restricted access On the Battlefield of Memory: The First World War and American Remembrance, 1919-1941 (review)
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Reviewed by
Steven Trout. On the Battlefield of Memory: The First World War and American Remembrance, 1919-1941. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2010. xxxiii + 304 pp.

Steven Trout's title, On the Battlefield of Memory, neatly identifies his study's fundamental argument: that unlike the British, for example, who quickly developed a "collective memory" of the war as an episode of "waste and futility" (5), or the Lost Generation novelists who adopted a near-univocal "antiwar rhetoric" (3), Americans typically found this historic episode ambiguous and "argued over [its] meaning" (1-2). In a substantial introduction and four chapters, Trout explores those ambiguities and contradictions as revealed in a variety of modes of artistic representation and public commemoration.

The introduction establishes a useful distinction between collective memory (a shared "construction of the past") and remembrance ("a set of practices and processes through which the vision is assembled, communicated, and perpetuated") (13). Challenging received understandings, On the Battlefield invokes as the outset a handful of Lost Generation novels as a foil for the other kinds of artifacts with which Trout is mostly concerned. The standard war novels by Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald, he writes, utilized "a rhetoric at complete variance with [the authors'] actual wartime experiences" (3) and conflicting with the "warmly nostalgic" recollections of thousands of veterans (9). Both Dos Passos's "sour" portrayal in Three Soldiers (1921) and Cather's redemptive version in One of Ours (1922) revealed "fissures in the landscape of memory" (4). Resurrecting the less familiar Through the Wheat by Thomas Boyd (1923), Trout shows that though one of the "bleakest of all American First World War narratives" (6), it was described by reviewers in sharply conflicting terms, some recognizing its "repugnance and loathing" and others (including Fitzgerald) extolling its "'tough-minded exaltation'" of the "'beaten gold of the spirit which passed through the test by fire'" (8). A conflicted memory indeed. The introduction identifies Hemingway's frequently anthologized story "Soldier's Home" as a "landmark work of American war literature" in its treatment of "the problem of unresolved memory," even though it takes no note of either the flu epidemic of 1918 ("more lethal for the AEF than its German adversaries") or the racial segregation that "called into question the entire rhetorical and ideological basis of the American war effort" (28).

Trout first takes up organizational memorializing, primarily the American Legion, whose local halls numbered some ten thousand by 1941. The Legion is well known for promoting war remembrance with its publications, ceremonies, and displays of mementos; fostered [End Page 783] prolonged camaraderie; and advocated for veterans' benefits. But the organization was also both conflicted and controversial, maintaining a rigid racial segregation at almost all halls and espousing a brand of nationalism so over-the-top that it was "all but synonymous with fascism" (43). Moving toward isolationism as World War II approached, it nevertheless continued to extol the experience of combat as "the ultimate initiation into manhood" (10) and lobbied for "preparedness" so aggressively that it was seen as "war mongering" (44).

The substantive chapter that follows, nicely titled "Soldiers Well-Known and Unknown," discusses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery alongside the variously-sized, widely distributed statue Spirit of the American Doughboy. The former is known, but not fully known, to most Americans, while the second is a common, widely recognized image whose origin very few of us could name. That is, we know it visually, much as we "know" the Tomb of the Unknown, but not informationally. Patented just two years after the armistice, the Doughboy sculpture was created by the commercially savvy E. M. Viquesney, whom Trout characterizes as "more P. T. Barnum than Michelangelo" (110). Seven-foot versions are even now displayed in some 140 communities in thirty-five states, but during the interwar years it became "nearly ubiquitous" through being sold in twelve-inch models and versions designed for use as lamp bases (110). Not surprisingly, Viquesney advertised in American Legion publications. Deconstructing the statue's details, Trout finds it an awkward combination of accuracy and implausibility, "vernacular realism and official idealization," and clashing "tradition and modernity" (120). He objects yet...


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