The Mindless Young Militants:
The Hero-Victims of the American War Novels
Ever since the war ended, a great many literary GI’s, all of them haunted by the example of Hemingway and Dos Passos, have been trying to turn their war experience into novels that would be distinguishable from each other and yet not betray the fact that their authors learned nothing new about the war, since they could not see it for their countrymen.
This has been an unexpected and even humiliating discovery for some realistic novelists; it has played havoc with their first literary images of war and their natural hopes of finding in it an epic subject. To a writer born, say, between 1913 and 1923, the “war novel” is virtually synonymous with his discovery of modern American literature, as he grew up with it between the wars. When he went off to war himself, perhaps packing a forbidden diary in his knapsack, he could not help seeing his life in a sequel to what the “lost generation” had made of the First World War. And after all, whatever the lesson of disillusionment that honest war writers always bring to their books, war has provided, even in its most tragic and distorting strain, a theater for the display of the writer’s gift. One thinks of Whitman making the rounds of the Washington hospitals during the Civil War to write Specimen Days, a great bearded mother kneeling at the bedsides of his young men; of Stendhal’s Fabrizio at Waterloo, looking for his horse and amazing the French; of Tolstoy’s Andrew Bolkonsky, who, as he lies wounded at Austerlitz under the heel of Napoleon, embodies all the despair of young Europe before the revolutionary tyrant; of Stephen Crane’s farm boy in The Red Badge of Courage, the anonymous figure of humanity recovered through the smoke of battle. In retrospect, there is something enduringly romantic and even Byronic about those lost heroes in the war novels of the 20′s—Hemingway’s Frederic, plunging across the river from Caporetto to join his lady in Switzerland; Dos Passos’s John Andrews in Three Soldiers, who, as he is taken away by the MP’s at the end (while the last sheets of his music flutter to the ground), seems to embody the everlasting struggle between man and the state. In the most grimly realistic novels written about the First World War, something is always wrested out of the carnage: the protest of the artist, or revolutionary, or pacifist, who has measured himself against the systematized inhumanity, and has taken for his own Whitman’s beautiful line—I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there.
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