Terrible Teens: World War
As people mature, their beliefs evolve; as a child it is easy to be guided by adults, to believe in adults. As adults, people have their own beliefs. It is the period in the middle that is the hardest. As children begin to grow, they begin to push limits and question authority. The modernist period in American literature is comparable to those teenage years. In the early stages of American literature, America looked to her mother England for guidance. The very traditional literature that resulted had a strong emphasis on religion, family, and country. In early literature it was scandalous to question God; the family was only to be portrayed as a supportive, loving community; and dying for one’s country was the ultimate act of bravery and honor. This glorification of war in early American literature and attitude created unrealistic expectations in Americans concerning war. When these same young Americans marched into World War I, they were struck by the true horror of war; the result was a backlash at the society that had deceived them.
America has a long history of glorifying war. Many of America’s early presidents were war heroes, a tradition that started with America’s first president, George Washington, who was a soldier in the American Revolution. Being a war hero was sometimes all that was needed for a candidate to be successful in his bid for the presidency. Zachary Taylor, for instance, had never even voted in a national election prior to his becoming president, but he was a war hero (Tindall 513). This exalted view of war filtered into American literature. American literature portrays war as the true test of manhood. Any "real" man should be more than willing to die for the honor of his country. Equating a man’s manhood with his willingness to kill or be killed is shown in many works, including William Dean Howells’ short story "Editha." In the story, there is a young couple engaged to be married when war breaks out. The young man, George Gearson, is unsure about enlisting, for he is more of an intellectual type than he is a soldier looking for a fight. George’s fiancée is Editha, who in her innocent ignorance cannot see why George even has to question enlisting. Editha sees war as a chance for George to be a hero and thereby become worthy of her and her love. She threatens to break their engagement because of George’s reluctance to serve his country. She writes George a letter telling him, "There is no greater honor above America with me. In this great hour there is no other honor" (365). These sentiments sound ridiculous, but it is actually an accurate depiction of the state of mind of many young Americans in this era. Going to war for America was believed to be their duty, and it was an honor to do their duty.
When America called on her young men once again to go to Europe and fight in the trenches of World War I, they went. America’s decision to join a war on foreign soil that was already in progress was highly questionable. Many people attributed America’s involvement in the war with the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania, but even more attributed the decision to economic reasons, like Senator George Norris, who said, "We are going to war upon the command of Gold" (931). American soldiers and sailors did not know why America had decided to get involved, but they went anyway; they went for duty and honor. What the young Americans found when they got to the trenches was not honor or glory. All they found was death and misery. Many young American writers answered the call as well as serving as soldiers or as ambulance drivers. As the reality of war became their reality, they began to write about the truth of war, the truth they had never been told:
Died some, pro patria,
non "dulce" non "et decor" . . .
walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy;
unsury age-old and age-thick
and liars in public places. (71-79)
The above is from "Hugh Selwyn Maubery," a poem by Ezra Pound. In "Maubery," Pound attacks society for it lies, and he goes on to reduce the once-honorable motives for the war to "an old bitch gone in the teeth" (92) and "a botched civilization" (92). World War I was a war the likes of which had never been seen anywhere on the planet. Advancements in war technology changed what war would be from then on. New weapons, more horrific than anything that had been used before, were introduced. The worst weapon was the poisonous gas. Death from gas was not like death from a bullet or bomb. The gas would eat away at a soldier’s lungs from the inside; it was a slow and painful death. Watching their fellow soldiers die in this way was very hard on the remaining soldiers. The surviving soldiers’ sorrow over their friends’ deaths was intensified by the constant terrifying thought that they could be next.
Wilfred Owens captures what it felt like to see one’s friends die with such agony in his poem "Dulce et Decorum Est." Owens writes, "In all my dreams before my helpless sight [. . .] / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning" (15-16). Honor had once been enough to entice men to war, but finding no honor in the war left young Americans searching for something true and despising a society that sent them into the trenches without preparing them.
