Public Domain Day advent calendar #22: A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton

In 1915 Edith Wharton published Fighting France, a collection of reports from her work aiding the French in the early days of the first World War, and a plea for Americans to intervene on France’s behalf.

Wharton continued to publish on the war in France over the next several years.  Her nonfiction works on the topic included French Ways and Their Meaning (1919), and her fiction works included The Marne (1918).  After all of these, though, came A Son at the Front, published and copyrighted in book form in 1923. It’s not one of the novels Wharton is best known for– by 1923, a war-weary public was not enthusiastic about a novel on this topic. But some critics have more recently written that it deserves revisiting, particularly in its treatment of people left behind in the war, those who came back from it, and those who did not.

Writers who revisit a subject often show an interesting development of perspective over time.  In my introduction to an online edition of Whose Body? (another 1923 novel mentioned in a previous calendar entry), I note how Lord Peter’s character, and his ideas of justice and relationships, evolve from the first Lord Peter Wimsey novel to the last.  One can also see evolution in thought and expression between Wharton’s firsthand experiences in the early days of the war, and her fictional treatment of the war, its social impact, and its devastating cost, years after the war had ended.

Ten days from now, A Son at the Front joins the public domain in the United States, and it should subsequently become readable online at places like HathiTrust.  When it does, it will be easier for many to see how the war changed people over time, and how war often looks different looking backward than it does looking forward.

2019 update: Link to full text of A Son at the Front, now in the US public domain, courtesy of HathiTrust.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
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