I recently read A Son at the Front, by Edith Wharton, the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Wharton, the daughter of wealthy New York aristocrats, lived in Paris during World War I. Throughout the conflict, she dedicated herself to France’s defeat of the Germans. She volunteered in relief centers for displaced people, raised money to support wounded veterans, and wrote articles for a number of American publications, in part to urge U.S. engagement. In 1916 France’s president appointed her Chevalier of the Legion of Honour due to her tireless efforts in aiding the country.
At the same time, Wharton somehow found the energy to practice her craft as the author of novels, short stories, and poetry. She wrote A Son at the Front in 1919 but it wasn’t published until 1923. In the immediate aftermath of four years of fighting, the need to focus one’s thoughts on anything other than war delayed its release.
I often state that I prefer nonfiction to fiction but Wharton’s novel brought me to a new realization: the fiction that captures my deepest affection is almost always written by someone who was alive during the historical time period in which the story takes place, or (minimally) was written by someone who knew intimately others who lived through it. A Son at the Front is a work of fiction, but it contains so many subtle details about how upper-class people living in Paris spent their days during the war that it also carries the authentic account of a keen eyewitness.
I hope the summary that follows inspires you to read A Son at the Front because I include here only a sliver of what it has to offer. If, however, you prefer knowing very little about a book before reading it, I caution there may be spoilers ahead.
A Son at the Front
A Son at the Front is the story of an American ex-pat, John Campton, living in Paris in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I. His son, George, who was unexpectedly born while his parents were visiting Paris and lived most of his life in the United States, is called up to fight for France. After years of trying to make a name for himself, Campton’s career as a portrait artist has finally taken off. His wealthy ex-wife, and George’s mother, is remarried to an influential banker. The three parents, bestrewn with high-society connections, pull every string they can lay hands on to keep George, if not out of the military, at least far from the front lines.
Once the young soldier leaves Paris, however, there is little to no information about his activities. George’s letters home are simplistic and impassive, always ending in reassuring platitudes. Meanwhile, the opportunities to glean insights from higher-ups who know about George’s engagement are few and far between. Eventually, there are indications that George’s back-office regiment may well be sent into battle.
As with every war, the homefront is bombarded with dubious propaganda: the war will end swiftly; France’s superior forces are making undeniable advancements; Germany cannot withstand further losses… Yet to all observers, the war is like a gruesome version of Seuss’ Star-on Star-off machine, with exuberant young men lining up at the entrance to achieve glory while the maimed, mutilated, and casketed return from the other side.
Undoubtedly, Wharton’s writing is colored by her personal experience but there’s no denying the ubiquitous devotion to the troops that reigned in the streets of Paris. Everyone had skin in the game. Wharton’s psychological portrait of Campton, a middle-aged man twisting in a web of impotence, is set against a backdrop of fervent patriotism.
In contrast to today’s armed conflicts—at least those that the United States engages in—the war was first and foremost on everyone’s minds. There was a prevailing assumption that each member of society would find ways to support the effort, doing whatever they could to bring the fighting to an end—short of advocating for surrender.
Campton had never before, at least consciously, thought of himself and the few beings he cared for as part of a greater whole, component elements of the immense amazing spectacle. But the last four months had shown him man as a defenseless animal, suddenly torn from his shell, stripped of all the interwoven tendrils of association, habit, background, daily ways and words, daily sights and sounds, and flung out of the human habitable world into naked ether, where nothing breathes or lives. That was what war did; that was why those who best understood it in all it’s farthest-reaching abomination willingly gave their lives to put an end to it.From A Son at the Front, by Edith Wharton
Desperate for News
Similar to today, people had a critical need for information and habitually relied upon numerous sources of communication. However, the vehicles for sending and receiving news were strikingly different. It’s hard to imagine, but according to the Ministère des armées, French civilians sent at least 4 million letters per day to the front lines and received as many in return. Within Paris, mail was delivered multiple times per day and a separate, pneumatic postal system allowed average citizens to send messages across town in a matter of hours.
Wharton’s imagined settings give a clear picture of such circumstances. Today, we often complain about people’s addiction to their smartphones. Back then, it seems, similar distractions were generated by any source that might provide further news about the war.
Campton’s lips were opened to reply when her face changed, and he saw that he had ceased to exist for her. He knew the reason. That look came over everybody’s face nowadays at the hour when the evening paper came.From A Son at the Front, by Edith Wharton
Impotence and Estrangement
Wharton never had children and yet she produced legions of poignant passages relating to Campton’s parental aspirations and concerns. No longer privy to his son’s thoughts, Campton initially assumes that they must mirror his own. He wants to unquestioningly support his son’s ambitions. His son’s inaccessibility, however, exposes Campton’s deep-seated uncertainty. He can’t be totally sure of George’s state of mind. Without admitting to the possibility, Campton recognizes that there is a chance his son might want to engage in combat.
