Edith Wharton's Writings from the Great War

Julie Olin-Ammentorp

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from "Beaumetz, 1915"
Poor grave!--for he shall burst your ties,
And come to us with shining eyes,
And laughter, and a quiet jest,
Whenever we, who loved him best,
Speak of great actions simply done,
And lives not vain beneath the sun.

"Not another ‘fresh approach’ to the stuff of Edith Wharton that scholars have habitually looked at, this is an examination of neglected, ignored, and newly uncovered material that places Wharton and her work in a new light and adds an important facet to the figure we thought we knew. The author's critical analysis of the ways in which the First Great War acted on Wharton’s imagination leads to a convincing illustration of the significant connections between her war-related writings and activities and the rest of her oeuvre and her life. . . . A triumph of perception, clarity, and originality."--Lyall H. Powers, University of Michigan, and editor, Henry James and Edith Wharton: Letters, 1900–1915

"A rich and informative study on a vital topic that admirably fills a serious and persistent lacuna in Wharton studies and will prove to be of lasting value to scholars and students in the literary humanities."--Frederick Wegener, California State University, Long Beach

Edith Wharton resided in France during World War I, visiting combat zones and hospitals and working tirelessly with refugee and children’s relief organizations. In magazines and newspapers such as the New York Times, Saturday Evening Post, andScribner’s, she wrote prodigiously about the war--dispatches, feature articles, and poems. During this time she also completed a number of short stories, two books (Summer and The Marne), and the essays that were collected in French Ways and Their Meaning. The war remained a topic for her after its conclusion, most notably in her 1923 novel, A Son at the Front. Yet none of this work has received the critical attention it deserves. Julie Olin-Ammentorp, through her detailed examination of a wide range of texts, including archival sources and materials long out of print, reclaims Wharton’s war writings and places her in the company of other "Great War" writers.

Olin-Ammentorp integrates all of Wharton’s war-time literary genres, discusses common themes, and examines issues such as Wharton’s exclusion from the canon of Great War writers; the effect of the war on her choice of subject, style, and tone; her shifting perspective on the war itself, as it dragged on far longer than anyone anticipated; her sense of personal, social, and literary destabilization during the war; and her increased sense of the role of history during and after the war.

Olin-Ammentorp quotes many evocative passages from Wharton’s wartime correspondence--most notably to Henry James, who avidly read Wharton’s letters to him as if they were dispatches from the front. Particularly new is the inclusion of Wharton’s poetry composed during the war years, most of which has remained unpublished until now. In addition, Olin-Ammentorp’s examination of A Son at the Front is more detailed, comprehensive, and complex than any study to date. She concludes with a reflection on Wharton’s last depiction of the war years in her memoir, A Backward Glance.

In addition to providing a thorough analysis of Wharton’s war writings, the book includes two appendixes of her out-of-print and scattered writings, available for the first time in over 85 years. The first contains the war poetry; the second includes a sampling of Wharton’s war-related nonfiction prose, including newspaper reportage, magazine articles, an obituary for her young friend Ronald Simmons who died in the war, and a speech she gave to American servicemen.

Julie Olin-Ammentorp is professor of English and former chair of the English Department at Le Moyne College, Syracuse.

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"Olin-Ammentorp chronicles Wharton's shifting view of the war over time and her sense of the apocalyptic social changes it brought about. Two highlights are the appraisal of Wharton's often-overlooked postwar novel, A Son at the Front, and the appendixes, which collect Wharton's war poetry and prose, some of it appearing here for the first time in print."
--Library Journal

"Historians have generally ignored or misconstructed Wharton's war work, so Olin-Ammentorp's close study will be useful to scholars working with war-related literature."

"To her great credit, Olin-Ammentorp provides the Wharton scholar, the student of war literature, and the women's studies devotee a much-needed study of not only how Wharton shapes the First World War for her readers but also how the Great War shapes Wharton's own imaginative works; it is the watershed event in her literary career, and this critical study is necessary to round out a portrait of Wharton."
--Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature

"There is something thrilling and impressive about Olin-Ammentorp being able to offer an almost entirely new narrative about Wharton's writing and to leave open so many opportunities for further studies for other critics. This is, in the most literal sense, an inviting, inspiring, and ground-breaking book."
--American Literary Realism

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