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American Writers and World War I


David A. Rennie


Oxford: University Press, 2020

Hardcover. 241 pages. ISBN 978-0198858812. £60


Reviewed by Lucie Jammes

Université de la Polynésie française (Tahiti)




In American Writers and World War I, David A. Rennie aims to prove that American authors have held complex and changing positions regarding the conflict “in response to their development as writers and individuals”, and that such varying and multifaceted stances can be apprehended through the analysis of their war writing.

He opens his volume referencing Hemingway’s disavowal of Gertrude Stein’s famous offhand remark concerning the “lost generation” that came of age right after World War I. Although Rennie recognizes that Stein’s point of view was an “enduring paradigm” for decades after the War, he clearly states his intention to keep far from this kind of “easy labels” in his study of American writers’ narratives on World War I. To this effect, the author explains in his introduction that American Writers and World War I will also differ from more recent revisionist studies. If Rennie does not doubt the pertinence of these studies, he regrets their tendency to envision an author’s writing exclusively through the prism of the collectives he or she might belong to (ethnic minorities, gender groups, political affiliation, etc.) to the detriment of the unique parameters that shape the individual experience. Even though Rennie aims at distancing himself from such sociological perspectives, he then proceeds to detail the various and contrastive responses elicited by the first World War among different social groups – an account which, if thought-provoking, fails to appear as entirely necessary to Rennie’s enterprise.

However, the originality of Rennie’s work resides in his intention to analyse some unexplored reasons behind the multiform literary productions of some renowned American war writers, such as the influence of “the advertising industry, the literary marketplace, governmental censorship, Hollywood, and the literary and cultural precedents that writers drew on in their texts” [2-3]. This perspective reminds the reader that the authors’ literary choices did not emerge solely from their artistic freedom, but that they encompassed more prosaic yet essential contextual variables that had the power to orientate the reception of the book and thus the entire career of its author.

Rennie’s first chapter is entitled “The Business of the War”, and it brings to light the financial motivations behind some authors’ views on the Great War. Rennie analyses how literary works were shaped to fit specific marketing strategies set by the publishing industry and takes the example of John Dos Passos’s 1919. Harper & Brother turned the book down because it featured criticisms of J.P. Morgan, but it was later published by Harcourt, Brace & Co and cleverly advertized as a “particularly American brand of modernism” in order to arouse the interest of readers intending to keep in touch with their times. Rennie underscores how the toned down and intentionally misleading comments from the editors almost drowned out Dos Passos’s social critique, turning it into a nationalistic text for marketing purposes.

This chapter also documents some of the numerous edits and alterations demanded by publishers and printers when the war appeared too graphic or unfiltered in a manuscript. Although it is further analyzed later in the book, this chapter rapidly exposes the crucial role that Hollywoodian representation played in the careers of authors like Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Stallings and Boyd. The latter indeed all worked on World War I films which refracted – but also largely redefined – their personal vision of the war.

The second chapter of Rennie’s work focuses exclusively on Edith Wharton’s mutating vision of World War I. Throughout this section of the book, Rennie brings forth with admirable clarity Wharton’s always nuanced but contrasting depictions of the conflict. Rennie links her ever changing vision to her frustrating volunteering experiences in France, as well as to her travels and other biographical elements, which first prompted narratives featuring mild to impassioned propaganda. Later in her career, Wharton produced other works imbued with satire and mockery towards those who feel an impulse to romanticize the war (in spite of her own effort to do exactly that in earlier texts). Eventually, Rennie notes a sense of irresolution in Wharton’s later war-related fictions, stemming from her realization that “the war is insoluble and beyond the encompassment of artistic imagination” [59]. As informative as it is, however, Rennie’s book lacks microanalyses to illustrate his affirmations. We note with regret that although he occasionally and briefly quotes Wharton’s texts to prove a point, Rennie almost never carries out full analyses to strengthen a demonstration.

The third chapter of American Writers and World War I is dedicated to Ellen La Motte and Mary Borden, who, like Wharton, witnessed the war through experiences in medical volunteering. As opposed to Wharton’s earlier propagandistic texts, however, La Motte and Borden’s narratives featured passive soldiers crushed by an incontrollable and inhumane war machine. If Rennie approaches their works jointly, as most studies have done, he underlines that it is actually to “bring attention to the contrasts that exist between them” [64], which agreeably challenges the general tendency of lumping both authors together. Their best-known works (respectively The Backwash of War and The Forbidden Zone) indeed overlap in their descriptive techniques, but Rennie stresses that “the collections diverge in terms of prose aesthetics, emotional emphasis, and use of narratorial perspective” [66].

Chapter four then moves on to Thomas Boyd, the first male writer of a laudable corpus that almost manages to maintain a perfect balance between male and female authors. In this chapter, Rennie explains how Boyd’s fluctuating war representation was influenced by the evolution of his political views and his lack of financial stability, by his disappointment in Hollywood, but also by the various facets of his war experience. Indeed, Boyd’s two most famous novels (Through the Wheat and In Time of Peace) present striking differences, the former being an unbildungs war novel (which Rennie astutely compares to Crane’s Red Badge of Courage), and the latter exemplifying a full-fledged proletarian Bildungsroman inspired by Boyd’s turn to communism.

