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Julie Olin-Ammentorp states concisely the goal for her book Edith Wharton's Writings from the Great War. At first, it may seem modest: "to ask its readers to reread (or, in many cases, to read for the first time) and consider Wharton's war-related writings" so that we might come to understand not only "how Wharton shaped the war for her readers, but how a great war—the Great War—shaped Wharton's own particular creative imagination" (5). As Olin-Ammentorp takes us through the many, varied works that Wharton produced in the war years, however, we are grateful for the sharp eye, the thoughtful and capable mind that guides our readings of the texts at hand. Ten years in the making, Edith Wharton's Writings from the Great War provides detailed summaries of unfamiliar texts, a straightforward argument, an unwavering focus, and suggestive insights for future studies of Wharton as a war writer. Furthermore, Olin-Ammentorp includes a helpful appendix that contains archival sources as well as materials long out of print, enhancing our understanding of (and access to) one of our most important twentieth-century writers.
In her introductory chapter, Olin-Ammentorp discusses Wharton's position with respect to other World War I writers; she stresses the fact that Wharton doesn't fit neatly into any of the paradigms that critics have established, which, she posits, might explain why Wharton's war writings have been largely ignored. Olin-Ammentorp argues that other critics have, in fact, misread Wharton. Perhaps most importantly, she highlights one of the stickiest and most compelling aspects of Wharton's texts, what essentially sets her apart from the modernist agenda: Wharton refused to give up [End Page 207] ideals. In particular, she "never gave up the belief that the war could be an ennobling, even transcendent, experience" (20). Olin-Ammentorp repeats this point throughout her text; elsewhere, she speaks of Wharton's sense of the war's "transformative power" (39), "its power to alter and . . . ennoble" (76), and the " potential nobility . . . of experience on the front" (135). More precisely, Olin-Ammentorp shows the complexity of Wharton's position as a realist writer who, nonetheless, clings to ideals. Ambiguity has long been considered a characteristic trait of Wharton's writing, yet in linking it to the war, Olin-Ammentorp gives us a framework within which we might better understand that conflicted impulse. Writers like Edith Wharton and Henry James (whom Olin-Ammentorp often cites) articulate the inner life; they restrain their focus to the intricacies of a select social setting; they thrive on moral ambiguity. War, in contrast, is outward, active, global, and, for the most part, black and white. Olin-Ammentorp reminds us that for Wharton and her contemporaries, especially those in the world of art, the war meant an attack not simply on a particular nation, but on civilization itself. Thus, she argues, Wharton's response in the prose, poetry, and fiction of that moment had to be unequivocal.
Wharton's war writing, in its first blush, escaped what Olin-Ammentorp calls the prescriptive or doctrinaire tone that would eventually exemplify it. In her second chapter, Olin-Ammentorp examines Fighting France (1915) alongside some of Wharton's poetry and the one work of fiction that she produced during this time. The chapter's epigraph quotes a letter from Wharton to Bernard Berenson, and Olin-Ammentorp uses the quotation as a sort of refrain throughout this chapter: "Hasn't it shaken all the foundations of reality for you?" (28). Though Wharton asks the question here in earnest, this chapter nonetheless shrewdly complicates the notions of realism as she expressed them. Olin-Ammentorp suggests that if these early texts maintain their realism, it is an uneasy realism, this time mixed with an unshakeable romanticism for the war. In a lovely summary of this chapter, Olin-Ammentorp outlines some of the most important issues that ought to compel us to take a closer look at Wharton's war writing. Even in her earliest responses to the war, Wharton...