War and the Ruling Class

Mar 19, 2018

Mothers, wives, and children await the return of their men during WWI, but was it all men going off to war?
Credit Wikipedia

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, but Wharton’s novel isn’t your usual war novel. This is no Red Badge of Courage or All Quiet on the Western Front. In fact, there are no scenes of violence or bloodshed at all in Wharton’s book. Instead, Wharton examines the effects of the Great War on those left behind, the parents and aunts and uncles and volunteers in the cities, who are left to helplessly await news of their children at the front.

Wharton tells the story of the American painter John Campton, who chooses to make his home in Paris. Though Campton’s only son George is thoroughly American, the boy was born in Paris by an accident of fate. So, when the boy visits his father in Europe just as Germany is rattling its sabers, the boy is drafted and sent off to fight—and his father is left behind to worry.

Wharton makes an interesting choice when she creates a protagonist who is a painter and a member of the effete Parisian art world. John Campton regularly rubs elbows with the most powerful members of France’s ruling class as he paints their portraits. What’s more, Campton has divorced George’s mother, and she is now married to one of the wealthiest bankers in Paris. Yet, despite their powerful connections, these two men are powerless to keep George away from the front—because the young man chooses to fight.

This, I think, is why Wharton’s choice of depicting the effects of war on the upper classes is so devastating. Many times, we have seen the effects of the war at home on the lower classes. All Quiet on the Western Front, for example, depicts some wrenching scenes of young soldiers coming home on leave to visit their families, and then being forced to return to the front and leave their loved ones behind again. More recently, 1978’s The Deer Hunter won a Best Picture Oscar for its depiction of the Vietnam War’s effects on a poor Pennsylvania industrial town.  

Yet Wharton’s novel gives us something altogether different. Rarely in art are we asked to feel sorry for the rich and powerful. Sure, we see plenty of stories about the problems of the elite classes, and we relish watching their troubles with gleeful schadenfreude. But A Son at the Front doesn’t take that approach. Instead, the book asks us to find commonality with bankers and upper-crust portrait painters. And we find that commonality in the fact that, the death machine of war can come for any of our sons and daughters, regardless of class.

However, it’s important to make a caveat here. While Edith Wharton’s tale of an elite young man being sent to the front during the Great War is certainly poignant, the elite of the United States in the 21st century rarely face this problem. According to ABC news, only one percent of Ivy Leaguers serve in the military. Likewise, only one percent of U.S. representatives and senators have a child in uniform. None of our last four presidents experienced the dangers of war, and it’s likely that three of them used powerful connections to avoid military service altogether.

Perhaps this explains why Edith Wharton’s anti-war novel is so little read these days, unlike her peacetime depictions of elite society like The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. In our contemporary world, where the children of the top one percent have little chance of being sent to war, Wharton’s cautionary tale rings a bit hollow. Even so, our world would likely be a better one if the upper crust of American society read Wharton’s novel and took its warnings to heart.