- Front Lines of Modernism: Remapping the Great War in British Fiction
In this engaging example of new historicism, Mark D. Larabee explores the challenges that World War I posed to the epistemological certainty of vision and the military and to the literary strategies of mapping that developed in response to this conflict. He analyzes ten literary texts from the turn of the twentieth century through 1929, but the originality of his approach is most evident in his broader treatment of the military cartographic methods circulating before, during, and after this war. Larabee claims that the war caused a breakdown in the "cartographic logic of visualization" (15), an adaptation of Henri Lefebvre's term, which manifested itself in the topographies of literary texts responding to the war. Until 1914, maps relied on Enlightenment theories that proposed a direct correspondence between the features they contained and the environments they represented. However, Larabee argues that wartime conditions restricted vision so that soldiers could no longer blindly trust the knowledge that maps provided. While entrenched, soldiers had little visual or physical contact with enemy forces. When they emerged, they found that the volume of munitions directed at invisible enemies had altered battlefield topography. Maps rapidly became obsolete and only partial representations of reality.
These conditions prompted soldiers in World War I and battlefield observers in Britain to develop new techniques of mapping that could capture the war's literal and figurative landscape. Larabee sees it as no coincidence that traditional military strategies for mapping failed at the same time as traditional strategies for crafting literary texts. To support this insight, he compares topographical descriptions from military and literary texts and the ways they "allowed authors to comprehend, articulate, and respond to the seemingly incommunicable experience of the war" (6). The authors he cites range from battlefield observers, such as Edmund Blunden, Richard Aldington, and Ford Madox Ford in chapter 1, to noncombatants, such as Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf, in chapter 4. Larabee's focus on cultural representations of space and the epistemological limits of vision during the war period allows him to read together texts as disparate as Woolf's Jacob's Room and The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, written by Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan. This comparative strategy produces a series of refreshing and innovative readings, particularly of Ford's The Good Soldier and Conrad's The Shadow-Line. [End Page 375]
Larabee's methodology succeeds largely due to his impressive grasp of battlefield conditions during World War I and British military history. His interpretations of military texts, such as the panorama sketches and range-taker's cards in chapter 1, demonstrate the importance of these artifacts for modernist scholars working with theories of space, not just for military historians. With this approach, Larabee pushes the generic boundaries of literary modernism by analyzing modernist fiction along with autobiographical and fictionalized war narratives. His goal here is to "expand our conception of modernism to include those pieces of war fiction whose traditionalist form would otherwise seem to justify their exclusion" (184). These less conventionally modernist texts include Blunden's Undertones of War and C. E. Montague's Disenchantment. Larabee's version of modernism looks for the epistemological possibility in both experimental and traditional strategies, contrary to readings of modernism like Vincent Sherry's The Great War and the Language of Modernism. Chapter 3, an analysis of Disenchantment and Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier, presents the most detailed example of this argument for a traditional space—the pictorial landscape—in which meaning is still accessible.
Thus, Larabee examines not only the limits of vision for authors writing before 1930 but also those that restrict the literary analyses of today's scholars. For example, his discussion of Conrad's The Shadow-Line abandons critical interest in the book's dedication to look instead at the historical context of March 1915, the month in which Conrad changed the manuscript's title. Based on journalism from this month, Larabee argues that the "spatial metaphors describing...