Literature and War #
This is a survey posting rather than an intensive period or author centered one. We hope to explore writers who have experienced war and felt compelled to write about it. What are the recurring motifs and threads in their experiences.
The Hakone Ryokan with “Onsen” spa serves a delectable 15-course “kaiseki” meal in exquisite dainty dishes with wide ranging tastes and delicate presentations.
Modern exquisite dining tends towards “tasting menus”. Rather than a three course meal, you are tantalized with more than ten small portions.
Rather than an indepth study we will have a cursory glance.
War has been described as diplomacy by another means. Enoch Powell claimed “History is littered with wars that everyone knew would never happen”. Most wars are caused by lack of respect. Wars never determine who is right; they only decide who is left!
The Iliad #
The Trojan saga in the early Greek sources tells of the genocide of the Trojans, and the Greek poets explored some of the darkest impulses of human conduct in war. Man’s only purpose is to kill his enemy before he himself gets killed. The dogs of war are unleased to create an irresistible violence for the warrior blood pulsing to the drum beat of war. His own life is nothing, merely something willingly sacrificed to his mates and country. Both Achilles and Hector are acutely aware, their defeat and death are inevitable; to be faced with courage and valour.
Heroism didn’t mean perfection; rather extraordinary attributes of ability: Gilgamesh, Achilles and Odysseus. They appear to operate in a moral vacuum.
According to Robert Fagles, the 50 some Greek city states were continually at war with one another, sometimes as allies, other times as enemies. The permanence of war is echoed by Homer and Plato. We Achaeans, says Odysseus:
“the men who Zeus decrees, from youth to old age,
Must wind down our brutal wars to the bitter end
Until we drop and die, down to the last man.” (14.105 – 7)
More on The Iliad @: https://nebo-lit.com/history/homer-the-iliad.html
“Peace is just a name. The truth is, by natural law, engaged in a perpetual undeclared war with every other city state”.
Athens, during the fifth century was at war on land and sea for more years than they were at peace. They fought Persia, allied with Sparta from 480 BCE, but in 460 fought with Sparta. After defeating Persia decisively, after 15 years of peace, in 431 began the Peloponnesian war against Sparta for 27 years, surrendering with the loss of her naval supremacy and ending democracy.
Aeschylus was Greece’s first extraordinary dramatist, who fought at Marathon, and later at the battle of Salamis. His is likely the first participant writer to write on war - his play Persians, a play unique among Greek tragedies in that it dramatizes recent history rather than events from the distant age of mythical heroes.
It is set in the Persian capital, where a messenger brings news to the Persian queen of the disaster at Salamis. The play attributes the defeat of Persia to Greek independence and bravery and to the gods’ punishment of Persian folly for going outside the bounds of Asia, and it ends with the return of the broken and humiliated Persian king, Xerxes.
Aristophanes, Lysistrata in 411 BC, dramatises a woman’s extraordinary mission to end the Peloponnesian War between Greek city states by denying all the men of the land any sex, forcing the men to negotiate peace—a strategy, however, that inflames the battle between the sexes.
Sophocles in Antigone poses the conflict of Natural jurisprudence and State Justice. If the state acts in an unjust way, what is your role as a patriot? Accept or resist?
Following Oedipus’ exile, his sons agreed to share the rule of Thebes, alternating in rule every year. However, after the first year, Eteocles refused to give up his power and drove out Polynices, his older brother, who fled to Argos,
Returning to Thebes, the sisters attempted to reconcile their quarrelling brothers—Eteocles, who was defending the city and his crown, and Polyneices, who was attacking Thebes. Both brothers, however, killed each other, and their uncle Creon became king. After performing an elaborate funeral service for Eteocles, Creon, decrees that her exiled brother Polynices, “an enemy of the state”, so his corpse is to be left outside on the hillside to be devoured by dogs and vultures, declaring him to have been a traitor.
Antigone is determined to obey the divine laws by giving her brother Polynices a proper grave on the simple moral point that “he is still my brother”.
When her sister, Ismene resigns with:
“It’s the law, what can we do? we have to follow it - we’re girls,"
“but I will bury him: well for me to die in doing so. I shall rest, a loved one with him whom I have loved, sinless in my crime; for I owe a larger allegiance to the dead than to the living… But if thou wilt, be guilty of dishonouring laws which the gods have stablished in honour.”
