Friday, January 22, 2016

Writing a War Story

Edith Wharton (1862–1937)
From Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1911–1937

“A French Palisade” [Edith Wharton at the front]. Frontispiece from Wharton’s collection of journalism, Fighting France, from Dunkerque to Belfort (1915).
During the outbreak of war in 1914, while many of her friends were fleeing France, Edith Wharton remained in Paris and immediately threw her energy behind various war relief efforts. In August, she established a workroom for nearly one hundred seamstresses and other women thrown out of work by the economic disruption of general mobilization. She personally handled the fundraising, selected the supervisory staff, provided free lunches, and solicited orders through her associates in England and America. Then, in November, she established and directed American Hostels for Refugees and raised $100,000 in the first twelve months, during which the organization provided free or low-cost food, clothing, coal, housing, medical and child care, and employment counseling to more than 9,000 refugees. In April she organized the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee, which created six homes between Paris and the Normandy coast and organized classes (including lessons in French for the Flemish speakers) for nearly 750 refugee children, many of them tubercular. “I can’t tell thee how many committees she is chairman of,” one fellow volunteer wrote, “and where she is chairman she does all.”

In the midst of this activity, Wharton found the time to make five visits to the front in the Argonne and at Verdun, travel through the frontline trenches in the Vosges, and tour hospitals to investigate the need for blankets and clothing. She was so busy during the first two years of World War I that she composed virtually nothing in the way of fiction. In June 1915 she wrote to her publisher, Charles Scribner, in near despair about her publication schedule. She had “thought the war would be over by August,” but as things stood she would be unable to deliver her long-promised next novel. (Tentatively called “Literature,” it was never finished.) She instead proposed a different book: “I have been given such unexpected opportunities for seeing things at the front that you might perhaps care to collect the articles (I suppose there will be five) in a small volume to be published in the autumn.” Her journalistic essays were thus published later that year, both in Scribner’s Magazine and as a book, Fighting France, from Dunkerque to Belfort.

She also edited The Book of the Homeless, an anthology to benefit relief efforts that was published in January 1916. The volume featured introductions by French Marshal Joseph Joffre and Theodore Roosevelt and included poetry, essays, art, fiction, and musical scores by an incredible list of cultural celebrities, including Jean Cocteau, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, William Dean Howells, George Santayana, W. B. Yeats, Sarah Bernhardt, Henry James, Max Beerbohm, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Igor Stravinsky. (Wharton translated the non-English works herself.) The proceeds from the volume and related materials, while less than she had hoped, totaled well over $10,000. In the spring, in appreciation of her activities for the war effort, the French government made her Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. She was made Chevalier of the Order of Leopold by King Albert of Belgium in 1919.

In the letter to her publisher mentioned above, Wharton also proposed writing “four or five short stories, not precisely war stories, but on subjects suggested by the war.” Yet it wasn’t until the end of the war when she found the time to write such stories—and she published only three: her novella The Marne and two shorter stories. (A fourth war story was recently discovered among Wharton’s papers.) When she suggested writing a novel, her editors cabled a short message of discouragement: “War Books Dead in America.”

The selection presented here, “Writing a War Story,” is—surprisingly enough—a comedy. Wharton lightheartedly makes fun of the very type of wartime relief efforts she spearheaded and depicts a woman writer trying to think of a story appropriate for a magazine for soldiers. Wharton’s satire even jokes about soliciting artwork from the painter John Singer Sargent—who actually was a contributor to her Book of the Homeless. Her recent biographer Hermione Lee finds the story particularly self-critical, “harsh about the emotive language which she herself sometimes used in wartime.” R.W.B. Lewis views it from a different angle: throughout the war, Wharton nearly always made light of her own volunteerism when friends praised her tireless energy; she felt that nothing she did could compare with the agonies suffered by the soldiers and their families. “My heart is heavy with sorrow of all my friends who are in mourning,” she protested. Whatever she may have thought of her own war writing, Wharton still finished A Son at the Front, the novel her editors discouraged her from publishing. After it appeared in 1923, she wrote that the book was “a sort of ‘lest we forget,’ and I’m glad I’ve done it.”

Notes: On page 248, Wharton refers to a wounded V. C., a combatant who has received the Victoria Cross, the highest British military decoration for valor. Mélisande lowering her braid over the balcony (p. 253) is a reference to a scene from Claude Debussy’s 1902 opera, Pelléas et Mélisande.

*   *   *
Miss Ivy Spang of Cornwall-on-Hudson had published a little volume of verse before the war. . . . 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.