Reading the Great War: An Examination of Edith Wharton’s Reading and Responses, 1914–1918

Towheed, Shafquat (2015). Reading the Great War: An Examination of Edith Wharton’s Reading and Responses, 1914–1918. In: Towheed, Shafquat and King, Edmund G.C. eds. Reading and the First World War: Readers, Texts, Archives. New Directions in Book History. Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 78–95.



This chapter is a case study of a single elite reader’s responses to the four years of total war in Europe between 1914 and 1918. While an investigation such as this has obvious limitations, not least in terms of its lack of representativeness, my approach in this chapter will raise valid questions about how we might reconstruct the histories of reading during the First World War from multiple sets of subject positions: elite vs common; combatant vs civilian; committed partisan vs neutral spectator; male vs female. As an American expatriate woman writer, who lived primarily in France from 1911 until her death in 1937, Edith Wharton (1862–1937) occupied multiple (not always easily reconciled) social, cultural and political positions. She was a financially and critically successful novelist, winning the Pulitzer Prize for her 1921 novel The Age of Innocence, and was a prodigious and intellectually accomplished reader; Wharton read French, Italian and German fluently from childhood. She was also a lifelong reader and lover of books, with a personal library of over 4000 titles on a wide range of subjects, housed in the dedicated library rooms of her two French residences. As she was both a committed reader and a professional writer, closely examining Wharton’s reading and response during the conflict, as I intend to do in this chapter, exposes some of the affinities and contradictions inherent in the act of reading, and counters some of the broader generalisations and assumptions that we might otherwise make about wartime reading.

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