Shakespeare and War #
Robert White Professor of English, The University of Western Australia writes:
In 26 of his 38 plays, Shakespeare includes a war in either foreground or background. In all these, anti-war invectives abound in epigrammatic phrases:
“O, war thou son of hell” (Henry VI, part 2); “the hideous god of war”; “war and lechery confound all” (Troilus and Cressida); “dogged war bristle[s] his angry crest / And snarleth in the gentle eyes of peace” (King John).
Soldiers are regarded by civilians as cruelly taking:
“our goodly agèd men by th’beards” and indulging unbridled sexual violence in: “Giving our holy virgins to the stain /Of contumelious, beastly, mad-brained war” (Timon of Athens).
For students and politicians used to reciting Henry V’s stirring “Once more unto the breach …” and “St Crispin’s Day” speeches before and after the battle of Agincourt, it is often assumed Shakespeare must support war and heroic values, epitomised in an “ideal king”.
However, the respective dramatic contexts undercut the King’s rhetoric. There are also strong arguments in the play that his invasion of France is illegal and unjustifiable, and he is guilty of war crimes, such as conscripting children, killing prisoners of war, and threatening a town with genocide. Soldiers are “bloody-hunting slaughtermen”. In “impious” war, bloody corpses are seen “larding the plain”.
Meanwhile, in other plays, some sympathetic and morally scrupulous characters condemn the tragic futility and violence of war. Hamlet meditates over a piece of worthless, depopulated scorched earth “wasteland”, over which “the imminent deaths twenty thousand men’ … [will] go to their graves like beds”, fighting “even for an eggshell” “which is not tomb enough and continent /To hide the slain”.
The saintly, pacifist King Henry VI quotes Christ’s words while brooding on the high moral ground of a hill overlooking battle in “civil butchery”, intra-family, mafia-like vendettas pitting families against each other and resulting in mutual slaughter of fathers and sons. In revenge plays such as Titus Andronicus and Hamlet, the cessation of one conflict is simply the prelude to the next in a succession ending only with the deaths of all antagonists, like today’s nightmare specter of a sequence of retaliatory nuclear strikes.
An outspoken anti-war work Troilus and Cressida is widely acknowledged as among the most outspoken anti-war works of all time. It chronicles a squalid war waged over the forced abduction of a woman, who is regarded as little more than a symbolic trophy.
The prophetess Cassandra, speaking as much for future generations as her own, condemns the Trojan war, calling upon:
“Virgins and boys, mid-age and wrinkled old,
Soft infancy, that nothing canst but cry”,
to weep in protest at the “mass of moan to come”.
The fate of the “heroic” Hector in the play is ignominiously humiliating:
He’s dead; and at the murderer’s horse’s tail,
In beastly sort, dragg’d through the shameful field
… Hector is dead, There is no more to say.
So much for heroism.
Another brutally dismissive epitaph – “Let’s make the best of it” – is uttered over the corpse of Coriolanus, the most single-minded, professional soldier in Shakespeare’s canon. “Chief enemy to the people”, he is a sociopath and prey to violent outbursts of anger. More machine than man, his role resembles the modern arms industry, owing allegiance to no national state and selling weapons indiscriminately to either side of conflicts.
Having turned against Rome and then against his new associates in arms, Coriolanus is finally hacked to death unceremoniously by Volscians baying “kill, kill, kill…”
He is remembered as one who,
“in this city [Rome] … Hath widow’d and unchilded many a one, Which to this hour bewail the injury”.
You can get Henry V from the left side-bar menu or from below:
Mother Courage and her Children #
Mother Courage and her Children remains a masterpiece, as a metaphor for life. Set in The Thirty Years War, 1618 - 1648, it becomes an anti-war play seen through the eyes of the little people, the forgotten victims. The messages also come through simple words of songs, especially the finale:
“The world will end and time will cease; and while we live we buy and sell; and in our graves we shall find peace, unless the war goes on in hell.”
The principal battlefields were the towns and principalities of Germany, which suffered severely. Many of the contending armies were mercenaries, unable to collect their pay. They began the “wolf-strategy”. The armies of both sides plundered as they marched, leaving cities, towns, villages, and farms ravaged. Ordinary citizens suffered the most. Its destructive campaigns and battles intermittently raged back and forth over most of Europe. At the end real Wolves actually inhabited most towns.
Bertolt Brecht uses alienation devices to distance us emotionally. It was Voltaire, who said:
“that life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think.”
Brecht’s definition of tragedy:
to take from an event or character that which is predictable, self evident, obvious and to arouse surprise and curiosity.