Chapter five offers new perspectives on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s representations of the Great War, which Rennie claims have been the object of “unilateral interpretations” [105]. This chapter features more textual analyses than the first four, which allows a direct grasp of the writer’s diverse and changing World War I depictions throughout his oeuvre. In This Side of Paradise, Rennie highlights Fitzgerald’s already complex and multiform viewpoints on the war: while the main character’s reaction seems to run along the lines of the standard “lost generation” feelings of “despondency and betrayal” [114], other characters display opposed and contradictory opinions, thus emphasizing the writer’s desire to show multiple responses to the Great War (the same coexistence of subjectively conditioned and antagonistic perspectives can be found again later, in Tender is the Night). The Beautiful and the Damned embodies Fitzgerald’s “foray into naturalism” [118], and Rennie shows how Fitzgerald’s readings as well as his peers influenced him in his representation of the war – even if the book was later deemed an error by the writer himself.

Not unlike Boyd, Fitzgerald tried writing about the war for financial reasons. However, his satirical play The Vegetable, which “satirizes American militarism and ridicules […] immoderate belligerence” [119], was a failure, and he had to compose short stories for popular magazines, and later turned to scriptwriting for Hollywood to earn a living, thus resorting to many media to depict World War I. Moving on to Fitzgerald’s later career, Rennie analyzes the “largely opaque shadow” cast by the conflict on the lives of the characters in The Great Gatsby as representing “the intricate and multifaceted legacy of the war in American society” [125]. The characters’ unresolved and ambiguous reactions to the conflict imply, as Rennie suggests, that the consequences of the first World War are “too complex” to be apprehended “in precise terms” [125]. Through a detailed account of Fitzgerald’s personal and professional circumstances and a nuanced look at his numerous literary productions, Rennie convincingly underlines Fitzgerald’s refusal to simplify the war and reduce it to “any one dominant emotion” [133].

A less prominent literary figure than Fitzgerald or Hemingway, Laurence Stallings is nonetheless the focus of Rennie’s sixth chapter. Stallings’s inclusion in the corpus brings refreshing diversity: not only was he a “novelist, short-story writer, playwright, screenwriter, editor” [134], but he also tackled the war through non-fictional writing in The Doughboys at the end of his career. This hybrid project included “elements of history, novelistic prose and autobiography,” thus representing the war from various angles in a fragmented, composite work of maturity. Stallings, Rennie argues, helped “shape American collective memory of the Great War” [134], since his Hollywood screenwriting and playwriting endeavours (notably the film The Big Parade and the play What Price Glory?) were met with extraordinary success.

If The Doughboys is marked by “unadulterated approbation” of war service, Rennie remarks that Stallings’s first work – the semi-autobiographical novel Plume – constitutes an unwavering critique “bitterly condemning” and demythologizing the war [139]. This tendency softens in What Price Glory? which appears more celebratory of combat (although the play still shows “the toll of modern war” [142]), and is revived in The Big Parade. Later in his career, Stallings turned to photography and edited an anthology of photographs. According to Rennie, this book “occlude[s] the more positive aspects of the war” like pride, camaraderie and humour – which are, however, represented in Stallings’s short stories “of the late 1920s and early 1930s”, thus illustrating the fluctuating and almost kaleidoscopic vision of the writer throughout his entire career.

Rennie’s last and longest chapter concerns the American writer who may be the most studied writer of World War I: Ernest Hemingway. Despite the amount of research already published on such a prominent literary figure, Rennie manages to bring forth a thorough and stimulating perspective on the author’s relationship and approach to World War I. To this end, Rennie analyzes Hemingway’s private correspondence and statements – which sometimes illustrate how changing and contradictory the writer’s opinions on the conflict and its numerous literary renditions seem to be. Rennie’s last chapter, like the previous ones, efficiently highlights the writer’s evolution over time and his maturing perspectives on the war through biographical examination, but it could gain even more clarity if it included and analysed significant passages from the books – which are often only summarized.

Concerning the changes in Hemingway’s war writing, Rennie notices that his earlier texts (notably In Our Time) allow the reader to witness the main characters’ homecoming experience after the war and their struggles to readjust to civilian life. The collection, however, does not describe actual scenes of warfare, focusing on its aftermath rather than on the event of conflict itself. In the same manner, the war is not the focus of The Sun Also Rises but it is obliquely referenced: it appears as an important influence over veteran Jake Barnes’s life and informs his actions and attitudes (this indirect effect on the characters will also reappear later, in The Garden of Eden). Although Rennie notes Hemingway’s disappointment at the film adaptations of A Farewell to Arms, and although he states that the novel “comprehensively negates” “the idea of war as a heroic adventure” [172], he fails to comprehensively explain what defined Hemingway’s representative choices in the novel.

In Hemingway’s later fictions (notably in To Have and Have Not), Rennie notices that the author once again chooses to represent the life of former soldiers, and more particularly “the treatment afforded to World War I veterans” [173]. Although Rennie deems Hemingway’s outrage at such a treatment “less severe” than Boyd’s, he underlines that the specificity of Hemingway’s fiction in the 1930s was to explore “society’s failure to adequately value and provide for the men it sent to war” [174]. Finally, Rennie argues that A Moveable Feast, “Hemingway’s late-career memoir”, can be compared to Wharton’s and Borden’s, since in all of these three works “war and its aftermath have a palimpsestic presence alongside retrospective redefinition of those years” [182].

We must thank David A. Rennie for this thoroughly researched work, which keeps eliciting the reader’s curiosity chapter after chapter and no doubt constitutes a valuable contribution to the vast literature on American writers’ narratives of the Great War. Meticulously detailed, Rennie’s book is always very clearly referenced and provides systematic evidence to back up its author’s claims. Despite its obvious and numerous qualities, nonetheless, American Writers and World War I can be found lacking in thoroughgoing microanalyses, but Rennie’s somewhat synthetic treatment of the texts is effectively counterbalanced by his well-documented approach of the writers’ personal and literary trajectories.



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