PIQUA — The first of three historical figures will entertain and education festivalgoers at the upcoming Piqua Chautauqua, which will be held Sept. 19-21 at Hance Pavilion in Fountain Park.
Kicking off the event on at 6 p.m. Sept. 19, Karen Vuranch — a storyteller, actress, and writer — will portray Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edith Wharton, best known for “The Age of Innocence” and “Ethan Frome.”
Wharton was preparing for summer vacation when World War I broke out. Though many fled from Paris, she moved back to her Paris apartment on the Rue de Varenne and for four years was a tireless and ardent supporter of the French war effort. One of the first causes she helped with was starting a workroom for unemployed women. The women were fed and paid one franc a day. It started with 30 women, then doubled to 60 women and their sewing business took off. When the Germans invaded Belgium in the fall of 1914, Belgium refugees then came to Paris. Wharton helped set up the American hostels where the refugees could get meals, clothes, shelter, and eventually, jobs. She collected more than $100,000 on their behalf. In early 1915, she organized the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee, which gave 900 Belgian refugees a home after they were bombed by the Germans.
Aided by her influential connections in the French government, Wharton and longtime friend Walter Berry, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Paris, were among the few foreigners in France allowed to travel to the front lines during World War I. She and Berry made five journeys between February and August 1915, which Wharton described in a series of articles first published in Scribner’s Magazine and later published as “Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort,” which became an American bestseller. Travelling by car, Wharton and Berry drove through the war zone viewing one demolished French village after another. She visited trenches, and was within earshot of artillery fire. She wrote, “We woke to a noise of guns closer and more incessant… and when we went out into the streets it seemed as if, overnight, a new army had sprung out of the ground.”
Throughout the war, she worked tirelessly in charitable efforts for refugees, the injured, the unemployed, and the displaced. She was a “heroic worker on the behalf of her adopted country.” On April 18, 1916, the president of France appointed her Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, the country’s highest award, in recognition of her dedication to the war effort. Her relief work included setting up workrooms for unemployed French women, organizing concerts to provide work for musicians, raising tens of thousands of dollars for the war effort, and opening hospitals for tuberculosis. In1915, Wharton edited “The Book of the Homeless,” which included essays, art, poetry, and musical scores by many major contemporary European and American artists, including Henry James, Joseph Conrad, William Dean Howells, Anna de Noailles, Jean Cocteau, and Walter Gay. Wharton proposed the book to her publisher, Scribner’s, handled all of the business arrangements, lined up contributors, and translated the French entries to English. Theodore Roosevelt wrote a two-page introduction to the book in which he praised Wharton’s effort and urged Americans to support the war.
Wharton also kept up her own work during the war, writing novels, short stories, and poems, as well as reporting for the New York Times and keeping up her enormous correspondence. She urged Americans to support the war effort and encouraged America to enter the war. She wrote the popular romantic novel “ Summer in 1916,” the war novella, “The Marne,” in 1918, and “A Son at the Front” in 1919 but it was not published until 1923. When the war ended, she watched the victory parade from Champs Elysees’ balcony of a friend’s apartment. After four years of intense effort, she decided to leave Paris for the peace and quiet of the countryside. Wharton settled 10 miles north of Paris in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, buying an 18th-century house on seven acres of land which she called Pavillion Colombe. She would live there in the summer and autumn for the rest of her life. She spent winters and springs on the French Riviera at Sainte Claire du Vieux Chateau in Hyeres.
Wharton was a committed supporter of the French imperialism, describing herself as a “rabid imperialist,” and the war solidified her political views. After the war, she travelled to Morocco as the guest of Resident General Huber Lyautey and wrote a book, “In Morocco,” about her experiences. Wharton’s writing on her Moroccan travels is full of praise for the French administration and for Lyautey and his wife in particular.
During the post war years, she divided her time between Hyères and Provence, where she finished “The Age of Innocence” in 1920, which won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for literature. Wharton returned to the United States only once after the war to receive an honorary doctorate degree from Yale University in 1923.
In addition, Wharton was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1927, 1928 and 1930