This anger is evident in William March’s "The Fate of Honor, Courage, and Patriotism" from his novel about World War I entitled Company K. In the following excerpt, March notifies a mother of her son’s death in battle in great detail:
Dear Madam: Your son, Francis, died needlessly in Belleau Wood. You will be interested to hear that at the time of his death he was crawling with vermin and weak from diarrhea. His feet were swollen and rotten and they stank. He lived like a frightened animal, cold and hungry. Then on June 6th a piece of shrapnel hit him and he died in agony, slowly [. . .] . He lived three full hours screaming and cursing by turns. He had nothing to hold on to, you see: He had learned long ago that what he had been taught to believe by you, his mother, who loved him, under the names of honor, courage and patriotism, were all lies. (931)
March’s work shows not only the extreme animosity that many young Americans felt, but it also gives a graphic description of their battlefield and death conditions. Works of this type aid readers in the understanding of why many modernist works have such a depressing view of life and the modern world.
The new cynical Americans returned from war and continued to search for answers. Once the young Americans began to question the motives behind the war and the truth behind the "glory" of dying for one’s country, they began to question other aspects of life like religion and family. They could not trust any of the traditional values that they had been raised to believe in. American writers, many of whom had been in the war, began to question conventional beliefs in their writings.
Wallace Stevens questions traditions dealing with religion in his work "Sunday Morning." This is a poem that tells the story of a woman struggling with her own definition of religion and salvation as it opposes the traditionally accepted concept of God and Christ. Another author who begins to investigate traditional beliefs is William Faulkner, who questions the traditionally accepted concept of family in his story "Barn Burning." This story is set prior to World War I, in the years just after the Civil War. Colonel Sartoris Snopes, or Sarty, is a very righteous adolescent boy, and he is named after a confederate war hero. Sarty’s father, Ab Snopes, represents the scum of humanity; he was wounded while stealing horses from his own Confederate army, hoping to profit from their sale. By associating Sarty with the war hero and then contrasting him against his father the deserter, Faulkner perpetuates the war and honor correlation as it applied to the Civil War. The distinction in literature, even modern literature, between wars prior to World War I and the wars that followed demonstrates how distinctive World War I really was and how it changed every aspect of American life. In the end, Sarty must choose between his ignominious father and basic moral decency. The boy sides against his father and, by extension, his family. "Barn Burning" and "Sunday Morning" show the shift of importance in America from the family and society to the individual.
The best example of modern literature that questions traditional constructs is The Waste Land, an poem about the modern condition by T. S. Eliot. This poem is the best illustration of America in the modern period because it addresses so many different aspects of life, and it brings them all together to create a single depressing picture of the modern world. Eliot uses a heavy sprinkling of both well-known and obscure references to literature, mythology, and several different cultures. By contrasting the beauty of the classics against the harsh modern translations of marriage, love, sex, and religion, Eliot adds strength and interest to his themes and more accurately reflects the world as he knew it. Eliot’s technique is symbolic of the time. After the war, writers were not just questioning established values; they also questioned established methods in writing. World War I shattered all ideas of custom and created a new tradition of mistrust, cynicism, and individuality.
World War I is known as the Great War, and it marks a great change in America and in American literature. The previous centuries’ glorification of war set the stage for the downfall of the traditional American values after the war. The war was a hard fall for many young Americans and American writers. The resulting backlash of cynicism is known as the Modern period.
Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land. McQuade, et al. 2: 1382-1399.
Faulkner, William. "Barn Burning." McQuade, et al. 2: 1137-1150.
Howells, William Dean. "Editha." McQuade, et al. 2: 362-371.
March, William. "The Fate of Honor, Courage, and Patriotism."
Company K. McQuade,
McQuade, Donald, et al., eds. The Harper American Literature.
2nd ed. 2 Vols. New
Owen, Wilfred. "Dulce et Decorum Est." The Bedford Introduction to
Literature. 5th ed.
Pound, Ezra. "Hugh Selwyn Maubery." McQuade, et al. 2: 1325-1329.
Stevens, Wallace. "Sunday Morning." McQuade, et al. 2: 1273-1276.
Tindall, George, and David Shi, eds. America: A Narrative History.
5th ed. New York:
Leslie V. Marshall, at the time of this writing a sophomore in Journalism, wrote this essay for Dr. Barbara Murray’s ENGL 2131 class during Spring 2001 semester. Marshall was a member of the Drama Club and the Dalton State College Newspaper, The Roadrunner.