Brecht regarded conventional theatres of illusion as soft thinking; a narcissistic romanticism, - a desire to use the theatre for escapism. The principle of Einfuhlung (empathy) was regarded as theatrical seduction which clouded the minds of the audience to the true issues. He tries to divorce the audience from sentimental involvement or engagement and detach, distance or alienate us from the characters on stage. We are not meant to identify or empathise with them, rather stand back and judge them critically.
By distancing, estrangement, detachment or alienation Brecht hopes to appeal to the mind and create a paradigm shift in our outlook on issues so that we will see things more clearly and change our mindset.
Only if we can look at Courage’s behaviour in that light can we make sense of her. She loses all three of them in dreadful circumstances, but from the beginning she sees her duty as protecting them. One son, Eilif, runs away to join the battle against her will and of course is killed; the second son Swiss Cheese is executed for stealing the pay box; and the mute daughter Kattrin is shot as she tries to warn the town about an impending siege by banging a cricket bat against a corrugated iron wall, the only way she can communicate.
Kattrin’s fate may be an allusion to Ovid’s reference to an Athenian princess, Philomel, in Greek mythology raped and deprived of her tongue by her brother-in-law Tereus, avenged by the killing of his son. Tereus cut off Philomel’s tongue to prevent her telling the story of rape. She filled all the desert with inviolable voice when she is changed into nightingale in The Waste Land by Eliot.
But even after the loss of all her children Mother Courage picks up her cart and keeps on going, living and partly living. She has changed, and even after she has lost her children, her main reason for living, she progresses from being the Great Mother to the Great Survivor, heroic in an even more universal sense. It’s about survival, not necessarily of the fittest, but of the toughest.
Themes in Mother Courage #
Anti- War, Pacifism. The play attempts to portray the futility of war by depicting its senseless devastation and brutality. The war machine is a death mechanism that exempts no one, not even the generals.
Capitulation: Under a war or any crisis mentality people willingly give up their rights because of fear. They become craven, acquiescent, compliant, servile, submissive and subordinate. This is a crass device used by corrupt politicians to control the masses.
Anti-heroic mockery. We can not identify with any of the main actors.
Stephen Crane #
The American Civil War
Crane’s writing, as when he points out how much Crane’s tone of serene omniscience depends on the passive construction of his sentences. But when he implies that Crane is original because he summons up interior experience in the guise of exterior experience—makes a psychology by inspecting a perceptual field—he is a little wide of the mark. This is, after all, simply a description of what good writing does: Homer and Virgil writing on war were doing it, too. (We are inside Odysseus’ head, then out on the Trojan plain. We visit motive, then get blood.) What makes Crane remarkable is not that he rendered things felt as things seen but that he could report with such meticulous attention on things that were felt and seen only in his imagination. Again and again in his novel, the writing has the eerie, hyperintense credibility of remembered trauma—not just of something known but of something that, in its mundane horror, the narrator finds impossible to forget:
The men dropped here and there like bundles. The captain of the youth’s company had been killed in an early part of the action. His body lay stretched out in the position of a tired man resting, but upon his face there was an astonished and sorrowful look, as if he thought some friend had done him an ill turn. The babbling man was grazed by a shot that made the blood stream widely down his face. He clapped both hands to his head. “Oh!” he said, and ran. Another grunted suddenly as if he had been struck by a club in the stomach. He sat down and gazed ruefully. In his eyes there was mute, indefinite reproach. Farther up the line, a man, standing behind a tree, had had his knee joint splintered by a ball. Immediately he had dropped his rifle and gripped the tree with both arms. And there he remained, clinging desperately and crying for assistance that he might withdraw his hold upon the tree. The wounded man clinging desperately to the tree has the awkward, anti-dramatic quality of something known.
“Red Badge” has this post-traumatic intensity throughout The impulse of Crane’s fiction is strictly realist and reportorial: the battle scenes in “Red Badge” feel like nightmares out of a surrealist imagination, with an excision of explanation and a simultaneity of effects, because that is what battles must be like. The result is almost mythological in feeling, and mythological in the strict Greek sense that everything seems foreordained, with no one ever master of his fate. We live and die by chance and fortune. This symbolic, myth-seeking quality of Crane’s writing gives it an immediacy
American War Veterans #
The Last Days of Innocence by Meirion & Susie Harries. During World War I, more than 116,000 Americans died and more than 200,000 were wounded. In the immediate aftermath of that war, American literature was permeated with disillusionment:
*“As for the [American] survivors [of World War I], those neither killed nor seriously wounded, at the Armistice 1,980,654 men were in Europe, in transit, or in Russia. Another 1,689,998 were in camp in America. Getting home was the only thought in most men’s minds. … When the veterans finally did reach home, they looked for some recognition of what they had achieved, some understanding of what they had endured; but time after time they were disappointed. After the welcome parades, they returned to their hometowns – to find, very often, that their jobs were gone. The special employment offices simply could not cope with the lines of veterans looking for work….
