Over there: rethinking American First World War literature and culture 

By Alice Kelly
via the Taylor & Francis Group (UK) web site

This Special Issue of First World War Studies considers the specifically American literary and cultural production of the First World War and what distinguishes it from other national war literatures and cultures. Together the articles seek to assess how we should characterize, theorize and categorize American First World War cultural production. Despite the many memorials and memory sites to American participation, and the impact of the recent centenary, public memory of the conflict in the US remains minimal, overshadowed by the Civil War on one side and the Second World War and the Vietnam War on the other. The Eurocentric focus of the key works of First World War cultural criticism – by Paul Fussell, Samuel Hynes, Modris Eksteins and Jay Winter – is perhaps due to what Hazel Hutchison notes as the strange place of the war in American cultural memory, as a war which ‘has never quite captured the public imagination’ (The War That Used Up Words: American Writers and the First World War, 2015). Instead it is usually focused through the ‘lost generation’ writers of the 1920s: Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, et al.

First World War Studies coverBringing together a range of scholars and drawing predominantly on literature and film by male and female non-combatants as well as participants, the case studies here consider American First World War novels, poetry, political papers, film, and screenplays. Interdisciplinary readings allow the contributors to find generic tropes and connections across different media. In this way we seek to contribute to an ongoing conversation about American First World War cultural production, and a critical field that is very much still in the process of formation and consolidation.

Hidden in plain sight

Beinecke Plaza, or Memorial Plaza, at the centre of the Yale University campus in New Haven, Connecticut, right next to the dining hall where students eat their meals, is hard to miss. Its white Beaux-Arts colonnades which frame the plaza include the names of the First World War battles in which the American Expeditionary Force were engaged, now forgotten by most Americans: Cambrai, Argonne, Somme, Château-Thierry, Ypres, St Mihiel and Marne. The cenotaph which sits beneath these names was constructed by alumni in 1926–1927 and features the inscription: ‘In Memory of the Men of Yale who true to Her Traditions gave their Lives that Freedom might not perish from the Earth. 1914 Anno Domini 1918’. It makes sense that the then all-male Ivy League universities would mark the contribution of their students to this conflict in some way: the Soldiers Memorial Gate at Brown (1921), the War Shrine and Memorial at Cornell (1931), the Memorial Church at Harvard (1932), the Memorial Tablet at Pershing Hall at Princeton (1930), as well as the practice at Princeton from 1920 onwards of putting bronze stars on the dormitory window sills of those who had been killed, which continued until the Vietnam War. Dartmouth Memorial Field, a football stadium, was built at the college in 1923, and included a tribute plaque from the forty-seven Civil War veterans and Dartmouth alumni for the over three thousand Dartmouth students who served in the First World War. 

It’s not just the colleges though: there are a myriad other First World War statues and memorials across America. These memorials, the majority constructed in the 1920s and early 1930s, are in most US cities, peppered across the landscape. There are the large-scale ones intended to create national remembrance. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery, where the soldier was interred on Armistice Day 1921, is perhaps the most successful: the site for national war memory of all wars, which is woven into the fabric of US political life (all Presidents pay their respects here immediately after their Inauguration). The Liberty Memorial – designated and renamed the National World War I Memorial and Museum in 2004 – initially opened in 1926 in Kansas City as a result of the efforts of the Liberty Memorial Association, which raised more than $2.5 million in ten days in 1919 to honour Kansas Citians who had served.1 The ceremony in 1921 was witnessed by 200,000 people and five Allied leaders; the opening ceremony and dedication on Armistice Day 1926 was attended by President Calvin Coolidge and 150,000 spectators.2 Not in the nation’s capital or on either coast, but almost smack in the middle, the Liberty Memorial includes a gigantic, fantastically phallic 66-metre memorial tower: a paean to military might as much as it is to military memory. Five years later on 11 November 1931, President Herbert Hoover opened the District of Columbia War Memorial off Independence Avenue in Washington, DC, for the nearly 500 DC citizens who died in the war: an unusual – and the only – local memorial which sits on the National Mall. Like the Liberty Memorial built in a combination of the fashionable Beaux-Arts style and Egyptian Revival style, the DC war memorial was built as a domed Roman style temple with Doric columns: both attempts to reflect their sombre subject with appropriately historical architectural styles. Of course, there are also the original, idiosyncratic memorials drawing on even older architectural forms. My personal favourite is the mock Stonehenge memorial made from reinforced concrete and erected by millionaire Sam Hill in Maryhill in rural Washington State, in memory of soldiers from Klickitat County, Washington, who had died in the war. It is claimed to be the first American monument commemorating the First World War, commissioned in 1918 although ultimately not completed until 1929, long after many of the others.3

Read the entire article on the Taylor & Francis Group web site

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