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The Short Story and the First World War


Ann-Marie Einhaus


Cambridge: University Press, 2013

Hardcover. viii+219 p. ISBN: 978-1107038431. £55.00


Reviewed by David Malcolm

Uniwersytet Gdanski (Gdansk, Poland)



Ann-Marie Einhaus’s book The Short Story and the First World War is an outstanding contribution to discussions of the literature of the Great War of 1914-1918. It also makes an important contribution to our understanding of the development of the British short story in the early twentieth century. Einhaus’s study is marked by innovative research, theoretical pertinence, clarity of exposition, and a subtle and appropriate approach to her material. It is a book that scholars concerned with the Great War and those interested in short fiction will refer to frequently and for a considerable time to come.

Einhaus’s overarching argument is that the short fiction of the Great War has been occluded in considerations of the literature of the conflict. It has, with some exceptions, never made it into the canon of the literature of the War. Thus, it has failed to have an appropriate influence on the “myth” of the conflict, which has been disproportionately and misleadingly formed by the work of a small group of poets and memoirists. The major part of Einhaus’s book takes the form of a successful attempt to refocus our vision of the literature of 1914-1918.

In the Introduction to her book, the author points to the undeniably important position of the Great War in British popular memory. The recent anniversary of the outbreak of the War has certainly confirmed this – in a mass of publications, events, and memorials. As Einhaus points out, the image of the War in British consciousness is skewed in certain fundamental ways. Despite the fact, that it was a world war, British memory focuses on the fighting on the Western Front in northern France and Belgium to the exclusion of other sites (although Gallipoli gets a look in, in my opinion). It also is shaped by a selective canon of literary texts, the poetry of male combatants, usually officers, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, and Isaac Rosenberg (the only private soldier among them). Canonical prose includes work again largely by the officer class, Robert Graves, Sassoon, Richard Aldington, for example (although Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth [1933] is also important). These prose works are also usually memoirs or longer fictional texts. The short story is excluded from discussions of the literature of the War. Exceptions are disillusioned texts, such as those contained in Aldington’s Roads to Glory, or avant-garde short stories by Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, or D.H. Lawrence.

Einhaus’s objection (or perhaps this is to strong a word – principled demurral might be better) to this is that it is bad memory, or at least a highly selective one, and bad literary history. (Again Einhaus does not express herself in such forthright terms, and nor should she. Her voice is a patient and explanatory one. But she is taking issue both with popular memory and literary history.) Using Almeida Assmann’s ideas of Funktionsgedächtnis (working memory) and Speichergedächtnis (reference memory), Einhaus points to how a multiplicity of views of the War has remained stuck in the latter and has not made it into the former (a multiplicity that includes voices of women, the home front, those who saw the War as bad enough, but not a futile tragedy, those involved on other fronts, and those from marginalised parts of the Empire). While there are reasons for this occlusion – all myths and memories are of necessity selective; the version of the Great War current in the UK has its sources in the needs of the 1930s and the 1960s – the construction of the conflict is restrictive and partial. It also ignores a substantial body of short fiction. Einhaus’s book expands our vision of the War and firmly establishes the short story as the site of important voices relating to the conflict (while at the same time clearly showing why short fiction has become peripheral to our understanding of the literature of 1914-1918).

Chapter 1 of Einhaus’s study offers a model discussion of how canonisation has taken place with regard to the Great War. Einhaus rightly points to the central position of a few officer trench poets within the relevant myth and the canon. Inter alia, she argues that the seeming immediate authenticity of the poet’s voice and also the adaptability of that voice, especially Owen’s, to other wars and other times, have played an important role in establishing these poets’ visions of tragic and unheroic futility as authoritative. The prose that is canonised, Einhaus argues, is marked again by claims to authenticity and also, in its modernist configuration, to universality. It is also notable that the literature that is canonised, both prose and verse, largely endorses an account of the War as irredeemably sad and futile. The short story is only canonised when it aims at a kind of generality and embodies that dark vision. The mass of short fiction relating to the Great War (and Einhaus says there is a lot out there) has had little chance at canonisation. Rooted in the mundane specificities of the War, published in magazines and journals, and subsequently not anthologised, operating within the conventions of realism or popular genres, suggesting the War is not utterly futile – it certainly had the odds stacked against it, especially in the 1960s, that crucial decade for the formation of myth and the cementing of canon. Einhaus’s book is particularly interesting in its discussion of the scholarly connection between the Great War and literary modernism. In fact, she argues, the Great War produced much more conservative and traditional prose fiction and verse than it did experimental texts. Some commentators will have to revise their glib yoking of war and innovation.

