This Essay was written in Fall 2019 for an English course about 19th Century American Fiction. The course used The Norton Anthology of American Literature for the majority of its reading. Enjoy 🙂
War is cruel for all involved. At its purest, war is the violent clashing of opposing ideas. War comes from a failure to communicate and ends with the deaths of many. Men become soldiers, pieces on a board. Women and children become victims to the loss. A country’s influence on the individual causes him or her to be compressed of all unique thought. Because the nation believes it has the right ideals; its actions are pure extensions of those ideals. Entire generations, cultures, or family lines are often erased through the violence of war. But because of the influential power of nations, the same ideals that lead a man to volunteer for war also justify is severe injury or death to those that believe in the nation’s ideals. In “Editha”, William Dean Howells conveys these brutal realities from the perspective of Editha Balcom. Despite the cruel realities of war shown to her, Editha ignores the opportunity to break free from the ideals she imprinted onto her fiancée.
Editha Balcom has three central beliefs about war and life that directly influence her fiancée, George Gearson, to volunteer for the Spanish-American War. First, Editha believes that a man’s love must be proven. When George Gearson comes homes with news of war, Editha had already decided that she wanted him to fight in the war. She “decided that she could not let him stay” because she did not think that George had proven himself worthy of her hand in marriage (376). Editha “had always supposed that the man who won her would have done something to win her” (376). Editha imagined that the man she loved would perform a heroic deed or make a grand display of love for her. Instead, Editha gave her love to George Gearson, a man with little self-confidence. George’s only desire to please Editha’s demands. He decides to be a soldier to earn Editha’s respect (382). Editha’s desire for George’s love to be proven pushes him onto the battlefield.
Second, Editha believes that every war is justified. As Editha talks to George about his initial contempt for war, she exalts it. Editha shares the same sentiment of the newspaper by calling the Spanish-American War “‘A war for liberty, and humanity, if ever there was one’” (377). To Editha, the cause of this war no longer matters now that it has broken out. She believes that God has allowed and ordained the United States to fight to uphold the nation’s ideals made manifest. Editha agrees later with the transforming Captain George Carson when he exclaims “‘What a thing it is to have a country that can’t be wrong, but if it is, is right anyway’” (380). Editha promotes religious and national values to make the war sacred and George’s participation a duty.
Lastly, Editha believes that war transforms men into heroes. Editha desires for the fiancée she sees a weak-willed to “be a hero, her hero” by enlisting (377). When the transforming Gearson decides to join with the other men, he is described, from Editha’s perspective, as someone “that made her feel as if she had lost her old lover and found a stranger in his place” (381). Editha praised this transformation. She encouraged him to fully commit to his duty to the nation regardless of the values instilled in him by his mother and father. When Gearson and his regiment leave for the capital, Editha feels pride in her husband’s transformation. She sees the sameness of the men gathered and sees heroes. She feels that “a sort of noble distinction” comes from their new commitment to God and the nation. Editha celebrates the transformed George Gearson and gives him a letter for inspiration that was originally written to be an ultimatum and sends letters to him and his mother, “glorifying and supporting him” (383). Editha’s belief that war will transform men into heroes transforms George into her view of such.
In “Editha”, William Dean Howells conveys the cruel realities of war in a few ways. One way that Howell conveys them is by displaying the belief that nations are infallible when in times of war. For example, in her argument with Gearson, Editha states the war had already begun. She then agrees with Gearson when he states “‘Our country – right or wrong’” (377). Later when Gearson returns and announces his intentions of joining and leading the local regiment, Gearson states that “‘It’s all for the country! What a thing it is to have a country that can’t be wrong, but if it is, is right anyway’” (380). Through these two exchanges, Howells shows the way that patriotism smoothes over the mistakes made leading up to and causing the Spanish-American War. The fact that the United States government has declared war on Spain is enough for most American citizens like Editha to believe that the ends justify the means. The nation becomes infallible in war by its use of patriotism as well as its downplaying of war to the nation’s citizens.
At the time of “Editha”, there are still citizens who experienced the harshness of the Civil War. George Gearson, for example, talks about the experience that Gearson’s father “‘came home with misgivings about war’” and suffered an injury from his time in battle (382). George’s parents instilled in him the same doubts about war. In his conversation with Editha, George states that war “‘seems peculiarly wanton and needless’” (378). Editha does not share this sentiment. Editha’s belief comes from her patriotism. Editha sees the United States as perfect because it was “‘in order of Providence’” (377). Because of the country’s infallibility, the war is assumed to not last long. To the newly joined Gearson, the war “‘won’t be much of a war’” because “‘[t]he other fellows will back down as soon as they see we mean it’” (381).The nation has the power of being right so the cruel reality that bloodshed is going to happen is obscured.
Another way that Howell conveys the brutal realities of war is through the way he highlights how individuality is compressed. First, Howell shows that the newspapers each share the same beliefs as the nation. The crux of Editha’s arguments comes from her use of “the current phrases of the newspapers” (377). The news is used to isolate those who have opposing beliefs about the war like George Gearson. Next, Howell writes about the national belief about a unified nation. Editha paraphrases the newspapers and the Gearson later states that “‘there were no two parties; there was one country’” (386). The individuality of citizens is now taken away by war through the elimination of their political identities. A civic-minded citizen values his or her beliefs on how the country should be governed in foreign and domestic issues like war. The elimination of this crucial aspect of democracy by wartime ideals shows how war often oppresses people to be cogs in the machine.
