The Truth, Mainly - 02/03/2003

Rx for war talk: an English assignment
by Leon Satterfield

The second half of the President's State of the Union speech last week drove me a little crazy. That is, it revived my latent English teacher sensibilities. I feel the need to make an assignment.

OK, class. For our next meeting I want you to read William Dean Howells' short story, "Editha." It's not a very long short story, but I know you're all busy with your fraternity and sorority obligations and you may be too pressed for time to read the whole thing, so let me tell you a little about it.

First, about Howells. American, born 1837, died 1920. Fiction writer, critic, editor. Close friend of Mark Twain's.

Nobody reads Howells much any more. They should.

"Editha" was published in 1905, seven years after the Spanish-American War, which neither Howells nor Twain thought was a very good idea.

Howells' story is about that war, and it begins with this sentence: "The air was thick with the war feeling, like the electricity of a storm which has not yet burst."

Remind you of anything that's going on now?

Editha is the genteel main character of the story. She lives in upstate New York and she's very excited about the war. When George, her fiance', tells her the war has started, she kisses him "intensely" and says "How glorious!"

George, who's from way out west in Iowa, thinks war is nasty and really dumb, and he sees nothing glorious about it.

"I call it a sacred war," Editha says. "And I know you will see it just as I do."

George says war is "so stupid; it makes me sick."

"God meant it to be war," Editha says.

And later, deeply disappointed in George, she writes him a Dear John letter: "I shall always love you, and therefore I shall never marry any one else. But the man I marry must love his country first of all."

Then she quotes the warrior in Richard Lovelace's 17th century poem, "To Lucasta, Going to the Wars": "I could not love thee, Dear, so much,/Loved I not honor more."

But that afternoon, George gets a little drunk, and enlists.

"I never thought I should like to kill a man," he tells Editha, a little drunkenly, "but 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!"

Editha is so impressed with his new enlightenment, she gives him the letter, but tells him not to read it until he's in the middle of the fight and needs inspiration. He makes her promise to visit his mother in Iowa should anything happen to him, and goes off in a fanfare of patriotic music.

He, of course, gets killed in his first battle. After she gets the news, Editha, dressed all in black and feeling very patriotic indeed, takes the train to Iowa to console George's mother—who turns out to be not at all what Editha imagines.

The thing is, see, that when George was killed, the army sent his mother all his stuff—including the aforementioned letter from Editha.

"When you sent him, you didn't expect he would get killed," his mother tells Editha. "You just expected him to kill some one else, some of those foreigners that weren't there because they had any say about it."

Editha, shocked, begins to cry. George's mother is relentless.

"You thought it would be all right for my George, your George, to kill the sons of those miserable mothers and the husbands of those girls that you would never see the faces of. I thank my God he didn't live to do it. I thank my God they killed him first, and that he ain't livin' with their blood on his hands!"

Then she notices Editha's mourning clothes.

"What you got that black on for?" she says. "Take it off, take it off, before I tear it from your back!"

Later, back in New York, Editha tells an artist painting her portrait about what George's mother said.

"I can't understand such people," the artist says. "How dreadful of her! How perfectly—excuse me—how vulgar!"

The word gives Editha what she's looking for: a reason to discount what George's mother has said. Howells ends the story this way:

"The mystery that had bewildered her was solved by the word; and from that moment she rose from groveling in shame and self-pity, and began to live again in the ideal."

OK, class, read the story for Wednesday, and come back ready to discuss its current relevance. I know, I know, it's nearly a hundred years old so how could it possibly have any relevance to us now?

But listen up: this is one that may be part of the final exam.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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