Edith Wharton gets into the trenches in World War I

The tunnel cut into the hill was wholly dark except for “an occasional narrow slit screened by branches.” The gunners had screens behind them, to keep any betraying light from showing where they sat with guns between their knees.

Coming out into a “gutted house among fruit trees,” a woman in her 50s looked over a broken wall at another group of helmeted men. She was standing in the farthest outpost of the French trenches, within range of the German guns.

“The artillery had ceased, and the air was full of summer murmurs,” she wrote. “… I could not understand where we were or what it was about or why a shell from the enemy post did not annihilate us …”

This is not the way most people imagine Edith Wharton — the novelist of high-society New York — walking in the trenches in World War I.

“She’s a more interesting figure than most people think,” said Alice Kelly, a Women in the Humanities Postdoctoral Writing Fellow at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, who spoke on a visit to The Mount in Lenox. She has set out to bring Wharton’s war writing out of an obscurity she feels it does not deserve.

A hundred years ago, in the fall of 1915, German and French troops were dug into fortified trenches across more than 400 miles of Northwestern France. In that year, both sides had used poison gas for the first time and sent foot soldiers against heavy artillery — finding new ways to kill thousands of men at once. By December 1915, more than half a million French men had died.

Wharton made six expeditions to the front lines between August 1914 and August 1915.

Foreign correspondents were rigorously excluded, but she came within sight of snipers, stood beside a sentry looking out into No Man’s Land, and visited hospitals, encampments, “settlements saturated and reeking with wet.”

She wrote about her travels in a series of articles for Scribner’s Magazine and later gathered them into a book. And very few people have read them, Kelly said.

She knows them well. She has edited a new critical edition of Wharton’s “Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort” released in December 2015 from Edinburgh University Press.

Her book comes at a time with historical resonances, a century after Wharton wrote these essays and at a significant point for her Berkshire history. Last fall The Mount, Wharton’s house in Lenox, cleared its debts — the museum that came near foreclosure in 2008 has reinvented itself as a cultural center so successfully that in seven years it has paid back $8.5 million.

At the beginning of the war, Wharton was still recovering from having sold the Mount. Her life had changed here, as it was about to change again. At the Mount she became a novelist.

“She accomplished so much here,” said Anne Schuyler, House Manager and Tour Coordinator at The Mount — “launching her literary career, discovering the ‘republic of letters,’ all these creative minds she so much admired.”

Wharton described reading Walt Whitman on the terrace and talking with friends, immersed in “the richest and most varied mental companionship” of a kind she had never had. She went for long drives in the car she named George after George Sand — the famous French novelist of her day, who was also a woman.

“The Mount was my first real home and … its blessed influence still lives in me,” she wrote in her memoir, A Backward Glance. “… My recognition as a writer had transformed my life.”

She published “The House of Mirth” in 1905, the novel that won her international fame. She describes herself for the first time as fully alive and at home.

“Life in the country is the only state which has always completely satisfied me,” she wrote in “A Backward Glance. “… Now I was to know the joys of six or seven months a year among woods and fields of my own.”

The other half of each year she began to spend in Paris. As she took root in the Berkshires, she also took root in France, and when she lost her footing in Lenox, she turned to Paris to find it again.

The Whartons left the Mount finally in 1911, as Teddy Wharton became increasingly mentally unstable. Edith wrote “Ethan Frome” in the same year, and she divorced Teddy Wharton in 1913, setting off a period of manic energy, Schuyler said. She was traveling constantly, full of restless vigor, indecision and unsettlement.

And then, in 1914, at an Edwardian garden party, she learned that the ArchDuke Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated. She describes returning home in her first essay in “Fighting France” — “It was sunset when we reached the gates of Paris. Under the heights of St. Cloud and Suresnes the reaches of the Seine trembled with the stillness of a holiday evening. … The next day the air was thundery with rumors.”

Within days the city had mobilized. Troops were called out, taxis were commandeered, shops were closing and tourists were stranded. Paris was becoming paralyzed and silent. Nothing was moving. Houses and hotels were turning into Red Cross hospitals.

And she loved this city. So she set out to do what she could. She wrote to America scenes of war she saw firsthand.

More war correspondents would come later, some of them women, including Arlington, Vt., novelist Dorothy Canfield Fisher, said Alan Price of Great Barrington, professor emeritus of English and American Studies at Pennsylvania State University and author of “The End of the Age of Innocence: Edith Wharton in the First World War.”

But Wharton was one of the first. People knew her name around the world, and she used it. Few people could travel freely in France then — few people had cars, and sentries asked for passports at every crossroads. But she came within sight of the French assault at Vauquois.

