Culture and War: Edith Wharton’s 1918

3 April 2018



This past February, the Times Literary Supplement published a translation of Edith Wharton’s lecture, “France and Its Allies at War: The Witnesses Speak.” It’s a curious little speech, delivered in French during a wartime series in February 1918, that tries to articulate the culture clash between the US and France. Wharton is best known as a novelist of the American Gilded Age, and wasn’t exactly a political theorist. But living among the upper-crust of New York and Boston’s best families often entailed the prestige of attempting to live among the French. It was not for nothing that Wharton kept her father’s marked-up copy of Alexis de Tocqueville’s De la démocratie en Amérique.  


As a writer, Wharton homes in on the “lexical discord” between the two nations: “Our language is elliptic and sometimes our manners are too. We take shortcuts and byways, whereas you tread the paths traced by a long and glorious tradition.” Wharton herself was a thorough Francophile and settled in France permanently after 1907. She was furious with President Woodrow Wilson’s neutrality through most of World War I, and marshalled her literary friends in the US to advocate coming to the Allies’ aid. Wharton assures her French audience that America “can conduct a great war if the authors of its Constitution have the courage to declare that as soon as the nation is in peril, all power will be placed in the hands of the Head of State.” This is a surprisingly bellicose tone from the author who would soon write The Age of Innocence.


Then again, Wharton’s most famous novel, set in 1870s Manhattan, is very much about the innocence forever shattered by the war. The countess Ellen Oneska is expelled to France, lest she disrupt the fastidious certainty of old New York. But by the time The Age of Innocence came out in 1921, we know that the pristine society of Wharton’s childhood is lost, no matter what New Yorkers do with European countesses. In wartime Paris, Wharton witnessed the enormous casualties her countrymen had largely been spared. She threw herself into civilian relief efforts, such as the American Hostels for Refugees and various grocery and clothing depots. Henry James joked that Wharton had become “the great generalissima.”


Much of her 1918 speech can be read as an apology for America’s insulation from the worst of the war. If only the “political education” of the American public were “sufficiently advanced for it to accept temporary autocracy without being haunted by the spectre of permanent dictatorship.” In their backwoods, puritanical ways, Wharton explains, the Americans have nurtured a “clumsy” idea of politics: “Think that while you were building Versailles, we were cutting down virgin forests, that while Descartes was writing Discourse on Method, our scholars were drafting books on demonology.” Of course, Tocqueville famously observed that America was full of untutored Cartesians, yet her nation’s disdain for tradition is an embarrassment to Wharton.


As Wharton’s brilliant British biographer, Hermione Lee, points out, Paris often serves as a kind of test for Wharton’s American characters. A few will appreciate its beauty, but most—especially those who stay at the “Nouveau Luxe” hotel—only exploit the city for their own “conspicuous consumption.” Undine Spragg (what a name!) typifies this later type. The lead character of Wharton’s 1913 novel, The Custom of the Country, embodies the worst of the American nouveau riche. Undine is uncurious, crass, and recklessly wasteful. She spends principally so she can be seen. Undine manages to marry into a genteel Washington Square family, only to realize “that she had given herself to the exclusive and the dowdy when the future belonged to the showy and promiscuous.” For all her materialism, Undine maintains a certain Midwestern innocence. She fancies that divorce is just a resource for the social-climber. She travels between Paris and a North Dakota outpost to try and trade up in husbands. When that scheme fails, Undine opts for a French count.


Jonathan Franzen writes that “The Custom of the Country is the earliest novel to portray an America I recognize as fully modern, the first fictional rendering of a culture to which the Kardashians, Twitter, and Fox News would come as no surprise.” In other words, we’ve come a long way from old New York—and even further from the “dark and fanatic Massachusetts” Wharton describes in her speech.


Undine’s behavior is of the kind to embarrass more sophisticated American expats—and forecasts the coming of today’s thrice-married, TV-obsessed Commander in Chief. Wharton settled her own divorce in French courts to minimize the publicity. But she understood the change in moeurs enough to write of a woman like Undine, whose only exercise in literacy is to scour the society page clippings. Undine, we might say, was an early queen of social media.


Wharton’s speech, notably, begins with her own misgivings about Americans and the press: “Each time I see the translation of a speech or an official American Government statement in a French newspaper, I fear a misunderstanding.” Wharton’s worry is about high-stakes diplomacy—not society gossip—but she clearly thinks money-grubbers like Undine make this diplomacy harder to conduct. Her example points to French newspapers quoting President Wilson’s advisor, Edward House, saying “L’Amérique a déjà mobilisé ses millions dans les usines.” House was referring to millions of American troops, yet he was understandably misinterpreted to be boasting of millions of U.S dollars.  


Even as she urges her government to spend vastly more on war efforts, Wharton wants her French audience to know that not all Americans are fat cats (oncles d’Amérique). She praises the French for motivating her countrymen to cultivate finer tastes, though it often looks as if tourists arrive just to “pack Fragonard panels, Boucher tapestries, and Rodin bronzes in our trunks.” This explains why Wharton is so strident about the Puritans. She hopes her listeners will understand that the scrambling of the nouveau riche is “the result of our past, of our austere, arduous and joyless past.”


All her talk of Dutch merchants and the Massachusetts Bay Colony may simply be Wharton’s way of signaling her own impeccable pedigree, which has taught her to navigate Paris like less of a barbarian. In France, one of the de Noilles once referred to Wharton as “trés snob.”   


Yet Wharton’s advocacy during the war, viewed charitably, seems an effort to quell this personal snobbery. France was still a test—but not one to be passed with a good accent or by avoiding the “Nouveau Luxe” hotel. The challenge, instead, was whether American idealists would come to Europe’s aid. Cultural exchange probably shouldn’t be a test—and certainly not one backed by “temporary autocracy.” But I read Wharton to be wrestling with some of the key themes of this blog.


This year marks the centennial of the end to World War I, but also the fifteenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq—another fiasco for US-French relations. The Bush administration’s tone in 2003 had a weirdly Wilsonian ring: if only we showed the right gumption, our military could make the Middle East safe for democracy. The cowboy posturing occurred alongside an irresponsible idealism. The backlash against Bush, meanwhile, had Whartonian qualities, especially among more genteel liberals troubled by America’s reputation abroad. The surveillance state was once thing, but calling frites “freedom fries” was just plain gauche.


Democracy is an international phenomenon, with persistently local prejudices. We’re vexed by the past, even as we obsess in the present over keeping up with the Joneses (Wharton, naturally, was née Edith Newbold Jones). The Great War put an end to old New York, but the Undine Spraggs have only multiplied.


Photo Credit: Henry James, Edith Wharton and Howard Sturgis on the Veranda at The Mount, via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.


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