Then Howell writes about the soldiers. Editha tells her fiancée that since he is a soldier, he must give himself over completely to the nation (381). Later she sees the departing soldiers in their uniforms and describes “a sort of noble distinction in the abstraction, the almost unconsciousness, with which they parted” (383). Now that these men were soldiers, their personalities no longer mattered. They dressed in uniform to do their duty to their country. Once their decision to join was made, Gearson’s regiment was now a collective. The needs of the country now eliminate the personal needs of the citizen and the soldier in wartime.
The last way Howells conveys the harshness of war is through severe injury and death. In violent clashes, people can get hurt or killed. In “Editha”, Howells focuses on the Gearson family to highlight this aspect. George Gearson’s father was injured in the Civil War (382). Once Editha learns of this, Editha thinks often about her potential response if George loses an arm. Instead of injury, George Gearson dies in “the first skirmish” (383). This possibility was not considered by Editha but was on George’s mind even before he left with his regiment. He implies what Editha needs to do “if anything should happen” to him (382). Death is an ever-present part of war. Sometimes these deaths do not happen to achieve a higher goal. Howells highlights this in Gearson’s death. George’s first time in combat, dies in what is considered to be “a trifling loss on our side” (383). Howells shows that war is cruel through meaningless deaths for causes that they don’t understand, loss of individuality, and supposed national infallibility.
Editha learns nothing from her experiences in Howell’s story. Each cruelty of war is shown to Editha, but she does not separate herself from those dangerous ideals. Editha’s ideals influenced Gearson to fight in a war that he didn’t believe in. Gearson died quickly and unheroically in what was “telegraphed as a trifling loss on our side” (383). Gearson would prove his love for her into a heroic figure through sacred combat was instantly shattered by her meaningless death at the start of the war. Upon news of Gearson’s death, she grieves for a short time. But her idyllic sense of duty returns to her when she remembers her promise to take care of Gearson’s mother when he dies. Howell writes that this responsibility to her dead fiancée “buoyed her up instead of burdening her” (383).
During Editha’s visit to see Gearson’s mother, Editha has another opportunity to learn from her mistakes. Editha and her father make the trip from New York to see Gearson’s mother who lives in a small town in Iowa. The two enter the home dressed in funeral attire. Once Gearson’s mother recognizes Editha as George’s fiancé, she chastises Editha. First, she targets Editha’s desire for a proven man. Editha thought that Gearson’s choice to go to war was ultimately made on his own. But Mrs. Gearson questions this by addressing the letter that was with George’s personal affects (384). Then Mrs. Gearson confronts Editha’s belief that the war would turn George into a hero. Mrs. Gearson states that George “‘was always a timid boy’” that “‘did what he made up his mind to’” (384). Mrs. Gearson makes clear with this description that at no point was George someone who would decide to join the war effort in his own out of fear. Then Mrs. Gearson further dispels this belief by comparing her to the other girls. Mrs. Gearson states that young women don’t consider death on the table for their men. These women “‘think [the men will] come marching back… if it’s an empty pantaloon…they’re so much the prouder of them, poor things!’” (385). Thirdly, Mrs. Gearson tears down Editha’s belief in the sacredness if the war. Editha believed that God had ordained the war to happen to bring freedom to oppressed foreigners. Mrs. Gearson counters this by telling Editha that many of the people on the battlefield of these opposing ideals were not there by choice “‘but because they had to be there’” (385). Editha’s view of holy war is shattered by the idea of innocents being killed for something in which they don’t believe. Mrs. Gearson shows Editha the invalidity of her ideals on war and life.
At this point in the story, Editha could denounce her deadly ideals about life and war. As Mrs. Gearson insults Editha’s foolishness and becomes angry at Editha’s hand in her son’s death, Editha cries: “it was now such a relief to be understood” (385). Editha was not able to vocalize her grief until her visit with Mrs. Gearson. For a moment, there is hope that Editha would reflect and transform after experiencing a mother’s righteous fury. But Editha reverts to her dangerous beliefs after some time. In the final part of “Editha”, the titular character shares her story to an artist over the summer. The artist then calls Mrs. Gearson’s reaction “vulgar” because of “the good this war has done…for the country!” (385). Editha then comes out of her sense of shame and claims that Mrs. Gearson “‘wasn’t quite in her right mind’” (385). The shame that Editha felt since her visit evaporates. Those idyllic beliefs about war’s holy beauty and transformative power had not been uprooted Editha’s personal mistakes; those lessons were ignored as soon as it was convenient. As Howells writes, Editha “began to live again in the ideal” (385).
William Dean Howells displays the lasting power of dangerous ideals from the perspective of a young woman being confronted with the anti-thesis of her ideals through the cruelties of war. Editha believes love must be proven, war is always just, and that war turns men into heroes. Editha influences her fiancée, George to join the war. George dies unproven and unheroically in a minor skirmish at the start of the war. This proof of Editha’s ideals’ failure is highlighted by George’s mother and taken in by Editha. Later a conversation with an artist easily reinstates these ideals in Editha by dismissing Mrs. Gearson. Despite the cruel realities of war played out in her life, Editha Balcom fails to learn from the death of her fiancée. Editha maintains the same ideals that she had at the beginning of the short story.
Howells, William Dean. “Editha.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. 8th Edition. Vol. C. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 376-385.
Be sure to follow me on Twitter, TV Time, and Letterboxd. I’ll be back nect week with another post about some of the entertainment I give my life away to every day.