Friday, September 22, 2017

In the North

Edith Wharton (1862–1937)
From World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It

Detail of “Dans Les Ruines [In the Ruins],” chromotypograph caricature by French illustrator Abel Faivre (1867–1945), depicting Edith Wharton and Walter Berry traveling through war-torn France, for the front cover of the May 22, 1915, issue of Le Rire Rouge. Click on image to see entire cover. Faivre’s caption (“Ce n’est que ca!”) can mean simply “Is that all?” but has also been translated as “Why such a fuss?” Image courtesy of Priscilla Juvelis Rare Books.
The introduction to a previous Story of the Week selection (“Writing a War Story”) discusses how, during the early years of World War I, Edith Wharton threw her energy behind various relief efforts, provided supplies to military hospitals, and made five trips to the Western Front.

Because of her humanitarian pursuits and her status as an author, Wharton had unmatchable access to areas forbidden to most civilians, especially foreigners traveling in motorcars. The excursions clearly excited and awed her, and she seemed quite aware of the incongruous figure she presented: a middle-aged women wearing fashionable hats and dresses and zipping around a war zone in a chauffeured Mercedes. Yet she was concerned that soldiers and officers not think of her as a war tourist. Nothing seemed “ghastlier and more idiotic than ‘doing’ hospitals en touriste, like museums,” she wrote, and both at the time and years later (in her fiction) she derided society women who showed up at the front and got in everyone’s way.

Wharton wrote to Henry James—who named her “the great generalissima”—that during her first trip she was stopped at the citadel of Verdun by an officer who was “much amazed at my having succeeded in getting here.” The Germans had begun a major attack on the city only days earlier, and the first shells had landed on the citadel itself. As had happened previously during the trip, her literary celebrity opened doors: “the officer who took our papers had read me too—wasn’t it funny?” Moreover, in one of the many coincidences that worked to Wharton’s benefit throughout the war years, the officer turned out to be Henri de Jouvenel—the husband of the famous French novelist Colette. “I shall come again in a few days with lots of things,” she reported to James, “now that I know what is needed.”

Her presence in the war effort was prominent enough that the popular humor magazine Le Rire Rouge featured a caricature of her and her companion Walter Berry on its front cover (above) after the cartoonist had accompanied them on their third trip to the front. Wharton accepted the mockery in stride, writing to a friend, “We took Abel Faivre with us, & he’s made such a good sketch of us at Gerb√©viller. Walter’s expression whenever I suggested visiting a hospital or doing anything good was caught to a line.” As Hazel Hutchison observes in a recent book on American writers during the war, “Wharton’s own attitudes to publicity and self-promotion were shifting dramatically in the context of the war.” She was quite willing to endure a little ridicule if it would bring in more money for her various charitable efforts.

Edith Wharton in 1915 with Walter Berry and
two officers at the Western Front. Courtesy of
Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Wharton’s access to the front also allowed her to become a reporter—“perhaps the unlikeliest correspondent to cover the war at this time,” suggests A. Scott Berg. Biographer Hermione Lee recently located several cables between Wharton and her publisher concerning her wartime essays. In February 1915, after her first trip to the front, Wharton cabled Charles Scribner: “JUST RETURNED FROM FIGHTING LINE IN ARGONNE MAILING ARTICLE NEXT WEEK.” Scribner was not too thrilled about the opportunity to publish war journalism by one of America’s most famous fiction writers, and he wired back, “PREFER SHORT STORY.” Yet he was not really given a choice; Wharton was too busy to work on fiction, including her next book. “I am sorry to fail you in regard to the novel,” she write to him in June, “which I hope to do after the war, but if I attempted it now it would be a failure.”

A total of four essays, each a mix of travelogue and war reporting, appeared in Scribner’s Magazine during 1915. Her dispatches apparently won over her reluctant editor; in late June, Scribner sent a message requesting an article about her latest trip to “the North,” and below we present her report from the region around Ypres and Dunkirk (or Dunkerque) along the French-Belgian border. “I have been given such unexpected opportunities for seeing things at the front that you might perhaps care to collect the articles . . . in a small volume to be published in the autumn.” Scribner agreed, and they were published together at the end of 1915 as Fighting France, from Dunkerque to Belfort.

Notes: In several places Wharton mentions mitrailleuses, which by the 1910s had become a generic French word for machine guns. The St. John Ambulance Brigade (page 137) was a British volunteer organization providing first aid services. Pall Mall is a street in Westminster, London, then the location of several prestigious gentlemen’s clubs.

The quotation “La Belgique ne regrette rien” (page 141) was written not by Belgium foreign minister Julien Davignon but by prime minister Charles de Broqueville, who was in turn quoting or paraphrasing in a telegram to the French premier another Belgian official. The complete quote is “Belgium has sacrificed all to defend honesty, honor, and liberty; she regrets nothing.” The miraculous snow-fall of Italian legend refers to a thirteenth-century story about a wealthy Roman husband and wife in the fourth century who vowed to donate their possessions to the Virgin Mary and prayed for guidance as to where to leave their property. One night in August snow fell in the shape of a square on the Esquiline Hill on what became the site of the Basilica de Santa Maria Maggiore.

The Taube was a two-seat monoplane used by the German air service for reconnaissance. Rear Admiral Pierre Ronarc’h (page 145) commanded a brigade of French marine fusiliers that fought alongside Belgian troops in the defense of Dixmude the previous fall until the town was captured by the Germans in November. “Au repos” (page 147) means “at rest” and “bain-de-mer” (page 148) is a place to go swimming in the sea. David d’Angers statue of Jean Bart (page 149) depicts the naval commander who successfully defended the Dunkirk port against English attack in 1694–95. The Broken Heart is a seventeenth-century play by John Ford.

On page 150, Wharton cryptically alludes to two hearts at the highest pitch of human constancy, a nod to King Albert and Queen Elizabeth, who chose to remain on Belgian territory at La Panne while the Belgian government relocated to the French city of Le Havre.

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On the way from Doullens to Montreuil-sur-Mer, on a shining summer afternoon. A road between dusty hedges, choked, literally strangled, by a torrent of westward-streaming troops of all arms. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

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