The Great Books of the Great War
By David Hein
via the Intercollegiate Studies Institute web site
The life of Harry Patch, the last surviving British Army soldier to have served in the trenches of the First World War, remembered (2009); the death of the last American doughboy, Frank Buckles, widely noted (2011); the war’s centenary observed (2014–18); so that now, a hundred years on, we are at a good place to recall the time of the writers. This era, starting a year into the war in 1915 and peaking in 1929, was a period of intense literary productivity—poetry, novels, memoirs—in which men and women blended art and experience in a variety of attempts to transform horror, exhilaration, boredom, frustration, shell shock, anger, and grief into—what? Typically not into something grand or heroic, because the objective for many authors was to depict, often by way of modernist technique, the chaos, pretense, and purposelessness of what they had seen and heard, smelled, and touched.
Consequently, not a few of these figures played prominent roles in the massive interwar peace movements. As their efforts on speakers’ platforms or in print infused the public perception of the war’s reality, the most popular writings about the 1914–18 cataclysm became components of the larger experience of this conflict. Both memoirists and imaginative artists (the line between them not easy to draw) in effect transmuted history-as-what-happened into history-as-public-memory. And both personal recollection and public memory omit and distort.
In respect of the literature of the Great War, a distinction obtains between public memory and historical likelihood. If readers of Erich Maria Remarque’s bestseller All Quiet on the Western Front (1928; English translation, 1929)—or viewers of the film (winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, 1930)—came away from their experience believing that most soldiers in combat on the Western or Eastern front shared the trauma and pacifism of the main character, Paul Bäumer, an enlisted man in the German army, then they were probably mistaken. Most soldiers on both sides not only accepted privation and endured the terrible stress of combat, they also believed in the morality of their nation’s fight and were committed to prevailing over their enemies. Concentrating on the negative effects of the war while underrepresenting the motivations and resolve of its participants, the classic literature of World War I is historically unbalanced in tone and emphasis.
Its authors could be misleading in their details also. For example, for many years readers with no experience of the Western Front assumed the accuracy of Robert Graves’s portrayal of Church of England military chaplains as “remarkably out of touch with their troops” and reluctant to visit the most dangerous posts in the trenches. Clear-headed scholarship has demonstrated how wrong Graves was.
Reconsidered, some classic works of the Great War challenge our customary apprehension of the literature of this period. The war and the widespread disruptions of the years following it stirred up questions that were handled with insight and care in a number of these texts—questions about meaning and value, about ties between the past and the future, about the mystery and worth of the human person, about the relation of ends and means. These writers’ reckonings with such issues not only reward a re-examination of their works but also support an appreciation of them from a conservative angle.
Read the entire article on the Intercollegiate Studies Institute web site here:
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