Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Son at the Front — Reviewed by Dr. Margaret Spratt

A Son at the Front
by Edith Wharton
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1923; Northern Illinois University Press, 1995

To the American reading public, A Son at the Front was a resounding failure. Published after the war had ended and popular figures were urging a return to normalcy, Wharton's tale set in war-torn France drew little praise from critics and sold far fewer copies than her publishers had anticipated. It was deemed a great disappointment, even more so because it followed the success of her novel The Marne, published at the height of American interest in December of 1918.

Wharton was perplexed at the rejection of her novel, opining that the "public whose own sons and brothers have been in the war….ceased to take an interest in it." She wasn't quite right. Male writers began to publish their own accounts, and writings by Hemingway, Dos Passos, Ford, and cummings, to name a few, set the standard in the Twenties. Wharton's novel was judged to be outdated, sentimental, and falsely patriotic. Her main characters existed in a world physically distant to the battlefront, tied to it only by fear, anxiety, and imagination. That was not enough for those who had experienced, or at least read of, life at the front with its hellish futility. To them Wharton represented an elitist view that echoed of a simpler time. As feminist scholars have noted, women's war writing has been belittled because it spoke of the broader social experience, not of "seeing action." And it was "life at the rear" that Wharton intended to explore in A Son at the Front.

Order Now
The son at the front, George Campton, was the son of American divorced parents, born in Paris and thus subject to French mobilization. The action of the novel centers not on George's activities but rather on those of his father, John, an artist. Both Camptons were taken aback when war was declared. The father, as an American, believed he and his son had no stake in the conflict and that his son's national identity was a silly technicality. The father, along with his estranged wife, began to work behind the scenes to obtain a safe desk job for George. But as the weeks progressed, George increasingly identified with those around him and felt he had a duty to defend France. Wharton and hundreds of other Americans caught in Paris as tourists or expats were also surprised when they heard the "Marseillaise" played and read the notices of conscription on the Metro walls. As Wharton's protagonist in her 1918 novel The Marne declared, "this unfathomable thing called War…seemed suddenly to have escaped out of the history books like a dangerous lunatic escaping from the asylum in which he was supposed to be securely confined."

Once the reality of war sank in, the residents of Paris said goodbye to their sons and husbands and settled into the everyday deprivation and sacrifice that war brought to their lives. The buses stopped, the sidewalk cafes fell silent, and croissants were outlawed. At least for a time, while a peacetime economy was shifting into a wartime one, the City of Light lost its brilliance and allure. Wharton fell into relief work with great dedication, raising money from her New York connections and enlisting her literary friends. Her solution to enduring the war was to lose herself into a collective effort of war work that resulted in a number of honors, including the French Chevalier de l'Ordre National de la Legion d'honneur, and then in feverish haste to write of her "losses" in two wartime novels.

Edith Wharton, War Correspondent

Her protagonist in A Son at the Front questioned his very reason for being, feeling that he had failed as a father and an artist. He acknowledged the gulf between him and his son created first by a ruined marriage and further widened by the effort to keep George safe. It was only when the artist's son parted for the front that a bond appeared. John Campton saw the hint of a youthful smile flash across George's face while leaning out the train window, and it is this impression that will motivate his desire to capture the memory of his son on canvas. Art is what saved Campton. Writing is what consoled Wharton.

The author dedicated this work to Ronald Simmons, a young American who died in the influenza epidemic while employed by the U.S. War Department in Bordeaux. Wharton met Simmons in Paris at the end of 1916 when she was 54 and he was 31. A graduate of Princeton, Simmons had rejected the business world of his father and gone to Paris to train as an architect and painter. Although a number of biographers have hinted at a love affair, Wharton described his place in her life as that of a younger brother. Only two letters of their correspondence survive, both from Simmons to Wharton. In them he showed concern for her health and spoke of his dedication to his work and his hope for a better tomorrow. Wharton was devastated by his death and memorialized him in both of her war novels.

When read as an historical document, A Son at the Front reveals a portrait of wartime society that is both nuanced and significant. It is in the familiarity of her subject, the closeness the critics abhorred, that allowed Wharton to examine loss, both on the personal and public levels. It was her belief that art and culture sustain civilization and that the cross-fertilization of culture, specifically that between the United States and France, were of utmost importance. For this effort to succeed, every resource at her disposal, including the creation of fiction, would be applied to the cause.

A Son at the Front was reissued in 1995 by Northern Illinois University Press and contains a useful introduction by Shari Benstock. A recent biography of Edith Wharton written by Hermione Lee, professor of English literature at Oxford, and published by Knopf, provides helpful background information. Read together, one can see both the inner and outward worlds that consumed Edith Wharton and other expatriates in France during the war

Dr. Margaret Spratt

No comments:

Post a Comment