What to do with John Campton? The famous painter at the center of Edith Wharton’s novel, A Son at the Front, is a perplexing gent. An American expatriate living in Paris on the eve of World War I, Campton is likeable and sympathetic in many ways—his love for his son is sincere. His confusion about war in such a civilized society is sympathetic. And we see him work to understand George, whose idealism diverges dramatically from his father’s. Campton is soulful, elegant, and sophisticated.
And yet. John Campton is also prickly, small-minded, and vengeful. We learn that he abandoned his family to paint in the countryside. After his wife divorces him, he continues to pursue painting, and not provide for his son, while George’s wealthy—and by all accounts, doting—stepfather supports and raises him. This mercy is met with contempt throughout the novel.
Similarly, his maid goes missing in the early days of the conflict, and despite stories of German atrocities where she was travelling, he never thinks to search for her. He just grouses about fending for himself in the studio.
The problem is that John Campton is a selfish man out of his time. He’s a painter in Paris, and therefore somewhat Bohemian, but he is still chained to the tired Edwardian-era precepts of class.
Toward the end of the book, Campton decides to draw, and then paint, his landlady, a woman of lower class who has suffered great loss. However, if this is meant to show us that the war has changed Campton, it does not come through. Surely Wharton knew that Gustave Courbet and the French Realists were painting the everyday people of France 70 years earlier. Campton is more than fashionably late. Where were the disillusioned modernists like Picasso, Georges Braque, or Ernest Hemingway? I was waiting for Campton to wake up, to have an epiphany that the old rules no longer applied.
What to do with this novel? In this story where empires are falling and a new age is bursting forth, I cannot help but ponder why on earth Edith Wharton focused on the restrained and outmoded movements of polite, stuffy parlors. Sure, even during war life must go on. And sure, Wharton’s novels are about beautifully rendered restraint. But just like John Campton, so too is A Son at the Front—a beautiful work of art, but one that seems to have been written out of its time.