"Review of Hazel Hutchison's The War that Used up Words: American Writers and the First World War" by Ágnes Zsófia Kovács
Ágnes Zsófia Kovács is associate professor at the Department of American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. Her areas of academic interest and teaching include late 19th-c. early 20th-c. American fiction and contemporary American fiction, versions of literary Modernism and Postmodernism, popular fiction, multicultural American identity prose, and theories of American Studies. Her current research into travel writing involves re-reading texts by Edith Wharton and Henry James as travel accounts. She has published two books, The Function of the Imagination in the Writings of Henry James (Mellen, 2006) and Literature in Context (Jate Press, 2010). Email:
The War that Used up Words: American Writers and the First World War
New Haven: Yale University Press
The title may sound vaguely familiar to you, but this is not a book about Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Hazel Hutchison looks at how American authors experienced the First World War in order to reassess the now canonized critical narrative of the birth of literary Modernism as one cultural impact of the Great War. The language and imagery of the war as futile and absurd found its way into the Modernist era and into patterns of culture and consciousness that have influenced our own—therefore the war and the texts that have emerged from it have a seminal place in the cultural consciousness of the Western world. This book explores how the war first imprinted itself onto the patterns of American writing. It traces reactions in the work of Henry James, Edith Wharton, Grace Fallow Norton, Mary Borden, Ellen La Motte, E. E. Cummings, and John Dos Passos that have not become celebrated texts about the war but have set the tone for later, more celebrated texts. These authors watched and participated in the war without rifle, worked through a complex range of responses whilst optimism gave way to resignation but also to a newfound respect to individual points of view. Although these authors were all conscious literary figures, they all felt that words were not enough for the war and that they also had to act and participate in it in some way: be it a fundraiser, charity organizer, nurse, volunteer driver – and they wrote about these various experiences as the war went on.
The book explores the publishing and political contexts of the US literary production about the Great War by the non-canonized war writers above. Official war censorship applied to US authors only from the time the US actually joined the conflict, April 1917, and this allowed for the publication of more varied early contemporary responses in the US than in Britain, and text played a prominent role in the cultural debate about war, or in ‘the war of words’ as Hutchison puts it (7). Yet, for authors living abroad the war was a daily reality, and they reported about ‘the war that used up words’ instead. As part of the project of surveying responses beyond the usual oppositions of Modernist-Realist, pacifist-interventionist, male-female, the book also tries to understand why some of these authors felt it was their duty to try to influence public opinion about the war in texts that today would be categorized as propaganda. The reactions are traced in a chronological order; the five chapters represent the five years of the war, through (would be) publications by the seven American authors living abroad. The book also relies on a vast amount of archival material to complement the stories of the publications. The analyses revision traditional binarism used for the categorization of the literature of the First World War and highlight the position of neglected American war texts in its production.
The first chapter titled ‘1914—Civilization’ discusses the early cultural obsession with abstract values, especially ‘civilization’ in work by Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Grace Fallow Norton synchronically. Hutchison claims that for American authors the war was about general questions of culture and civilization at the outset. The war was primarily seen as a war that would end war, an epic conflict between the great nations of the world that would purge and strengthen the civilized and virtuous races of humankind. James, Norton, and Wharton were American exiles for whom London and Paris were centers of the very civilization that was threatened by the war. James had been living in Europe, mostly England, for some forty years observing its social world and criticizing it. The war forced him to reappraise that social world and raise questions about the task of the author that resonated with his experience of the civil war and the dilemma of his youth whether to or how to join the conflict. He had been writing his autobiographies in the previous two years, his turn to the time of the Civil War at the outbreak of the First World War is evidence that his sense of the past was sharp as ever. His memories also spoilt whatever illusions he might have had about the new war. In contrast, Edith Wharton, who had been living in Paris since 1910 assimilating herself to the tastes of the French social and cultural elite, had the idealism and enthusiasm of the newcomer for French culture. For her the word ’civilization’ was more encompassing than for James, it meant architecture, history, government, tradition, art culture, cuisine, daily domestic life at the same time. Also, France and civilization seemed indivisible for her, and she set out to defend both. She organized the charity American Hostels for Refugees and was an active fundraiser for it. Both James and Wharton would exploit the trope of France as a symbol of civilization (31) for charitable reasons. Norton also relied on the apocalyptic vision of the world but she was more concerned with the rights of the common citizen than with the preservation of elitist culture in her poems. She called the reader’s attention to the quiet that the war created in French provincial life. Her poems are often labelled as propaganda today, but if one considers that the material was written in criticism of the US government and distributed in defiance of obstructions to the expression of public opinion, one looks at them differently. Her poems engage with the physicality of war, the division of male and female experience.
