John Limon points out at the beginning of this broad-reaching study that “war makes possible . . . literary history.” This is true enough; we often mark periods of literature by the wars they follow or precede. Part of Limon’s point is that American writers habitually miss the wars that delineate their times. The way in which these writers avoid or evade the subject of war helps to define the literary movements we associate with them; Limon’s study is an unconventional literary history in that it chronicles a series of literary responses to a series of wars, as opposed to a single war.
Writing After War traces a line from realism to postmodernism in terms of the way writers evade war. This line clearly follows a rising pattern; Limon speaks of the need to “transcend” and “outgrow” the “dead end of realism.” This need arises from realism’s repression of the Civil War, or its habitual substitution of “a beautiful war” for the harsh realities of the actual war. Limon goes on to reveal similar substitutions in romantic novels that follow the Civil War by such authors as Tourgee, Cable, and DeForest. In these novels, inclinations toward romantic engagements with the Civil War tend to have the same effect as novels from the high realist tradition in that they ultimately shift attention away from the war and toward quotidian realism. American modernism following World War I suffers a similar problem in trying to cope with the widespread destruction of the war, but it begins to address this problem by revealing a breakdown in narrative style. “War is, in a sense, the perfection of narrative,” Limon writes, and the most successful modernist war novels rise to the challenge of generating “a [End Page 157] story out of the demise of story.” Postmodern war novels following World War II and sports novels following Vietnam also avoid war, but they do so in ways that Limon tends to see as more triumphant (because more honest) than their literary predecessors. That is, postmodernists are able to account for their “tardiness in the history of literature” in ways that modernists and realists are not; their awareness of the fact that war is inescapable allows them to answer the question “Why go on writing?” in a world so completely affected by war. They still face the central paradox Limon posits—that the move from war to literature “requires a mistranslation”—but they address this paradox with a necessary awareness of it. The final two chapters of the book move outside of the line suggested by the second half of the title; Limon discusses a theory of the divergent paths that the Vietnam sports novel takes, then concludes with a chapter on women’s writing after war, which provides an alternative version of the tradition he discusses in the first five chapters.
Limon is skilled at drawing on a wide variety of authorities for his study; he moves easily from his original opposition between contest and duel, based on the theories of Carl von Clausewitz and Elaine Scarry, to Homer and the Bible, to Johan Huizinga, Jacques Derrida, cultural historian Modris Eksteins—in short, an eclectic group of secondary sources. The bulk of the book is made up of Limon’s readings of individual novels and his interpretation of how they help to define literary movements in terms of their treatment of war. Limon’s rereading of literary history is the most compelling aspect of the book; his astute observation that so much of American literature shares the trait of missing war and his lucid (and often ludic) interpretations of texts make the book worthwhile for anyone interested in American literary history.
The book is somewhat less successful in tying together all of its loose ends. Some promises are not kept, such as the one to discuss Vonnegut in the section on “the postmodernization of WWII,” or to explain how tennis is one of the subcategories of the Vietnam sports novel. (Limon turns, inexplicably, to Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part 1 to explain...