The central chapters of Einhaus’s study are Chapters 2 through 5. In them, the author discusses in fascinating detail the publication and reception, and the specific configuration, of short fiction in the years 1914-1918, and of later short fiction relating to the War. Chapter 2 documents the publication of war-related stories from the War’s outbreak to around 1920 in two differing British journals, the Strand Magazine, with a relatively mass readership, and the English Review, with a smaller and rather more highbrow one. The war-related stories in the former are largely within the conventions of popular genres (such as the adventure story or the modern romance) and were almost never anthologised after magazine publication. The relevant stories in the latter are often more psychologically oriented and more innovative than those published in the Strand, and thus much more frequently republished and more likely to be widely remembered today. The remainder of Chapter 2 and the whole of Chapter 3 go on to document the reception of war-related short fiction in inter-war and post 1945 anthologies. These sections chart a movement from a diversity of voices about and a relatively positive view of the War to a squeezing out of First-World-War fiction from anthologies of war stories and the institutionalising of stories with a disillusioned, anti-war stance or of those with some technically innovative quality. They also explore the exclusion of a range of accounts of the War in short fiction: the popular and mundanely specific; the comic (Einhaus understands the necessity of such for war-time readers, although modern ones may be a little baffled by them).

Chapters 4 and 5 are among the most insightful and useful in a very insightful and useful book. They offer a thematic typology of short fiction of the Great War from the war years through to the inter-war period. Using Paul Ricoeur’s understanding of narrative as a laboratory in which writers and readers can work out existential and moral problems, Einhaus discusses how short stories approach various issues connected with the War. Popular genres such as the supernatural story or the romance are employed to tackle grief, mourning, and remembrance. Such stories – perhaps surprisingly – show themselves well able to deal with death, disillusion, self-identification with the enemy, shell shock and disability. The short story, Einhaus points out, also demonstrates an ability and a willingness to touch on profound moral and political issues thrown into stark relief by the War: inter alia, psychological damage, brutalisation, courts martial, internment of aliens, and the sufferings of the enemy.

Chapter 6 strikes me as a less interesting and developed chapter, moving away, as it does, from war-time and inter-war fictions to later narratives. This seems too large a topic for the space at Einhaus’s disposal, although the discussion of Frances Bellerby’s and Elizabeth Bowen’s short stories of the War is welcome and insightful.

Among the central delights of this very rich study are the documentation and discussion of a corpus of substantially forgotten short stories, often fruitfully put in the context of much better remembered ones. These recovered texts include: Annie Edith Jameson’s “The Parcel”, John Hartman Morgan’s “The Lieutenant”, Stacy Aumonier’s “The Brothers”, A.W. Wells’s “Chanson Triste”, Richard Marsh’s “Scandalous” and many others. Like all good pieces of literary scholarship, Einhaus’s book inspires one to read more and think more. One wants to read for oneself the stories that she discusses. One wants to delve further into the archive of short fiction of 1914-1918. One also wonders about other national literatures’ accounts of the Great War, especially the French and the German ones. Two things are certain. First, Einhaus’s book belongs among those essential studies of the culture and literature of the Great War and its aftermath (Paul Fussell’s, Samuel Hynes’s, and Vincent Sherry’s, for example). Second, the history of the short story in Britain cannot be the same after this groundbreaking book. Ann-Marie Einhaus, The Short Story and the First World War (Cambridge: University Press, 2013)—Reviewed by David Malcolm, Uniwersytet Gdanski (Gdansk, Poland)


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