The strange career of Veterans Day from its origins after the First World War as a day on which America could (in the words of Woodrow Wilson) “show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of nations” to a day on which America could (as Ronald Reagan said nearly seven decades later) “pay tribute to all those men and women who throughout our history, have left their homes and loved ones to serve their country” is neatly traced by Leon R. Kass at the Weekly Standard’s blog this morning.
What has always interested me, as a literary critic, is the degree to which American literature is a veterans’ literature. Not merely because so many American writers “left their homes . . . to serve their country,” especially during the Second World War. Even more importantly, because so many who did not serve in uniform made combat veterans their heroes.
Four American novels in particular take on renewed and deepened significance when they are read, correctly, as veterans’ novels — The American (1877) by Henry James, The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henderson the Rain King (1959) by Saul Bellow, and The Moviegoer (1961) by Walker Percy.
James’s hero Christopher Newman is a veteran of the Civil War, a former brigadier-general, whose “four years in the army had left him with an angry, bitter sense of the waste of precious things” and had fired him with a “passionate zest and energy” for the postwar “pursuits of peace.” His military service was the pivotal experience in his life. It leads him first to success in business and then to Europe, where he goes in search of “something else.”
Fitzgerald’s narrator is a veteran of the Great War (“that delayed Teutonic migration”), and so is the title character, an officer and decorated war hero. Jay Gatsby came back, like James’s Newman, with a sense of purpose — a “creative passion,” an “incorruptible dream,” which he nurtured during his years in the army. Although he may have been shady and not entirely law-abiding, Gatsby was like no one else in the whole “rotten crowd” of the postwar boom. Compared to the “careless” rich, who avoided military service and “smashed up things and creatures,” he really was a great man — or at least as great as a man could be in such a lost generation.
Bellow’s hero is a veteran of the Second World War, one of only two soldiers in his unit who survived the Italian campaign, although he was wounded by a land mine and received the Purple Heart. “The whole experience gave my heart a large and real emotion,” Eugene Henderson says. “Which I continually require.” The voice within that ceaselessly chants I want, I want, I want, oh, I want formed its first words when Henderson was in the army. His search, like Newman’s and Gatsby’s, commences upon demobilization.
Walker Percy’s hero and narrator is a veteran of the Korean War, who is also on a search (“what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life”). Binx Bolling’s is an existential search, a religious search, a search for meaning. And the first time the search occurred to him was in 1951. Knocked unconscious in battle, he came to with a “queasy-quince taste” in his mouth, his shoulder pressed into the ground, and the vow that, if he ever got out of this fix, he would relentlessly pursue the search.
None of these novelists served in the military, but when thinking about the kind of experience that would turn a man around — that would even create him anew — they immediately thought of what Kass calls the one percent who guard and protect the 99 percent. Except for the crazed Vietnam vet, the soldier who becomes an adult in the military — who learns the responsibilities of adulthood, defined by the U.S. Army as loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage — has now largely disappeared from American literature. James, Fitzgerald, Bellow, and Percy demonstrate what has been lost.
Today is the day we honor the ordinary heroes who are better than 99 percent of us.