The second chapter titled ‘1915—Volunteers’ focuses on the humanitarian impulse among American authors during (and writing about) the second year of the war by focusing on work by Edith Wharton, Mary Borden, and Henry James. America’s commitment to the Monroe-doctrine of 1823 discouraged meddling with the balance of power in Europe, so President Wilson was seeking to end hostilities through diplomacy even after the sinking of the Lusitania on 7 May (with the loss of 124 American lives). In the face of this, Americans at home and abroad chose their own loyalties. American poetry and prose displayed a much richer variation of political views and provided more graphic detail about the front than the literature and the censorship of the fighting nations allowed. This ideological tussle was about the nature of America, how it projected its values abroad. Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Mary Borden wrote about possible stands the American author could take in this situation. Wharton was asked by the French Red Cross to report on the needs of military hospitals at the front. Wharton saw that American magazine readers would continue to give money for humanitarian causes if they were shown what was happening in the war zone, so she wrote a series of four articles for Scribners’ that would later on be extended by two more and published as Fighting France (1915). Her descriptions testify to her underlying faith in artistic order and classical form as a means of creating control in the disarranged landscape. She was rarely allowed to see the stark reality of the trench warfare, and the real value of her writing lies in exploring the emotional impact of the war on the civilian world behind the trenches. Mary Borden’s The Forbidden Zone that would be published in 1929 reports about Borden’s experiences behind the lines as a nurse and the directrice of different field hospitals, and although it does not fit into any standard genre, according to Hutchison it is one of the great texts of the First World War because it is complex and disturbing, ironic but also sensual voice. She describes the boredom of being a hero, exposes contradictions about male and female roles at the front line. Yet her main question was not about how to be American or a woman but about how to remain human at the time of the inhumanity of war. Henry James gave a newspaper interview for The New York Times about his support for the Ambulance Corps that reflects his anxiety about the future of his own legacy and that of the culture in which his legacy would operate. In this piece, he would return to the theme of silence and to his fear of the future: ’the war has used up words, they have weakened and deteriorated.’ “His vision of a world haunted by frayed language is the early version of the kind of futility and thwarted articulation that would resurface in later years” (105), Hutchison writes. At his time James also produced a string of essays about the war: apart from the interview, he worked on “Within the Rim,” “France,” “Refugees in England,” “The Question of the Mind,” an obituary for Allen D. Loney (killed on the Lusitania), and an appreciation of Rupert Brooke. He also allowed a section of a private letter about the war to be printed. The recurring problem of the essays is how to locate national character at the time of war, when “[t]he individual, he saw, could choose to identify with or reject a cultural position aligned by convention or tradition too one particular country, but such positions were subject to change, development, and internal negotiation” (108).
The third chapter titled ’1916—Books’ investigates the fact that for the American reader the First World War was a cultural and intellectual event long before it was reality. The publishing industry produced a vast number of accounts about the conflict with the aim of educating the readers at home about the evils of war, among which, surprisingly, daring and cynical texts were slow to emerge. However, Hutchison argues, there was not yet a clear-cut alliance between publishing and politics, and much of what was published at this early stage of the war was critical of Wilson’s neutrality policy (120). Edith Wharton’s The Book of the Homeless, includes work by an array of artists and intellectuals willing to join the war effort, even if by helping to earn money for charities. Wharton commissioned Theodore Roosevelt for writing the introduction which positions the publication firmly as a counter-neutrality argument. In contrast, Grace Norton’s book of patriotic poems What is Your Legion? seems to be a propagandistic texts for war but reveals an agenda for social reform and left-wing politics. Complicating this argument, Ellen La Motte’s memoir The Backwash of War exposes the moral ironies of war. These books reveal inconsistencies of the midwar book world and testify how difficult it was to persuade the readers to think of the war in simple terms.