“She could do more than people could do later,” Kelly said. “The laws about travel had not quite settled down. She was taken on certain routes and allowed more liberty.”

Wharton travelled with her friend Walter Berry, who would become President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Paris, and with her chauffeur, Charles Cook, and a maid. Price saw a kind of spectacle in Wharton, in her fashionable clothes and her unrequisitioned car, driving country roads with the signs missing and pulling into a town full of military vehicles where she couldn’t find room at the inn.

“The juxtaposition was not lost on French satirists,” he said.

The Mount displays a 1916 cartoon of her in its exhibit on Wharton and the war. She could laugh at the image, he said.

But this kind of mockery has followed her, and still her war writing is rarely taken seriously, Kelly said.

In a talk at the Mount last August, she suggested that some readers feel uneasy at Wharton’s tone, as she shifts from broken men and broken buildings to idealized glimpses of jolly camps and high-hearted soldiers, “the men who made the war and the men who were made by it.”

“She’s guilty of that — she’s excited by war,” Kelly agreed in a recent phone interview.

Wharton wrote with palpable patriotism, and she was not alone.

“People believed this war was fighting to save civilization,” Kelly said. “… [Soldiers] were dying to save France.”

But when Wharton talks about “… a long line of éclopés — the unwounded but battered, shattered, frostbitten, deafened and half-paralyzed wreckage of that awful struggle” — that has a connotation of shell shock, Kelly said.

At a hospital in Verdun “… the wounded are brought in encrusted with frozen mud, and usually without having washed or changed for weeks.”And in a village turned into a colony of 1500 sick and exhausted éclopés, Wharton went into the church.

“In the doorway our passage was obstructed by a mountain of damp straw which a gang of hostler-soldiers were pitchforking out of the aisles,” she wrote. “The interior of the church was dim and suffocating. Between the pillars hung screens of plaited straw, forming little enclosures in each of which about a dozen sick men lay on more straw, without mattresses or blankets.”

“She’s trying to process what’s going on,” Kelly said. “She called it being ‘pen-tied.’” She would have written against a background of terrible loss.

“Everyone would have lost someone — a husband, a brother,” Kelly said. Though Wharton was passionately patriotic and pro-war, “she was aware of the harsh realities of war — she’s not glossing over what war means. In my book, I called it an uncomfortable propaganda. The more I read [her essays] and footnoted, the more I found Classical allusions, an enormous depth of knowledge. And these were written in wartime, while the war was ongoing. She dashed these off at some speed.”

Wharton also wrote these essays with a purpose. By February 1915, when she began them, she was overseeing a massive network of organizations helping people displaced by the war — an ouvoir (work room) for women out of work, and schools and shelters for Belgian refugees, children and pensioners and women and children suffering from tuberculosis.

“She becomes a CEO,” Schuyler said.

She became an entrepreneur, a manager and a formidable fundraiser for her causes. In 1915 she also published “The Book of the Homeless,” an anthology of writing and artwork from well-known artists, to benefit her war work, and she held musical soirées with musicians and composers left out of work in the conflict.

“She raised millions, all told, in today’s money,” Price said.

Her writing took on an element of public relations for her programs and for her country.

“In a letter to her sister-in-law, Mary Cadwallader Jones, she consigns president Woodrow Wilson to one of the circles of hell [for keeping America out of the war],” he said. “She could not come out and say this about neutrality and Americans and German Americans in public, because she was depending on the goodwill of her neighbors in the U.S. to support France and her charities.”

Yet, more than any executive decision, Kelly, Price and Schuyler feel the “Fighting France” essays moved by the the dislocation and the strangeness of war, the loss of her servants and friends and the weight of observing these things.

“She saw civilization crumbling,” Schuyler said. “She makes ruins of a cathedral more eloquent than human misery — what a waste, this great beauty man has created and is destroying. It has an absurdist unreality, like M.A.S.H.

“… It was a devastating, all-encompassing experience. She suffered health issues and crises of the heart.”

Wharton wrote to a friend who had lost a son at the Front that the only refuge was work. And so she turned to writing for solace and a fragment of order in a chaotic world.

“She has an eye for telling detail,” Schuyler said. “She will metaphorically walk you into a room and with a few sketchy sentences you’d know the character of the person [who lives there]. I enjoy her travel writing for the same reason — you know what that devastated cathedral looks like, feels like, the meaning of it.”

Her clear images stick in the mind, Kelly agreed.

“They come back to you,” she said. “Next time I go to Paris I won’t be able to walk around without seeing boats on the Seine and hotels made into hospitals.”


This story first ran in the Hill Country Observer — My thanks to editor Fred Daley. In the photo at the top, Edith Wharton’s Italian Garden basks in late sunlight. Photo by John Seakwood, courtesy of The Mount

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