Memoirs, Autobiographies

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The war memoir has always been a genre in American literature. The Revolutionary War had no sooner ended than some of its key figures wrote and published accounts of their experiences. Yet these, like most of the war memoirs published after the Civil War, were written by senior officers less concerned to document the war experience than to tell the stories of battles or campaigns and justify their own conduct in them. Although common soldiers, nurses, civilians, and others outside headquarters wrote letters and kept diaries—a tradition that dated back to the Revolutionary War and continued in the Civil War—few of their records were published until the twentieth century.

the spanish-american war

The most influential memoir of the Spanish-American War (1898–1899) is Theodore Roosevelt's The Rough Riders (1899). There are only a few others, among them George Kennan's Campaigning in Cuba (1899); John Bigelow's Reminiscences of the Santiago Campaign (1899); George A. Andrews's A Soldier in Two Armies (1901); Ralph Delahaye Paine's Roads of Adventure (1922); and Charles Johnson Post's The Little War of Private Post (1960). Even fewer books emerged from the Philippine Insurrection (1899–1902), although the historian A. B. Feuer has collected and published many valuable accounts in America at War: The Philippines, 1898–1913.

world war i

Not until World War I did the war memoir written from the common soldier's or junior officer's perspective become a major literary genre in the United States. This is attributable to the nature of the war itself, which, unlike any previous conflict, involved entire populations; to the growing literacy of those populations; and to the exploitation of literature as a propaganda weapon by the belligerent governments. American memoirs published during the war, for example James Rogers McConnell's Flying for France (1917), were less concerned with accurately portraying the war experience than with encouraging recruiting and boosting civilian morale.

War memoirs became especially popular after the Treaty of Versailles, especially during two brief periods that dated roughly from 1919 to 1922 and from 1929 to 1933. The second period was inspired by the 1929 publication in English translation of All Quiet on the Western Front, a war novel by the German writer Erich Maria Remarque. In Europe, especially in Britain and France, many—but by no means all—of the memoirs published during these years expressed some form of disillusionment with war and the social and political traditions seen as having incited war. These memoirs were not necessarily representative of most veterans' experiences, but they found much greater favor with the pacifist-minded European public than did those that justified the war, which were largely ignored.

In America, by contrast, patriotism remained popular and memoirs of disillusionment were the exception to the rule. No Hard Feelings! (1930), by the Congressional Medal of Honor winner John Lewis Barkley, is perhaps the best representative of the type. Aviation memoirs such as Norman Archibald's Heaven High, Hell Deep (1935) also attracted particular public interest in the United States, perhaps because they allowed readers to envision war as a chivalrous affair and avoid the harrowing images of the trenches. Yet, although most American memoirists affirmed the cause for which they fought, almost all of them decried war itself and urged their country to remain uninvolved in future European conflicts. Some of the best American memoirs, most notably Hervey Allen's Toward the Flame: A Memoir of World War I (1926; 2003), Thomas Barber's Along the Road (1924), and Elton Mackin's Suddenly We Didn't Want to Die: Memoirs of a World War I Marine (1993), used an understated but powerfully effective realism to express their experiences and feelings about them.

world war ii

Unlike World War I, World War II did not inspire an explosion of memoir-writing. Nevertheless, after 1945 war memoirs maintained a significant share of the American popular market, while in Europe the war memoir practically disappeared as a literary form. The best-known American World War II memoir is Audie Murphy's To Hell and Back (1949), which inspired a movie and helped to make the author a popular hero. Yet most American World War II veterans presented a far less positive picture of war than had their fathers. This was true of works published before the 1960s—Lester Atwell's bitter 1958 memoir Private, for example—but became even more so during and after the Vietnam War. In the 1960s antiwar novels by veterans, such as Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961) and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) reflected the public mood. By the time these novels appeared, memoirs that attempted to reaffirm the old patriotic ethos were no more acceptable to the American reading public than they had been to Europeans in the 1930s, and for the most part disappeared from print.

The public market for war memoirs shriveled in the 1970s and 1980s. Since the 1990s, however, scholarly interest in the war memoir as a historical source and art form in its own right has increased. This interest is driven partly by the emergence of an academic approach to history that emphasizes the experiences of individuals instead of the usual narratives of battles and campaigns, and partly by the desire to preserve the stories of generations that are rapidly dying off. Whatever the cause, the effect has been overwhelmingly positive: letters, diaries, and manuscript memoirs are being archived, studied, and published in unprecedented volume.

This trend has led to far greater depth and balance in our understanding of the experience of warfare, revealing, for example, the wartime lives of women, African Americans, and minorities in and near the firing line, and of workers, farmers, doctors, and other civilians on the home front. The study of memoirs and other firsthand accounts of wartime has both exposed the nature and extent of problems such as racism, and helped to explain the remarkable resilience in battle of the U.S. armed forces. It also has shown the sheer variety, not just of actual war experiences, but of reactions to those experiences by the participants themselves.

Edward Lengel

See also:Hemingway, Ernest; Literature, World War I; Literature, World War II.

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Memoirs, Autobiographies

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