I’m Jonathan Baker, a writer in Canyon, Texas, and I’m the discussion leader for this month’s book club read, A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton. The theme for the Radio Readers Book Club this spring is World War I—which means the theme is really war itself. Some military historians consider the American Civil War to be the first “modern war,” as many of the elements of post-Industrial Age warfare were in place during that event. Yet World War I was the first conflict to use mechanized weapons on such a massive scale that the earth itself seemed to shake from the trauma.
One hundred years ago, the world first grew wearily accustomed to such martial developments as submarines, armored tanks and aerial attacks. In this sense, the Great War set the tone for many wars to come in the 20th century.
Yet, the Great War also seemed to have one foot planted in the 19th century. Horses were a common sight on the battlefields, as we’ll see in another of our book club selections, War Horse. If the modern world was born during the Industrial Revolution and came of age throughout the 19th century, then the Europe of World War I might be seen as an ungainly adolescent trying to come to terms with its newfound strength. The war was impetuous, stomping across the landscape and leaving in its wake mangled bodied and incinerated farms.
When viewed from this perspective, Edith Wharton’s 1922 novel snaps into focus. Here is the war, as seen from the point of view of the parents left behind when their boy is sent off to fight. In A Son at the Front, Wharton tells the story of the American painter John Campton, who has chosen to make his home in Paris. (Campton, it seems to me, is a thinly veiled re-imagining of the American portraitist John Singer Sargent.) Through an accident of fate, Campton’s only son George was born in Paris and is thus technically a French citizen. So, when George comes to Paris to visit his father just as the Germans are threatening war, the younger man is swept up by the draft.
To prevent catastrophe, Campton contacts George’s mother, who has remarried an unfathomably wealthy banker named George Brant. Brant and Campton set about pulling every string they can find, in order to keep young George away from the front. Despite these efforts, George’s letters grow cryptic and infrequent, until the two men learn that George has in fact been sent to the front by his own request. The young man, it would seem, has been caught up in the wartime fervor and is determined to “do his duty.”
In our contemporary era, when there is much discussion of “toxic masculinity” and its detrimental effects on society, Edith Wharton’s novel makes an interesting study. Few of the men in the novel exhibit the troubling aspects of toxic warmongering. Young George is, like the traditional view of Europe itself, sensitive and erudite. He speaks softly, with intelligence and compassion. He loves a married woman twice his age and navigates the relationship with maturity and tenderness. He’s a far cry from the oft-rendered gung-ho American soldier of the Great War, holding his rifle aloft and singing “The Yanks Are Coming” with vengeful alacrity.
Yet this teenager, like the newly industrialized Europe, is given over to savage impulses despite his sensitive nature. He, like the leaders of the ancient continent on which he was born, is taken by a fever, an urge to prove something—though no one is quite sure what anyone is proving. Meanwhile, the world-weary elders, the patient artists and self-effacing souls, are left to watch in horror as their sons march off to slaughter.