Literature, World War I
LITERATURE, WORLD WAR I
The literature of war of the 1920s and 1930s revealed unprecedented disillusionment and pessimism in America's best young writers. The wartime experiences of this "Lost Generation" shattered their faith in society, in the value of idealism, and in the significance of the individual life. The powerful antiwar books of the 1920s and 1930s helped encourage pacifism and isolationism in the years before Pearl Harbor.
With the striking exceptions of Ezra Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly" (1920) and T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" (1922), most American poetry about the war employs stale diction to uphold platitudes about heroism, patriotism, and sacrifice. (Alan Seeger's popular "A Rendezvous with Death"  rises somewhat above the general level.) Marxist periodicals printed strident anti-war verse during the period of American neutrality.
Mainstream war writing published in 1917–1918 was strongly conventional and propagandistic. Writers romanticized the war as an opportunity to cultivate patriotism and character, to oppose Prussian militarism, and to offer one's life for democracy and civilization. A rare example of the pacifist spirit is Ellen N. La Motte's fictionalized memoir The Backwash of War (1916). La Motte's narrator, a nurse volunteer with the French army, sees appalling suffering and is also disturbed by European attitudes toward sex; the book's circulation was curtailed by the publisher after America entered the war, apparently to avoid a confrontation with pro-war organizations or newly enacted federal censorship restrictions. Typically the war was called the "Great Adventure." Arthur Guy Empey's best-selling Over the Top (1917) enthusiastically recounted his front-line service as an American in the British army.
Popular novelists strongly supported U.S. involvement, both during and after hostilities. As Edith Wharton wrote in The Marne (1918), America "tore the gag of neutrality from her lips, and with all the strength of her liberated lungs, claimed her right to a place in the struggle. The pacifists crept into their holes." In One of Ours (1922), which won the Pulitzer Prize, Willa Cather depicts the war as a force that lends meaning to an officer's life; his battlefield death makes up for years of frustration on a Nebraska farm.
War-veteran writers, however, found little to redeem their actual military experiences. Three Soldiers (1921), by John Dos Passos, depicts a military machine that destroys the artist and the hard worker alike. In Elliott Paul's Impromptu (1922), the army turns a soldier into a dependent cur. Amid confusion, incompetence, and horror, the Marine in Through the Wheat (1923), by Thomas Boyd, ends as a soulless automaton. Boyd's angry combat novel contrasts with John Thomason's Marine sketches Fix Bayonets! (1925), which extols the virtues of humor, endurance, and courage under fire without the cloying sentiment of most civilian writers.
The Enormous Room (1922), a novel by the poet e. e. cummings, conveys the intellectually stifling climate of the war years by fictionalizing cummings's confinement in a French jail for suspected political dissent. This often hallucinatory novel concentrates on the power of authority and the powerlessness of the artist. Cummings wrote a number of bitter antiwar poems in the 1920s and 1930s.
An affair between Lieutenant Frederic Henry and nurse Catherine Barkley is the focus of Ernest Hemingway's best-selling A Farewell to Arms (1929). Pointless bloodshed and pompous rhetoric have turned Henry's frontier faith in physical courage into an exercise in vanity. Sex, plus disdain for the frauds of the world, keeps the two lovers sane. Barkley's unexpected death leaves Henry, now a deserter, seething against a life in which suffering and death are the only realities.
The war affects all society in Dos Passos's 1919 (1932) and Mary Lee's "It's a Great War!" (1929), the lone novel by a female civilian employed by the U.S. army. Lee's protagonist, college-educated New Englander Anne Wentworth, first sees war in an army hospital where most of the patients, black and white, suffer from spinal meningitis or venereal disease. Besides wartime nursing, Lee dramatizes changing sexual mores, rearechelon inefficiency, demoralization, loss of religious faith, and the public's unalterable provincialism and greed. Back in the United States, Wentworth discovers that the war has isolated her from most of her own as well as from her parents' generation.
In 1919, Dos Passos depicts America at home and overseas. His many characters express the undirected explosive energy of a nation suddenly thrust onto the world stage. More vigorously than any other novel, 1919 emphasizes the disparity between proclaimed democratic ideals and the forces of dog-eat-dog capitalism and an impersonal military. Dos Passos shows postwar America as a hypocritical, hedonistic powerhouse more divided than ever between haves and have-nots.
William March, author of Company K (1934), remains one of the few highly decorated American soldiers of any war to have interpreted his experience in fiction. This profoundly pessimistic novel uses 113 narrators to tell the story of a rifle company from boot camp through the Armistice and back into civilian life. Their experiences are presented as tragedy, black humor, error, vision, and pure horror. For March, industrialized warfare is a whirling "circle of pain," with the soldiers of both sides imprisoned by forces that make future wars inevitable. Some of the men are forever haunted by what they have seen and done.
In 1924 Laurence Stallings co-scripted, with Maxwell Anderson, the play What Price Glory?, a combination of comedy and drama that censors later tried to close for supposed disrespect to the military. That same year Stallings published Plumes, an autobiographical novel about the difficult readjustment of a wounded officer. A dying veteran is a central presence in William Faulkner's debut novel Soldier's Pay (1926).
The upshot of war for the immobile doughboy in Dalton Trumbo's macabre Johnny Got His Gun (1939) is truly a living death. In Katherine Anne Porter's apocalyptic story "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" (1939), a more symbolic take on a similar theme, young Miranda watches America dissolve into a nightmare of propaganda, legally enforced political conformity, mounting casualties, and epidemic disease. Her only solace comes in fever dreams of the past and from her hope for something better after death.
Although William Faulkner tried to redeem the war's disasters with Christian symbolism in A Fable (1954), the antiwar pessimism and revulsion of novelists like Hemingway, March, Trumbo, and Porter remains definitive. For many writers, World War I was more than a mere personal trauma or a tragic historical episode. To some it had been fought, in the words of Ezra Pound, merely "for a botched civilization." To others, more bitter still, it revealed a world without meaning, without progress, without hope. Their work helped banish the glorification of war from American literature. It also helped to shape American culture, society, and identity in the years between World War I and World War II, reinforcing the notions of pacifism, isolationism, and materialism.
Cooperman, Stanley. World War I and the American Novel. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967.
Matsen, William E. The Great War and the American Novel. New York: Peter Lang, 1993.
Van Wienan, Mark W. Rendezvous with Death: American Poems of the Great War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.
Walsh, Jeffrey. American War Literature 1914 to Vietnam. New York: St. Martin's, 1982.
J. E. Lighter
"Literature, World War I." Americans at War. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/defense/energy-government-and-defense-magazines/literature-world-war-i
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