious shadow of Henry James. Only film and television could make the case in the public mind that Wharton is more than an imitative appendage of James. Scorsese’s intense version of The Age of Innocence found admirers, and the capering flounces of last year’s televised Buccaneers, with bosoms hardly out-swollen by the subsequent inflation of Pride and Prejudice, found many more. In Wharton’s case, displays of exuberant costume and calculated gloss make some sense. She understands the exhilaration of ‘swaying pyramids of pasteboard’ emerging from a Parisian milliner, and knows that the ‘long unerring lines’ of sophisticated dresses are to be taken seriously. Great clothes could be akin to great art in Wharton’s mind. This is one of the reasons for later habits of condescension towards her work. To sensibilities formed by Modernism, her frank preoccupation with wealth seemed crude and dated. Wharton insisted that grace, particularly women’s grace, was the product of money, and this made her an object of distaste to those who wanted to see culture and beauty as distinct from the polluted energies of capitalism. The celebrated stories of ‘Old New York’ represented what persisted of her fame: they were seen as period pieces, curious relics of a lost world.
It was a world destroyed by the Great War. Living in France when conflict began, Wharton constructed a different life for herself out of the ruins of comfort and privilege. Compassion fused with ruthlessness had formed her fiction, and the same qualities made her a formidable charity worker. She created jobs for unemployed women, ran restaurants to feed refugees, took responsibility for six hundred orphans fleeing occupied Belgium. France awarded her the cross of the Legion of Honour. The literary establishment was not so grateful. Her writings about the war were less successful than the earlier novels of manners. A Son at the Front, her bleakest and most deeply felt response, was begun in the spring of 1918, as she recovered from a heart attack attributed to overwork. Martial literature had been selling well. But American interest in war stories did not long survive the Armistice, and no one much wanted to publish A Son at the Front. When the novel finally appeared, in 1923, it was widely disliked. No longer allied with a defiant avant garde, Wharton had become ‘belated’. She was judged to be partisan, tiresomely eager to justify the unthinkable sacrifices of the war. Still more damagingly from the sales point of view, she did not write about the war as an ex-combatant. Exposing the dramatic horrors of the trenches provided the gratifications of voyeurism alongside the pleasures of moral superiority. But Wharton’s was a woman’s war, to do with tension and relentless dreariness rather than the gruesome spectacle of battle. She wrote about waiting wives and parents, the dispossessed refugees, those whose livelihood had disappeared overnight – the inhabitants of what she described as ‘that strange war-world of the rear’. Nor was she prepared to flatter her compatriots with the role of rescuing giants. She believed that America should have entered the fighting long before it did, and spent most of the war ashamed of her nationality. She had always been ambivalent, and often condemnatory, about the role of American affluence in Europe. But her dissolute American travellers had at least been dashing and powerful. In A Son at the Front, America was seen, much less agreeably for most American readers, as mean-minded and shabby.
Though she had never previously written fiction with the political focus of A Son at the Front, much of the novel takes place in well-known Wharton territory. John Campton, the central figure, is a fashionable and successful American painter, living in Paris as tension mounts during the summer of 1914. He is divorced, and awaiting the arrival of his 25-year-old son George, the only child of a ‘stupid and ill-fated marriage’ with the polished and socially ambitious Julia. George has spent most of his youth with Julia and her rich second husband in America, but is to join his father for a journey through Southern Europe. Campton, a possessive though mostly distant father, counts on this journey as his chance to counteract the influence of mother and stepfather, and claim his rightful emotional property. He peevishly refuses to believe that a war in which America could have no part (‘this is not our war’) could stand in the way of his plans. Campton’s fretfulness marks him as part of the self-indulgent expatriate community from which he imagines his art has set him apart: ‘These other men were whining at the interruption of their vile pleasures or their viler money-making; he, poor devil, was trembling for the chance to lay the foundation of a complete and lasting friendship with his only son, at the moment when such understandings do most to shape a youth’s future.’ What Campton does not for a moment foresee is that George, who happens to have been born in France rather than America, will be caught up in the machinery of war – he becomes ‘a son at the Front’. Nearly sixty when the novel begins, Campton is in every sense left behind by a child who turns out to have learned considerably more than his absent father had ever guessed. The novel is the story of a difficult moral education, as the naive and insulated Campton slowly and painfully revises his understanding of himself as father, husband, artist and American. Wharton clearly intended readers back home to learn sobering truths about themselves from the unpalatable experiences of this fictional artist. The fluent intelligence of her writing solidifies into a remorselessly didactic drive that must have contributed to the novel’s eclipse. Novel-readers of 1923 were not in the mood for lectures, no matter how subtly framed.
