Literature, World War II

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Writers have long drawn on the experiences of war to examine themes such as race, power, democracy, and human behavior under conditions of stress. Partly through addressing these and similar issues with unprecedented candor and realism, U.S. war literature matured during and after World War II. Hundreds of war novels eventually appeared, some of outstanding craftsmanship. Many American poets did impressive work, and wartime journalism and postwar memoirs often exhibited a new subtlety and clarity. Only the most popular or original works and writers can be described here.

World War II novels comprise the most varied category in U.S. war literature. Harry Brown tells of small-unit combat in A Walk in the Sun (1944). John Hersey's A Bell for Adano (1944) suggests that the integrity of most Americans abroad will ultimately outweigh the arrogance and cruelty of a few. Hersey also wrote Into the Valley (1943) and Hiroshima (1946), both reportorial classics, as well as the novels The Wall (1950), about the Warsaw Ghetto, and The War Lover (1959), a Freudian tale of bomber pilots in England.

Saul Bellow's Dangling Man (1944) ends disturbingly before its draftee protagonist goes overseas. Life in North Africa and Italy beguiles the GIs in John Horne Burns's The Gallery (1947). Like many novels, The Gallery features self-seeking officers, decent enlisted men, and kind-hearted foreign women, but a chapter about gay Allied soldiers was controversial. John Hawkes's surrealistic The Cannibal (1949) portrays occupied Germany as a landscape of gothic horrors, and Jerzy Kozinski takes a macabre view of Nazi-occupied Poland in The Painted Bird (1965). William Gardner Smith's Last of the Conquerors (1948) shows black soldiers in occupied Germany as better treated by German civilians than by fellow Americans. John Oliver Killens's And Then We Heard the Thunder (1962) dramatically portrays a comparable social contradiction in wartime Australia.

Three ambitious, more or less pessimistic, novels appeared in 1948. Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions unites the fates of three infantrymen, two American and one German. Shaw emphasizes that the United States has its racists and tyrants as well as Germany; here, however, they have not yet gained the upper hand. German expatriate Stefan Heym's The Crusaders spotlights a psychological warfare unit; while endorsing the Allied cause as just, Heym criticizes American hypocrisy and naivete in Europe. In his deeply pessimistic The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer mixes realistic details of the Pacific war with profound fears about the future of democracy. In this novel, war has given frightening power to autocrats like General Cummings and sadists like Sergeant Croft. Only chance and heroic endurance, embodied in Private Ridges and Private Goldstein, offer a glimmer of hope in a dark human and natural landscape.

The vivid and moving Mask of Glory (1949), by Dan Levin, offers a leftist perspective on Marine heroism in the Pacific. Though disdained by critics as cliched and superficial, Leon Uris's Battle Cry! (1953) was enormously popular. Richard Matheson's The Beardless Warriors (1960) shows teenagers coming to grips with battle. Face of a Hero (1950), by Louis Falstein, dramatizes the bombing of southern Europe, and Edward L. Beach's Run Silent, Run Deep (1959) does the same for the sub-marine war.

Questions of discipline and psychology distinguish Herman Wouk's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Caine Mutiny (1951). The tyrannical Captain Queeg's irrationality leads a handful of officers to seize command during a typhoon. Once a court-martial clears the alleged mutineers, their own attorney angrily upholds Queeg, whose service helped protect America even before Pearl Harbor; few then were willing to accept that responsibility. Many readers find this last-minute vindication of Queeg unconvincing.

James Jones published the best-selling From Here to Eternity in 1951, describing the life of the rebellious Private Prewitt in Hawaii before Pearl Harbor. Considered shocking in language and detail at the time it was published, its brutal depiction of army life angered some skeptical critics. But Jones's ability to write powerfully and insightfully about soldiers was confirmed in The Thin Red Line (1962), an outstanding combat-oriented novel. In the sex-charged Whistle (1978) Jones writes bleakly of returned veterans of Guadalcanal.

