One of the persistent ironies of criticism is that books purporting to cover narrow subjects often become some of our most valuable portals into larger cultural concerns—political, social, and philosophical realities informed and illuminated by the particular critical apparatus and agenda. Two new works on special topics—the painful lessons of modern warfare, the experience of incarceration within the American prison system—reveal how a single point of departure may lead to a number of important destinations.
Philip H. Melling's Vietnam in American Literature, a wide-ranging analysis of personal narratives on the Vietnam War written from 1971 to the present, is an always intriguing, sometimes problematic example of literary criticism as intellectual and social history. Arguing that Puritan ideology is the master key that unlocks the secrets of this war, Melling undertakes sorties against those critics who would regard Vietnam as a narrative of postmodern fragments or ahistorical absurdities. Continuously forging links between Puritan testimony and the new personal narratives of Vietnam, the author finds in the works of Philip Caputo, Ron Kovic, Bobbie Ann Mason, Robert Stone, Mary McCarthy, and many others examples of the exile's struggle in strange new lands, the ambiguities within colonial conquest, and the ongoing need of the visible saint to testify.
In his Introduction, Melling not only establishes his controlling Puritan thesis but also sets up his prime debate between historical and ahistorical readings of the Vietnam War. The text itself is divided into two parts: "The Narrative Voice," in which he examines several personal narratives and "the anguish of the narrator in his journey of initiation in Vietnam"; and "Errand in a Wilderness," a series of polemical illustrations of how in the literature of the Vietnam War "colonial history reveals itself through traditional allegories of survival and errand." As with any severely reductive thesis, sometimes the prime analogy reveals; sometimes it constricts. How close, the reader may ask, did the anticommunist crusade fueling the Vietnam War resemble the specific Calvinist, political, territorial, and economic imperatives of American colonial history? Melling reveals a bias toward those writers who seem contemporary practitioners of "plain speaking" against those who would enfold Vietnam in self-conscious, postmodern narrative strategies. The sometimes too pure division of writers into historical and ahistorical voices may cause some readers to raise an eyebrow. For example, within Melling's informing Puritan argument, Michael Herr's Dispatches is revealed to be "a book of fairy tales" and "a concoction that has little to do with Vietnam"—within the author's own jeremiad, Herr himself becomes "the man who bears false witness," a postmodern, romantic New Journalist whose voice is that of "the subtle hypocrite."
Vietnam most certainly did extend the legacy of American Puritanism into new cultural territory, as critics such as Loren Baritz and John Hellman have demonstrated, but so did it extend and deform Revolutionary, Enlightenment, romantic, modern, and postmodern patterns and traditions. Like a great white critical shark, the Puritan thesis keeps surfacing to snap at the reader's nerves and sensibilities; indeed, the book is most engaging and new when Melling forgets [End Page 268] about his own master narrative and works imaginatively and inductively within his new cultural data. Melling argues convincingly that the war has too often been textualized as merely an American experience, that the Vietnamese are often cast as bit players in their own historical epic. There exists as well in Vietnam in American Literature a fine exploration of the relationship of American technology and culture, an examination of the "machine dreams" that animated not only Vietnam but the recent Gulf War. There is much to interest and admire here—one only wishes Melling had worked less deductively at times and had not denigrated the argument for "new history" as he attempts to reanimate the old. As he admits, the Vietnam War was too complicated and important an event to be subjected to a limiting Manichean model, a single critical lens.