Wharton’s astute descriptions evoke the internal tug-of-war that strains many parents’ perceptions as their kids become adults. On one side of the rope lies the rational desire to rejoice in a child’s independence. On the other side is the irrational yearning to maintain some sort of control. If one is a successful parent, the side of independence wins out, but for Campton, this loss of control could cost him his son.
It was true that [George’s] letters had never been expressive: his individuality seemed to dry up in contact with pen and paper. It was true also that letters from the front were severely censored, and it would have been foolish to put in them anything likely to prevent their delivery. But George had managed to send several notes by hand, and these were as colourless as the others…From A Son at the Front, by Edith Wharton
Describing the Indescribable
As far as I know, A Son at the Front is not based on a true story. Yet, the book conveys much more than a patina of authenticity. Time and again, Wharton describes circumstances and feelings that would be difficult for any author to tackle–even those who lived through them. I found myself constantly marveling at her prose.
The thought of “Out there” besieged him day and night, the phrase was always in his ears. Wherever he went he was pursued by visions of that land of doom: visions of fathomless mud, rat-haunted trenches, freezing nights under the sleety sky, men dying in the barbed wire between the lines or crawling out to save a comrade and being shattered to death on the return. His collaboration with Boylston had brought Campton into close contact with these things. He knew by heart the history of scores and scores of young men of George’s age who were doggedly suffering and dying a few hours away from the Palais Royal office where their records were kept. Some of these histories were so heroically simple that the sense of pain was lost in beauty, as though one were looking at suffering transmuted into poetry. But others were abominable, unendurable, in their long-drawn useless horror: stories of cold and filth and hunger, of ineffectual effort, of hideous mutilation, of men perishing of thirst in a shell-hole, and half-dismembered bodies dragging themselves back to shelter only to die as they reached it. Worst of all were the perpetually recurring reports of military blunders, medical neglect, carelessness in high places: the torturing knowledge of the lives that might have been saved if this or that officer’s brain, this or that surgeon’s hand, had acted more promptly. An impression of waste, confusion, ignorance, obstinacy, prejudice, and the indifference of selfishness or of mortal fatigue, emanated from these narratives written home from the front, or faltered out by white lips on hospital pillows.From A Son at the Front, by Edith Wharton
Coming to Terms with the Unthinkable
At the start of any armed conflict, there are always people who resist getting involved. Whether pacificist, cynical, or simply apathetic, they put their energies elsewhere. But the longer the conflict drags on, the longer atrocities accumulate, the more difficult it becomes to ignore the horror.
During my lifetime, I’ve never had to face that sobering turning point where I changed from peacemonger to ardent proponent of force. I’ve never lived with the threat of my son being killed in battle. But books like A Son at the Front have given me a clear impression of how such circumstances might feel. Could I be a strong advocate for war? In what circumstances? Could I ever embrace my son’s involvement?
Those are the kinds of questions that Wharton’s book had me pondering. It pulled me away from my insulated and privileged life to reflect, just briefly, on what many in this world have had to deal with and sadly continue to face.
If France went, western civilization went with her; and then all they had believed in and been guided by would perish. That was what George had felt; it was what had driven him from the Argonne to the Aisne. Campton felt it too; but dully, through a fog. His son was safe; yes — but too many other men’s sons were dying. There was no spot where his thoughts could rest: there were moments when the sight of George, intact and immaculate — his arm, at last out of its sling – rose before his father like a reproach.From A Son at the Front, by Edith Wharton
A Less than Zero Sum Game
Wharton was certainly not a pacificist. She heavily supported France’s engagement and lobbied vigorously for America to come to its aid. At the same time, she recognized the tragic waste that four years of combat brought and the folly of man’s insatiable desire to expand his dominion.
Ultimately, A Son at the Front advances the importance of defeating the Germans. In Wharton’s view, they had to be stopped. In hindsight, however, it’s impossible to accept that the catastrophic losses on both sides were worth it. If only the world’s leaders would learn from the past. Despite the best efforts of historians and brilliant novelists, mankind ends up with generation after generation of power-hungry rulers willing to squander their country’s resources, sacrifice the youths of their nation, and destroy the lives of their perceived enemies. And thus, books like A Son at the Front remain highly relevant.
Such a summer morning it was — and such a strange grave beauty had fallen on the place! He seemed to understand for the first time — he who served Beauty all his days— how profoundly, at certain hours, it may become the symbol of things hoped for and things died for. All those stately spaces and raying distances, witnesses of so many memorable scenes, might have been called together just as the setting for this one event — the sight of a few brown battalions passing over them like a feeble trail of insects.From A Son at the Front, by Edith Wharton