This book employs a radical materialist critique to view the Vietnam War and Vietnam War narratives, a lens that might be considered controversial. Such a perspective, as defined by Jim Neilson, “situates a literary text in its historical context and examines how the text itself functions as ideology, how it disguises or reveals the operations of power and the systematic reproduction of inequality and exploitation.” According to the author, such a critical approach is used “infrequently and incompletely by critics, commercial and academic.” Thus, examining eight Vietnam War narratives (The Quiet American, The Ugly American, The Green Berets, The Prisoners of Quai Dong, The Laotian Fragments, Dispatches, In Country, and The Things They Carried), along with their commercial reviews and academic criticism, Neilson attempts to prove his point. He also demonstrates how his own brief materialist critiques of these American works of varying popularity and quality can educate readers about everything from the injustices of American foreign policy in Vietnam and the Middle East to the stifling influence of American capitalism on the book publishing industry and academic critics. Readers who are comfortable with such phrases as “capitalist exploitation and imperial enterprise” or the “professional-managerial class,” with the Left’s notion that the Vietnam War can be perceived as a “nearly genocidal slaughter to perpetuate American neocolonialism,” and with a Marxist/New Historicist examination of literature will welcome this work and probably wonder why Vietnam narratives have not been viewed from this radical perspective before. [End Page 1021]
Neilson’s purpose is to jolt readers and contemporary critics out of their comfortable bourgeois positions of examining literature from traditional aesthetic concerns or “amorphous humanism.” Instead, he wants them to explore the fundamental ideologies within literature that influence the production and reception of these works. He wants them to link these works to history and politics. Consequently, because Neilson believes literature should provide a political education for its readers, he uses his selected Vietnam narratives and their commercial and academic reception to educate his own readers about economics, history, power, and politics. Specifically, he argues that publishers, reviewers, critics, and some authors are contributing to a distorted “conservative rewriting” of the Vietnam War as an “American tragedy.” The result of Neilson’s efforts is a book that is impressively documented, consistent in its explanation and application of a materialist critique, and thought-provoking—whether one agrees with or dismisses the author’s politics and methodology.
The introduction and first two chapters—“Commercial Literary Culture” and “Academic Literary Culture”—convey the ideological underpinnings for the text. Simply stated, Neilson believes that in the United States, capitalism, political conservatism, liberal pluralism, and literary traditions establish the boundaries of “acceptable discourse.” They determine what works are written, published, and reviewed and how these books are read and valued by commercial and academic literary cultures. In the remaining chapters, Neilson focuses on his at times tedious critique of the commercial reviewers’ and academic critics’ responses to the eight Vietnam narratives. In addition, he situates these works within their historical, economic, and political contexts—something that he might do in even more detail. Along the way, Neilson praises the materialist critiques of Vietnam narratives appearing in the Nation or written by Renny Christopher, James Wilson, and David James. But he spends most of his time assailing reviewers from Time, New Republic, and New York Times Book Review; well-known academic critics of Vietnam literature, such as Philip Beidler, John Hellmann, and Thomas Myers; and a host of feminist and postmodernist critics. According to Neilson, these critics at various times ignore or dismiss the political content of Vietnam narratives, disregard the books’ relationships to history and culture, fail to link so-called radical criticism to issues of class and economics, explain the war and the literature in [End Page 1022] terms of cultural myths, or become obsessed with postmodernist “epistemological and linguistic indeterminacy.”
Needing to be addressed in more depth throughout the book are two questions: how did a few of these Vietnam narratives proceed through the maze of commercial gatekeepers and into...