“All around them, men who had stayed at home in war industries commanded what seemed like remarkable wages. The returnees were faced with astonishing price rises – food, clothing, and home furnishings all at nearly double the prices they remembered – and a government that apparently grudged them any help in meeting the bills. The veterans of earlier wars could look to their war bonuses to give them a start in their new life. But this administration was determined to avoid the colossal expenditure of the past, and there was violent argument in Congress over the appropriate reward for veterans’ services. Not until 1924 would any allocation of bonuses be finally agreed on, and no actual payments would be made until 1945.*
“Veterans’ bitterness found its way into some of the best and most enduring writing of the period. Some older writers, such as Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, and others who had helped but not fought, still found it possible to revel in the romance of war, and the popular conceptions of heroism and adventure died hard. But for those who had been to Europe with the AEF or the ambulance services, such as John Dos Passos, e e cummings, and Ernest Hemingway, a far more typical reaction was to find creativity in anger, cynicism, and a kind of licensed rebellion.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is the story of a mid westerner adventurer, Jay Gatsby, who falls in love with a southern belle, Daisy, during World War I, but when he returns much later, finds her married to a rich privileged Tom Buchanan.
Gatsby, is a Midwesterner, a self-made millionaire, and a habitual loner, armoured against all attempts to invade his emotional privacy.
You see I usually find myself among strangers because I drift here and there trying to forget the sad things that happened to me.”
“Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can! ”
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
“The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.”
“He smiled understandingly-much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”
“There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.”
“I was within and without. Simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money … and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
The scarred veteran, it was felt, was entitled to speak his mind. The writing of Laurence Stallings, who had lost a leg after injuries received at Belleau Wood, was powered at this stage, before nostalgia took a hand, exclusively by rancor. In his novel Plumes, the protagonist is obsessed by the secret treaties signed by America’s allies, all the time ’trying to face the fact that he threw himself away [in] … a brutal and vicious dance directed by ghastly men. It was the tragedy of our lives that we had to be mutilated at the pleasure of dolts and fools.'
“In Company K, William March attacked one of the standard texts of the old value system in his grotesque burlesque of an official letter of condolence:
Your son Francis, died needlessly at Belleau Wood. You will be interested to hear that at the time of his death he was crawling with vermin and weak from diarrhea. … A piece of shrapnel hit him and he died in agony, slowly. … He lived three full hours screaming and cursing. … He had nothing to hold onto, you see: He had learned long ago that what he had been taught to believe by you, his mother, who loved him, under the meaningless names of honor, courage, patriotism, were all lies.”
The Last Days of Innocence: America at War, 1917-1918 Meirion & Susie Harries Random House 1997 page(s): 453-457 ….
President Hoover’s most bastardly act was his response to the WWI’s Veterans demand for their entitled money for time served. When the Veterans staged a five-week camp out, Hoover declared them a communist front and mobilized tanks and infantry to attack them. 54 were injured, and 134 were arrested.
This prepared the seed bed for Americans demonizing Communism, while many supporters of Hitler’s Nazis, like Charles Lindbergh, were openly condoned.
Larry Heinemann, an American Vietnam veteran turned novelist writes:
“We were the unwilling, doing the unnecessary, for the ungrateful”
Virgina Woolf #
She speculates about the change in the kind of conversations people had before World War I, and the kind of poetry they wrote, and observes that a drastic change has taken place. The romantic views of a Tennyson or a Rosetti no longer seem possible in the post-war era; the difference being that that earlier poetry “celebrates some feeling that one used to have (at luncheon parties before the war perhaps sense that something is lacking in the lunchtime atmosphere and conversation. To answer the question of that lack, the narrator shifts the scene to a similar luncheon party, before the war, in similar rooms—“but different.” She speculates about the change in the kind of conversations people had before World War I, and the kind of poetry they wrote, and observes that a drastic change has taken place. The romantic views of a Tennyson or a Rosetti no longer seem possible in the post-war era; the difference being that that earlier poetry “celebrates some feeling that one used to have (at luncheon parties before the war perhaps).”
