Edith Wharton and the incongruities of war
Carney, Mary Agnes
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World War I is a vital turning point in the history of the twentieth century, and a study of the contemporary literature is essential to an understanding of the era’s impact. In her writings about World War I, Edith Wharton reveals a sustained interest in the incongruities that arise amid the war’s violence and its radical cultural and social changes. This era was a pivotal time in Wharton’s career from which she emerged as a transitional figure between the generations we have come to identify as Realists and Modernists. Her writings reflect a surprising, antithetical mix of these aesthetic worlds. She illuminates the war’s complex environment, including the rupture with prewar civilization, the questioning of the efficacy of language, and the rising sense of social estrangement.|During World War I, Edith Wharton lived in France, organized war charities, traveled the length of the frontline, and wrote almost daily about her experiences. Despite Wharton’s knowledgeable and prolific writing, her work has received little attention from scholars of war literature, most of whom have dismissed her a jingoist. Wharton’s writings and women’s war literature, however, are vital to a broader understanding not only of wartime but also of the literary genre it inspires. Wharton scholars have examined her war writing, but none have published an in-depth study exploring her dialog with wartime themes that would inspire many Modernists.|Central to Wharton’s contribution to war literature are those works set during World War I and written between 1915 and 1923, including Fighting France, “Coming Home,” “The Refugees,” “Writing a War Story,” The Marne, and A Son at the Front. These works illustrate the cultural transformations that war precipitates, including the erosion of what she terms the “humanest graces.” While Wharton maintains a conservative stance that affirms prewar cultural values, she also presents a pointed satire of the corrupt, privileged class that typifies Ezra Pound’s “botched civilization.” Wharton is among the first major writers to identify and explore the rising concern that war rhetoric had weakened language by undermining faith in the viability of abstract terms, such as “honor.” Wharton depicts an emerging distrust in the idealizing terminology of an earlier generation and the subsequent struggle to create a new means of expression, ultimately leading to the ascendency of “concrete” language. In addition to these cultural and linguistic complexities, Wharton portrays the savagery and grief of wartime and the rifts it creates within communities, leading to a widespread sense of alienation. She identifies these estrangements not only among soldiers but also among civilians. Wharton, however, suggests that amid the “welter” of the “strange war-world” new bonds are created and cultural life revitalizes. Her war writing anticipates the innovation that would take place in literature in the coming decades.