The U.S. Army Air Force in Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961) is a world of caricatures and tortured logic. But beneath the slapstick, Catch-22 satirizes greed, gullibility, ambition, corruption, and complacency. Captain Yossarian is at the mercy of corrupt and inept bosses and colleagues. He finally rejects a system that demands infinite loyalty despite its cruelty to the individual. Heller's theme is that of the individual in an irrational, impersonal society, but during the Vietnam War many readers eagerly endorsed military idiocy as the book's actual message.

In Slaughterhouse Five (1969), Kurt Vonnegut shuttles Private Billy Pilgrim between 1945 Dresden, a future America, and a zoo on the planet Tralfamidor. Hardly a straightforward "antiwar" novel, Slaughterhouse Five seems to counsel resignation in the face of the world's horrors. Also influenced by science fiction, Thomas Pynchon's avant-garde Gravity's Rainbow (1973) focuses on Nazi development of "vengeance weapons" near the end of the war.

Although critics do not generally regard them as being successful as literature, Herman Wouk's epic-scale The Winds of War (1971) and its sequel, War and Remembrance (1978) employ enormous historical research to substantiate the war's tragedy and the influence of history on the individual.

The best war poetry was personal and understated. War poets included Howard Nemerov, Louis Simpson, Karl Shapiro, Phyllis McGinley, John Ciardi, James Dickey, Lincoln Kirstein, and others. Anthologies of war poems often include Richard Eberhart's "The Fury of Aerial Bombardment," Randall Jarrell's "Eighth Air Force," and Winfield Townley Scott's "The American Sailor with the Japanese Skull."

Outstanding American overseas journalists included Ernie Pyle (whose newspaper columns frequently personalized the ordinary GI), Richard Tregaskis, John Hersey, Margaret Bourke-White, Quentin Reynolds, John Stein-beck, and Martha Gellhorn. CBS radio correspondent Edward R. Murrow became famous for the economy and impact of his written as well as his spoken words.

World War II is the subject of many distinguished memoirs and other nonfiction accounts. The Longest Day (1959), by Cornelius Ryan, is an early example of oral history. The Warriors (1958), by former intelligence officer J. Glenn Gray, ponders the psychology of men at war. Senior officers' memoirs, such as General Dwight Eisenhower's Crusade in Europe (1948), are complemented by the works of junior officers and enlisted men; some no-table examples are James Fahey's Pacific War Diary (1956), Eugene Sledge's With the Old Breed on Peleliu and Iwo Jima (1981), Samuel Hynes's Flights of Passage (1988), Raymond Gantter's Roll Me Over (1997), and William A. Foley, Jr., 's Visions from a Foxhole (2002).

American writers on the subject of World War II created a body of work unsurpassed in quality by the literature of any other American war. Novels, autobiographies, and poetry explored the effects of war on individuals. Unlike the disillusionment that characterized the literature of World War I, in general World War II literature was neither pessimistic nor antiwar. Instead, it presents war in its complexity as a tragic but perhaps inevitable part of the human condition. Reflecting the views of their own generation, authors writing about World War II generally accepted the justness of that war and the necessity of ridding the world of Nazi totalitarianism and Japanese militarism. World War II literature helped to make that war, later called the "good war," a defining moment in affirming America's democratic values and the nation's identity as a moral people. Later in the century the literature of the Vietnam War would take American war literature down a starkly different path.


Beidler, Philip D. The Good War's Greatest Hits. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.

Cowley, Malcolm. "War Novels: After Two Wars." In The Literary Situation. New York: Viking, 1954.

Homberger, Eric. "United States." In The Second World War in Fiction, edited by Holger Klein et al. London: Macmillan, 1984.

Reporting World War II, 2 vols. New York: Library of America, 1995.

Shapiro, Harvey, ed. Poets of World War II. New York: Library of America, 2003.

Walsh, Jeffrey. "Second World War Fiction"; "Second World War Poetry." In American War Literature 1914 to Vietnam. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982.

J. E. Lighter

See also:Hemingway, Ernest; Journalism, World War II; Propaganda, War.

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Literature, World War II

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Literature, World War II