A divorced woman herself, Wharton wrote about divorce and its aftermath with a persistent interest that makes much of her social analysis look unexpectedly modern. The question of who can be said to own George Campton, finally answered by George’s refusal to be owned, runs through the story. As the novel opens, Campton sees the matter in simple terms. Fatherhood gives him unanswerable rights, reinforced by the still higher claims of a refined sensitivity kept properly remote from the base world of business. But it was the despised stepfather, Anderson Brant, who had paid the boy’s medical bills, fostered his love of books, fed and educated him. In his wish to find his enlisted son a sheltered occupation behind the lines, Campton has to acknowledge uneasy complicity with Julia and Anderson Brant, and to confront the fact that for different reasons they are entitled to care for George as profoundly as he does himself. They too want to control George’s life in an attempt to protect it. Campton at once resents and appreciates their manipulation, which money makes markedly more effective than his own. The rights of the father begin to fragment in his mind. So too do the rights of nationality. Which country can lay claim to George? Campton had been equally muddled on questions of national identity. He had founded his self-esteem and his sense of George’s special status on their shared participation in the culture of European art and values. Yet in the crisis of war he had immediately assumed that American funds would protect George from European responsibilities. As George privately makes his own decisions, choosing the Front without the knowledge of either his parents or his stepfather, Campton publicly revises his position, sacrificing his art to war-work, as his ex-wife sacrifices fashionable dress for an incongruous nurse’s uniform.
James called Wharton the ‘Angel of Devastation’. One of the ways in which this novel is most representative of her work is in its unflinching confrontation with forms of renunciation and damage. Campton has to give up the sense of identity on which he had built his life; he is also compelled to surrender his perception of the son he had been about to claim as his property. He discovers George lying wounded in hospital:
Under the net lay a middle-aged bearded man, heavily bandaged about the chest and left arm: he was snoring, his mouth open, his gaunt cheeks drawn in with the fight for breath. Campton said to himself that if his own boy lived he should like some day to do something for this poor devil who was his room-mate ... Campton looked again at the stranger; then his glance travelled to the scarred brown hand on the sheet, a hand with broken nails and blackened finger-tips. It was George’s hand, his son’s, swollen, disfigured, but unmistakable.
Watching his son’s slow convalescence, Campton voices the alienation of Wharton’s generation. They were not lost, but they were parents to loss. ‘It was in the moment of identifying his son that he felt the son he had known to be lost to him for ever.’ To Campton’s bewilderment, George had announced his intention of reading The Golden Bough while waiting to be called up. But it was those who could not be soldiers who were left to describe a waste land: ‘What could they leave behind them but mismated fragments?’ Campton remains an artist, but his vision is irreparably dislocated by grief: ‘by what mere blind propulsion did all these thousands of human creatures keep on mechanically living?’
Oddly enough, this account of destruction is not by any means Wharton’s most pessimistic book. The triviality of the lives she had dissected was what made her earlier books such cynical documents. George’s destiny empties the lives of those who are left behind, but Wharton insists that it means something. Admittedly, she is hardly at her most convincing when she seeks to define quite what it means: ‘An Idea: they must cling to that ... An Idea: that was what France, ever since she had existed, had always been in the story of civilisation; a luminous point about which striving visions and purposes could rally ... If France went, Western civilisation went with her; and then all that they had believed in and been guided by would perish.’ Even Campton feels that this will not do, rejecting his own trite formula as he tries to resolve it. Yet Wharton still half-believes in Ezra Pound’s ‘botched civilisation’. It is essential to her purpose that the story should end with Campton beginning a new phase of his art, as elegiac as that of High Modernism, but with entirely different motives.
A Son at the Front has not been reprinted since its first publication in 1923. Its reappearance now, with a shrewd Introduction by Wharton’s biographer Shari Benstock, adds to a wave of recent thinking about questions of gender in the First World War. At the time, and for years after, the war that did more than anything else to separate the 19th century from the experience of modern culture seemed predominantly a matter for men. Male ambitions had initiated the war, male follies perpetuated it, male historians recorded it. Above all, male soldiers had done the fighting and the dying, and that, if nothing else, gave them the last word. Yet women’s lives, and women’s thought, were changed as utterly and as permanently by Europe’s trauma. One of the most persistent legacies of the war was the disruption of the boundaries of gendered identity, and Wharton makes it her business to acknowledge this form of fragmentation. Work, action, selfishness and suffering were monopolised by neither men nor women. Campton is brought to recognise kinship with femininities he had always scorned in his ex-wife, and she finds, as Wharton had, previously unsuspected resources of practical energy in her efforts for war charities. Long bedside vigils teach Campton that hospitals are not, as he had comfortably supposed, ‘for surgeons and women’. Generations later, Pat Barker’s intricate revision of the Great War ends in a hospital. The Ghost Road unforgettably declares that ‘it’s not worth it,’ and Wharton would have found it hard to disagree – she had lost too many friends and certainties. Yet the bitter bargain described in A Son at the Front can be read as a qualified affirmation of faith, soberly made and very grimly earned.