In June of 1915, as the war raged on around her, Wharton did something that pretty much every professional writer will be familiar with: She wrote to her editor and explained that her draft would be late. It wasn’t just that she had become “pen-tied,” as she would put it. It was also, she explained, that the war had come to occupy her mind as not just a humanitarian pursuit, but a literary one. She wanted to write stories about what war meant.
“Some months ago,” she confessed to Charles Scribner,
I told you that you could count on the completion of my novel by the spring of 1916; but I thought then that the war would be over by August. Now we are looking forward to a winter campaign and the whole situation is so overwhelming and unescapable that I feel less and less able to turn my mind from it. May I suggest, during the next six months, giving you instead four or five short stories, not precisely war stories, but on subjects suggested by the war? So many extraordinary and dramatic situations are springing out of the huge conflict that the temptation to use a few of them is irresistible. I have three in mind already and shall get to work on them as soon as I can finish my articles.
“My novel” in this case was Hudson River Bracketed, which would be published, finally, in 1929; “my articles,” in turn, were the pieces of war reporting Wharton had been producing from the front lines in France, which were appearing in magazines like Scribner’s and The Saturday Evening Post. In November of 1915, she would publish them in the collection Fighting France—the critical edition of which Kelly is publishing later this year.
“The Field of Honor”—a fictional side note to the nonfictional war stories Wharton was producing—would have fit in well with these efforts to explain, and more generally make sense of, the war. It is very much a “not precisely war story.” It is full of anxieties both microcosmic and macro. It helps to frame Wharton’s work in a larger historical context, and perhaps in a larger literary one, as well. While “much of Wharton’s wartime writing has been dismissed by even her most steadfast admirers as propagandistic or sentimental,” Kelly notes, “more recently a critical reassessment has begun. Although those writings might lack the ambition or the polish of masterpieces such as The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence, they are far more sophisticated than has previously been assumed.”
Why “The Field of Honor” never made it to publication remains a mystery. “Perhaps,” Kelly writes, “Wharton considered her harsh portrayal of volunteer women war workers too vitriolic.” Or perhaps she decided to abandon the story to focus on The Age of Innocence, the novel that would go on to win her a Pulitzer and to take its place in the American canon. Whatever the reason, “The Field of Honor” has now joined another kind of canon: the collection of works that were created by literary luminaries only to be abandoned or rejected or forgotten. The kind of stories that get filed away in dark places, discovered decades later, asking as many questions as they answer.