The challenge lies in expanding what war is without diminishing or valuing one experience over another. Once, at a small family dinner which included a guest who was a veteran of World War II, the guest was pressed—perhaps by me (I was in college at the time)—to tell the story of his time in the war. The guest told about the steel plate in his head. My Uncle Al hesitated, then said that he had served in the War, too. He was in the military police in France, checking on the security of villages about ten miles behind the front lines, advancing as the Americans liberated village after village. By the time he arrived, there was dancing in the streets, the wine was flowing, and all the girls were eager to kiss the Americans. His war, he felt, wasn’t the war. He admitted that he almost never told the story. An uncle on the other side served, too, but as a chaplain in the Pacific, far from combat. He, too, felt that he didn’t have a story to tell, that his war was not the war. Perhaps this says something about war experiences. No one’s war is the war and, in teaching representations of war we need to keep that observation at the fore.
“When the Great War broke out, it came to me not as a superlative tragedy,
but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans.” (17)
I meant to tell you all about this in July, but well, #dalloway and life intervened. Nonetheless, here I go:
Vera Brittain writes with tremendous care about prize day at her brother’s school when she was falling in love with Ronald Leighton, who became her fiancé. It goes on and on—her floaty dress with the pink spots, her pretty hat—and then she explains that she spends so much time on this because it was “the one perfect summer idyll” of my life. Etched, every moment of it, in memory. Like the moment in The Hours where Clarissa thinks this is the beginning of happiness only to realize, oh!, that was my moment of happiness. What’s lovely and different about the Brittain is that she’s writing from such a kindly, matronly perspective—she’s generous to the whole world that’s past—including her benighted self. So that her observation that she didn’t attend to the assassination of the archduke of whom she had never heard in a nation she could not find on the map is perfectly calibrated to be patient with the individual but damning of the society. She is so smart on the perils of ignorance. What’s remarkable about Testament of Youth is that it reproduces at once her memory and her post-war perspective.
Testament of Youth documents how the effects of the war rippled out beyond the soldiers. The description of her, still in provincial England, going to a neighboring town and hearing rumors and seeing a trainload of Russian soldiers, and coming home bursting with the news only to find the same news greeting her in Buxton is terrific. It offers a vivid picture of what it feels like to experience a bit of news of war first hand, not even yet knowing who among your family, will have had the same experience. She tells the story of her nurses training when a girl got mad at Brittain for tucking her into the hospital bed a little too vigorously and wrinkling the frills in her knickers. Such silliness in retrospect, but for that girl, at that moment, the heart of her life and Brittain’s book gains its effect by asking us to think that through. She was a young woman in a world where pretty girls worried about the frills on their knickers. Then: war. Her method shows—and asks us to bear—some compassion for that poor idiotic girl, too, a girl who surely suffered, too, somehow. She certainly was not facing five easy years any more than anyone in England from 1914-1919.
She is wonderfully funny on how difficult it was to be alone with a boy in those days—how her aunt stuck to her like a limpet, how Leighton came shopping—even to buy underwear—with them, just for the pleasure of being together. She goes on to explain how hard it was to arrange to meet a man for a few unsupervised hours. She and other middle class girls would be delivered to a train station, commanded to telegraph upon their arrival at the destination. Eventually, she concocted a story about not wanting to run into certain classmates at one junction so she could meet Leighton at another.
One of the lessons that Brittain seems to want us to take away is something about paying attention. This emerges as a theme in Cecily Hamilton’s book, too. Silly goose, she seems to say of herself, I ought to have known to attend to that. But what is the lesson for us? What is the crisis that will, as in the passage she quotes from Daniel Deronda, bring us into confrontation with history? Is it the riots among the poor in Brazil? Climate change? The emergence of the Islamic State? Or is it some tiny ripple that most of us have not yet imagined, some slight, some rude inattention we have visited upon Canada or Kansas that will set the whole thing ablaze?
The great World War One historian Michael Neiberg acknowledges that American students (and Americans in general) know far, far less about World War One than their European peers. And no wonder: U.S. participation in that war was brief, casualties were not high, and the battles were all overseas. Still, in this centenary period, in this war-torn world of 2014, we might do well to educate ourselves a little.
After a billion years of studying British modernism and Mrs. Dalloway, I’ve learned more about the War than many and I’m looking forward to teaching my class on the Literature of World War One this fall. I’ve been reading up on the war all summer, as my infrequent recent blog posts suggest.
I wanted to find some material on race and the war. There is a lot of great historical material emerging now on Chinese workers and African soldiers, but for a literature class, choices are harder. And what about a straight up story about the African-Americans who fought. The main character in Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem is a deserter; a main character in Jessie Fauset’s There is Confusion fights heroically and recognizes a relative in a white man who shares his surname. Both of these novels capture the two important things I know and want my students to know about the War: that black soldiers served bravely and that they were very, very poorly treated indeed. However, in the context of these novels, the war is just a small part. How can I convey the texture of this story in the limited time I have.
One of the great discoveries of the summer was Max Brooks’ book on the 369th Infantry Regiment, an African American unit from New York, dubbed the Harlem Hellfighters by the Germans who fought them. This graphic historical fiction is so gripping and heartbreaking. It tells, in miniature, a story that you might be able to guess from what you know of our shameful treatment of heroic black soldiers in World War Two, but this is a forgotten bit of history that is worth a few hours of your time. If you or a young person in your life wants to read one short exciting thing about the War, I strongly recommend it.
Both Brooks (who is white) and White (who is black) took great care to be as accurate as possible in their renderings of the stories here. The illustrations are absolutely gripping and, paired with Brooks’ elegant text, which quotes liberally from W. E. B. DuBois and other historical documents, makes the whole thing a thrilling read. Although the main character is fictional, other characters are real, including jazz musician James Reese Europe who paved the way for Duke Ellington and for jazz in France; Eugene Jaques Bullard, who fought in both World Wars as a pilot in the French Army; and Henry Johnson, the first American (black or white) to receive the French Croix de Guerre. Their photographs and information on sources appear in the back of the book.
I’m sorry that the stories of racism are so familiar and predictable—the officer’s club suddenly closed to black men, the racism the New York soldiers (from across the state) experienced training in the South, the denial of a ticker tape parade. Most amazing to me—and most heartbreaking in light of Ferguson, MO and open carry—is the fact that the U.S. Army denied rifles to the 369th while providing free rifles to any gun club, just in case the gun clubs might be called up. So, actual soldiers were denied weapons. What I love—and what Brooks and White clearly delight in telling—is how the soldiers of the 369th made up fake gun clubs from all over the state and thus requested and received the guns they should have had in the first place.
It’s just terrific. I hear that Will Smith is talking to Brooks about a film. Let’s hope
When I heard that Roxane Gay was releasing a book called Bad Feminist, I flipped. I was familiar enough with her nonfiction to know it was going to rock. I couldn’t wait for it. I was thrilled to wake up one morning to an email from Goodreads congratulating me on winning an advance copy of the book back in May.
A review of Bad Feminist.