A Son at the Front

by Edith Wharton. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1923. 12mo. vi+426 pp. $2.00.
THIS novel, like a mirror, holds reflections of Mrs. Wharton’s war-time consciousness. The frame of the mirror is France, 1914-1917, designed with conventional precision. The central image in the glass is that of a young American soldier of France, seen with a kind of wondering tenderness. About him move the ambiguous shades of the smart American colonists of Paris, observed with ironical detachment. It is inevitable that such images should haunt Mrs. Wharton in the post-war years, but was it not a little too soon, or too late, to transpose them into fiction? One misses the tragic immediacy of Ethan Frome, the evocative reminiscence of The Age of Innocence. There is something muted and devitalized about A Son at the Front, that partakes, atmospherically, of the depression that followed the Peace Conference rather than of the tense-strung action in which the scene is laid.
The chief protagonists, who belong, of course, to the sophisticated, denationalized American world where Mrs. Wharton is most at home, are a father, mother, and son. Campton, a long unsuccessful, if gifted, painter, divorced by an empty and frivolous wife who has remarried a rich Paris banker, has grown to fame through a portrait of his son, in whom all his hope is centred. The boy, materially his mother’s, spiritually his father’s, happens to have been born on French soil, and has therefore been called to the colors as a Frenchman in August 1914. The parents come together, joined by a common determination, in which they are abetted by the banker, to keep their treasure safe, back of the lines. Wires are pulled and George in theory occupies a comfortable embusqué berth, but in fact gets himself transferred to the front, where he is seriously wounded. But there is in the lad that irresistible dedication to death, that desire for immolation, that moved the best of the youth of all countries at this period. Nothing can save George: he goes back to his men, is wounded again and dies.
In the background war charities turn to intrigue and speculation in the hands of pleasureseekers who cannot long be altruists, while good Americans work humbly on and suffer over America’s tardy entry into the war. There is also a feeble ‘love interest’ in the shape of Mrs. Talkett, a sort of denatured Lily Bart. What we are concerned with, however, is the psychological interplay of the central characters around that of George. The quality of the youth is somehow essentially conveyed, though the features are blurred, and he is much of the time a remote symbol: ‘war had sucked him back into his awful whirlpool — once more he was that dark enigma, a son at the front.’ When he dies, Campton finds his solace in the young Americans who come to France to fight. ‘Sometimes to talk with them was like being on the floor in George’s nursery, among the blocks and tin soldiers; sometimes like walking with young arch-angels in a cool and empty heaven; but wherever he was he always had a sense of being among his own.’ This sense, conveyed again and again through the father, is the salvation of a rather too wellmade novel, least final where it is expressive, and most where it is baffled by the unknown and poignant face of Youth at War.