Hemingway on War and Its Aftermath Spring 2006, Vol. 38, No. 1 Prologue Magazine By Thomas Putnam
“Hemingway was at the crest of a wave of modernists,” noted fellow centennial panelist and book critic Gail Caldwell, that were rebelling against the excesses and hypocrisy of Victorian prose. The First World War is the watershed event that changes world literature as well as how Hemingway responded to it.
Hemingway and other modernists lost faith in the central institutions of Western civilization. One of those institutions was literature itself. Nineteenth-century novelists were prone to a florid and elaborate style of writing. Hemingway, using a distinctly American vernacular, created a new style of fiction “in which meaning is established through dialogue, through action, and silences—a fiction in which nothing crucial—or at least very little—is stated explicitly.”
Hemingway often used scenes that he had witnessed as well as his own personal experience to inform his fiction. Explaining his technique 20 years later, he wrote, “the writer’s standard of fidelity to the truth should be so high that his invention, out of his experience, should produce a truer account than anything factual can be. For facts can be observed badly; but when a good writer is creating something, he has time and scope to make of it an absolute truth.”
As a correspondent, Hemingway chronicled the outbreak of wars from Macedonia to Madrid and the spread of fascism throughout Europe. Although best known for his fiction, his war reporting was also revolutionary. Hemingway was committed above all else to telling the truth in his writing. To do so, he liked being part of the action, and the power of his writing stemmed, in part, from his commitment to witness combat firsthand.
According to Seán Hemingway, his grandfather’s war dispatches “were written in a new style of reporting that told the public about every facet of the war, especially, and most important, its effects on the common man, woman, and child.” This narrative style brought to life the stories of individual lives in warfare and earned a wide readership. Before the advent of television and cable news, Hemingway brought world conflicts to life for his North American audience.
Much of the literature decrying World War I came from British poets, many of whom perished in battle. To appreciate the stance that Hemingway took, according to Gail Caldwell, one has to understand how revolutionary it was in light of the Victorian understanding of patriotism and courage. “If you look at Hemingway’s prose and the writing he did about war, it was as radical in its time as anything we have seen since.”
Hemingway and World War I #
During the First World War, Ernest Hemingway volunteered to serve in Italy as an ambulance driver with the American Red Cross. In June 1918, while running a mobile canteen dispensing chocolate and cigarettes for soldiers, he was wounded by Austrian mortar fire. “Then there was a flash, as when a blast-furnace door is swung open, and a roar that started white and went red,” he recalled in a letter home. Despite his injuries, Hemingway carried a wounded Italian soldier to safety and was injured again by machine-gun fire. For his bravery, he received the Silver Medal of Valor from the Italian government—one of the first Americans so honored.
A Farewell to Arms #
A piece of shrapnel from the battlefield where Hemingway was wounded during World War I. Had the enemy mortar attack been more successful that fateful night, the world may never have known one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Conversely, had Hemingway not been injured in that attack, he not may have fallen in love with his Red Cross nurse, a romance that served as the genesis of A Farewell to Arms, one of the century’s most read war novels.
Hemingway kept the piece of shrapnel, along with a small handful of other “charms” including a ring set with a bullet fragment, in a small leather change purse. Similarly he held his war experience close to his heart and demonstrated throughout his life a keen interest in war and its effects on those who live through it.
In “Soldier’s Home,” Howard Krebs returns home from Europe later than many of his peers. Having missed the victory parades, he is unable to reconnect with those he left behind—especially his mother, who cannot understand how her son has been changed by the war. “Hemingway’s great war work deals with aftermath,” stated author Tobias Wolff at the Hemingway centennial celebration. “It deals with what happens to the soul in war and how people deal with that afterward.
No American writer is more associated with writing about war in the early 20th century than Ernest Hemingway. He experienced it firsthand, wrote dispatches from innumerable frontlines, and used war as a backdrop for many of his most memorable works.
Recuperating for six months in a Milan hospital, Hemingway fell in love with Agnes von Kurowsky, an American Red Cross nurse. At war’s end, he returned to his home in Oak Park, Illinois, a different man. His experience of travel, combat, and love had broadened his outlook. Yet while his war experience had changed him dramatically, the town he returned to remained very much the same.
After living for months with his parents, during which time he learned from Agnes that she had fallen in love with another man.
