- Writing War: Fiction, Gender, & Memory, and: The Proletarian Moment: The Controversy over Leftism in Literature
Lynne Hartley's Writing War: Fiction Gender. & Memory and James Murphy's The Proletarian Moment: The Controversy over Leftism in Literature are both studies that deconstruct old narratives of cultural history and create new ones. Hartley's political agenda is feminist; Murphy's is Marxist.
Arguing that "our narratives of war are particularly potent in shaping our imagination, indeed, our very memory of war," Hanley wishes to "demilitarize" this memory and, by writing about women and children, to "displace the soldier as the mouthpiece of war." To counter the militarism of American culture is also to counter its epistemological "bellicosity"—the "mental habit of creating arbitrary categories that are presumed to be mutually exclusive and hostile (self/other, masculine/feminine, white/black, us/them), and then of insisting on the supremacy of one category over the other." The book's discursive strategy articulates these concerns: breaking down distinctions between writer and critic, Hanley intersplices critical essays and short stories that voice her feminist standpoint.
The essays treat a number of literary figures who have written about war. Decentering "the idea of the soldier as the chief victim of war" that pervades Paul Fussell's influential The Great War and Modem Memory (1975), Hanley examines what women have had to say about war. Hanley writes approvingly of Woolf's gradual "disillusionment with her romance of androgyny" in A Room of One's Own and her "[open expression of] abhorrence of war and of die patriarchal culture which inspires, fosters, and celebrates [it]" in Three Guineas. Didion (in A Book of Common Prayer and Democracy) and Lessing (in Children of Violence) are praised for their focus upon women's experience in war and their correlation of militarism with patriarchal domestic violence.
In the interspersed short stories, Hanley writes of a noncombatant family "experiencing" World War II on the Jersey shore. The pacifism and humanism of [End Page 989] the principal female characters—especially Carol, the mother—are continually counterposed with the male characters' obsession with guns, hunting, and bloody accidents. In the climactic tale, "Lydia Among the Uniforms," Hanley depicts the sympathies between Carol and her German neighbor Lydia, whose husband and sons are fighting in the German army. Carol, befriending Lydia, declares that "we women must stick together, especially now"; Lydia remarks that "War is never over. It just comes home."
Hartley's fiction is well crafted, and in her essays she provides a much-needed corrective to the androcentrism of most writing about war. I find myself somewhat skeptical of her main argument, however. First, the absence of any non-gender-based analysis of the causes of war produces the problematic conclusion that "war has always been a patriarchal project, and unless we undermine the soldier's monopoly on representing himself at war, our memories of war will overtly or covertly serve his interests." Even if it is true that soldiers are not the only victims of war, surely it is crucial to make more careful distinctions between the "interests" of the ruling-class men who set the policy for wars and the preponderandy working-class men who fight them. Second, I remain unconvinced that the epistemology of binary opposition and "bellicosity" are as closely allied as Hanley posits, or that her eradication of the traditional fiction/criticism dualism is so bold a feminist challenge. Despite a certain naivete in its doctrinal and discursive politics, however, Women and War is an important book that has significant critical and pedagogical uses.
The Proletarian Moment is a ground-breaking study that will dramatically alter the terrain of 1930s scholarship. Murphy sharply contests the widely held view that the Stalinist cultural left embraced a dogmatic and propagandist conception of literature and demonstrates that this view is the product of the deliberate distortion of...