The fourth chapter titled ‘1917—Perspectives’ traces the cultural effects of the US entering the conflict in April 1917 through the work of Mary Borden, John Dos Passos and E. E. Cummings. Hutchison argues that “the problems facing the politicans in 1917 of how to make language accommodate antithetical viewpoints, also beset anyone attempting to write the personal chaos of the war” (166). Confusion was pervalent, therefore conventional modes of linear narrative were also found unworkable by many. Hutchison also claims that “Borden’s poems, like La Motte’s, were among the earliest examples of works which explored the war from an angle which would later become familiar: stark, uncompromising, self-conscious, unconventional, focused on futility, incompatibility, and absurdity” (169) showing her link to Stein’s work. John Dos Passos joined the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps in 1917 and worked in France and then signed up to the American Red Cross as an ambulance driver in Italy until discharged for his letters about his disgust of the war. One Man’s Initiation (1920), his first war novel, lacks formal or philosophical resolution and indicates a shrewd observer who understood that 20th century culture would be governed by the use and analysis of perspective (189). E. E. Cummings’ The Enormous Room (1922) shows the war as human event with absurd and tragic consequences. Also, Hutchison maintains that “[h]is broken language an unorthodox use of words draw the reader’s attention to the mode of expression as firmly as to that which is expressed” (193), and disrupts the procession of narrative time, another verbal cubist who “presents the struggle for self-expression and freedom of conscience as the real war within the war” (199).
The fifth chapter titled ’1918—Compromises’ discusses how army life exposed a whole generation of young American men to situations of absurdity and futility that would fuel responses of cynicism and dark comedy unconnected to the problem of humanity. Instead of focusing on the impressive list of formidable authors writing about this stage of the war, Hutchison concludes her survey with analyzing work by her now familiar authors: Edith Wharton and Dos Passos. Wharton’s production, as usual, was prolific that year: her few war related short stories include “Coming Home,” “Writing a War Story,” “The Refugees,” and the would be novel The Marne, she also wrote a essays for American soldiers that were later collected as French Ways and Their Meaning (1919), and published her travel essays in Scribners’ that would later be published as In Morocco (1920). Although routinely dismissed as propaganda, these pieces, Hutchison shows, reveal an underlying sense of frustration similar to the irritation felt by Dos Passos and Cummings. Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers (1921) presents the war as an event that mirrors humanity on the level of character and also on the level of a philosophical subject: war presents “a hard shiny surface in which characters find their own moral and political views reflected and intensified” (229). Meaning cannot be uncovered in war, and the many viewpoints about the war expressed by characters “testify to the impossibility of regularizing and codifying the many individual readings imposed upon it” (229).
The War that Used up Words presents a challenging argument that cuts across basic critical tenets of the literature of the Great War. At first sight, its temporal linearity and explicit unwillingness to engage with comfortable critical frames of the war gives reason for the suspicion that the Modernist thesis is being downplayed in it because of a New Historical preference for anecdote, textual detail, rhetorical strategy, and political edge. However, the chapters show an intimate knowledge and general dislike of the simplifying critical frame of War Gnosticism that eventually becomes powerfully criticized in this counter-narrative of American war literature. Stories of little known war texts are woven together in a discussion that works like an archeology of the literary discourse of the First World War, showing with erudite elegance how a new critical discourse emerges through archival research on non-canonized rhetorical patterns. It is also pivotal to point out that the book reads exceptionally well, indeed, like Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club (2001): its strong argument goes hand in hand with and anecdotic tone and interest in detail all backed up by solid research; its pronounced stance against critical generality; its archival research background and chronological arrangement. This book sets an admirable example for us all about what research can do.