“The way we write about war or even think about war was affected fundamentally by Hemingway,” stated Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., another speaker at the Hemingway centennial. In the early 1920s, in reaction to their experience of world war, The Sun Also Rises features Jake Barnes, an American World War I veteran whose mysterious combat wounds have caused him to be impotent. Unlike Nick Adams and Howard Krebs, who return stateside after the war, Barnes remains in Europe, joining his compatriots in revels through Paris and Spain. Many regard the novel as Hemingway’s portrait of a generation that has lost its way, restlessly seeking meaning in a postwar world. The Hemingway Collection contains almost a dozen drafts of the novel, including four different openings—examples of a burgeoning, hardworking, and exceptionally talented young novelist. His second novel, A Farewell to Arms, is written as a retrospective of the war experience of Frederic Henry, a wounded American soldier, and his doomed love affair with an English nurse, Catherine Barkley.
Though World War I is more backdrop than cause to this tragedy—Catherine’s death in the end is brought about through childbirth not warfare—the novel contains, as seen in the following passage, a stark critique of war and those who laud it:
I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice. . . . We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
For Whom the Bell Tolls. #
Despite his sympathies for the Loyalist cause, he is credited for documenting in this novel the horrors that occurred on both sides of that struggle. The novel’s protagonist, Robert Jordan, an American teacher turned demolitions expert, joins an anti-fascist Spanish guerrilla brigade with orders from a resident Russian general to blow up a bridge.
For author Gordimer, what is remarkable about the novel (which she describes as a cult book for her generation) is that Jordan takes up arms in another country’s civil war for personal, not ideological, reasons. In the novel, Hemingway suggests that Jordan has no politics. Instead, his dedication to the Republic is fueled, in Gordimer’s words, by a “kind of conservative individualism that collides in self-satisfaction with the claims of the wider concern for humanity.” Jordan dedicates himself to a cause and is willing to risk his own life for it.
e.e. cummings #
THE ENORMOUS ROOM E.E. Cummings Introduction by Nicholas Delbanco
Before he had published any of the syntactically daring poetry that would bring him fame, E.E. Cummings wrote a singular and enduring novel about his experiences during the First World War. In 1917, Cummings volunteered to serve in one of the ambulance corps organized to aid the struggling French army. After arriving in the field, Cummings and his friend William Slater Brown began to write irreverent letters home that detailed military mismanagement. Attracting the ire of censors, Cummings and Brown were interrogated, arrested, and held for months in a military detention camp, where they lived with other detainees in a single large room.
First published one hundred years ago, The Enormous Room is at once a raucous bildungsroman, an absurdist critique of moronic military administration, and an audacious work of formal experimentation. Though grimly attentive to the sensory and material details of incarceration, The Enormous Room goes, as introducer Nicholas Delbanco writes, “against the grain of most prison literature,” transforming a dreadful situation into a work of exuberant mischief and wild lyrical invention.
“The canonical works of the First World War are most frequently concerned with the squandered lives of young men, yet Cummings’s report invaluably expands the reader’s grasp of the catastrophe. . . . [A] sincere and biting critique of those responsible for the conflict, which rings as true now, in the book’s centenary year, as it did then.” —Kathleen Rooney, TLS
Joseph Heller #
Kurt Vonnegut #
“Slaughterhouse-Five” is a book about the Second World War, Vietnam is also a presence in its pages, and people’s feelings about Vietnam have a good deal to do with the novel’s huge success. Eight years earlier, in 1961, Joseph Heller had published “Catch-22” and President John F. Kennedy began the escalation of the United States’ involvement in the conflict in Vietnam. “Catch-22,” like “Slaughterhouse-Five,” was a novel about the Second World War that caught the imagination of readers who were thinking a lot about another war.
Kurt Vonnegut does not see war as farcical. It sees war as a tragedy so great that perhaps only the mask of comedy allows one to look it in the eye. Black humour is one way of coping with ineffable horror. Vonnegut is a sad-faced comedian.
As a prisoner of war, age twenty-two, , Vonnegut was in the famously beautiful city of Dresden, locked up with other Americans, where pigs had been slaughtered before the war, and was therefore an accidental witness to one of the greatest slaughters of human beings in history, the firebombing of Dresden, in February of 1945, which flattened the whole city and killed almost everyone in it.
So it goes. (a refrain used whenever death occurs)
Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” is humane enough to allow, at the end of the horror that is its subject, for the possibility of hope.