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The War That Used Up Words: American Writers and the First World War. Hazel Hutchison. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015. Pp. 26 + 242. $45.00 (cloth).

Opening with a reading of a wartime poem by the non-canonical writer Mary Borden, the first pages of Hazel Hutchison’s The War That Used Up Words establish an ambition to destabilize our conceptions and categories of American First World War literature. Hutchison notes the strange place of the war in American cultural memory as a war which “has never quite captured the public imagination” and is usually focused through the “lost generation” writers of the 1920s: Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, et al. (14, 2). Hutchison instead chooses to study “a group of American authors who observed the war in Europe between 1914 and 1918, and who wrote about what they saw,” namely Mary Borden, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Ellen La Motte, Grace Fallow Norton, E. E. Cummings, and John Dos Passos (2). She makes the case for the distinctive nature of American First World War literature, suggesting that America’s initially neutral status and lack of censorship (until 1917) “allowed its authors and journalists an experimental and polemical freedom that was not available to British writers,” which “quickened their sense of the war as a cultural rather than a sociopolitical event” (3). In contrast to their European counterparts, “American readers had almost three years to think and read about the war before it became their national business” (119). Attempting to theorize and recategorize a diverse body of work (or at least to open up established categories), the success of Hutchison’s argument is in its amalgamation of biographical and historical information with close readings, its lively intellectual and imaginative engagement with the period, and its emphasis on lesser-known, but highly important, texts.

Offering an overview of the profound changes that America’s involvement wrought on domestic social, political, economic, and military life, Hutchison argues that, most importantly, it gave the nation “a new sense of itself as … a powerful arbitrating presence on the international stage” (13). She suggests the belated nature of inquiries that look to 1920s writings for “the origins of traits which emerged so distinctly from the conflict: detachment, disillusionment, disparate perspectives, montage, irony, the renegotiation of gender, the disruption of time, the inadequacy of language” (3). She argues instead that “the really creative moment, the ignition spark of innovation, happened during the war,” whilst acknowledging the “many lines of continuity that run through the narrative of change” and citing writers such as Wharton, who “maintained her measured prose” after the war (3, 19). The War That Used Up Words therefore “aims to map that shift of balance from the old to the new,” which goes “in search of early glimpses of disillusionment, irony, and fragmentation” but “also seeks to understand the sense of social and political responsibility” that led writers to participate, and explores how their writings were received in the wartime publishing context (19). Put more simply, it is “about how the war first imprinted itself onto the patterns of American writing” (17).

Positioning her scholarship amongst the recent broadening of the field of war studies to encompass previously marginalized aspects and experiences of the war (the colonial, gendered, medical, etc.), Hutchison suggests that “the group of writers at the heart of this study emerged distinctly from their surroundings, for reasons which … have over time become positively disruptive” (19-20). Her selection of authors, “all self-conscious literary artists, who had published in other areas before observing the war,” might seem strange, she tells us, “because it cuts across a number of the familiar categories and binary opposites within which writing of the war is more usually understood: modernist, conservative, pacifist, interventionist, male, female, young, old, canonical, obscure” (21). The sole connecting factor between her authors is their shared sense [End Page 266] that “artistic response had to be matched by action,” meaning that each was driven to participation in one mode or another (21). The consequent “intensely personal and autobiographical nature” of American First World War texts, Hutchison argues, is one reason why these works have been critically neglected (22).

Hutchison’s own method, then, is “both biographical and analytical” (24). She carefully asserts that her book is “not a history book,” although it is structured chronologically around the years of the war with each year also (sometimes surprisingly) themed (25). Chapter 1, “1914—Civilization,” considers the importance of the “secular apocalyptic narrative” in American culture, focusing on James’s discussion of “civilization” in his personal writings and Wharton’s establishment of her relief organizations, and ends with a reading of a number of Norton’s poems (30). Chapter 2, “1915—Volunteers,” discusses the effect of America’s lack of censorship on writing and the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 before considering Wharton’s Fighting France, Borden’s The Forbidden Zone, James’s newspaper interviews, Within the Rim, and The Question of the Mind. Chapter 3, “1916—Books,” reviews publishing culture during the war, examining Wharton’s The Book of the Homeless, Norton’s pamphlet of poems What is Your Legion?, and La Motte’s nursing text The Backwash of War. Chapter 4, “1917—Perspectives,” provides readings of experiments with narrative perspective in Borden’s The Forbidden Zone, Dos Passos’s One Man’s Initiation: 1917, and E. E. Cummings’s The Enormous Room. Chapter 5, “1918—Compromises,” focuses on the figure of the artist in Wharton’s A Son at the Front and Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers. The afterword, “Aftermath,” considers the relationship between aesthetic concerns and politics in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as, more broadly, the function and uneasy placement of war literature in the literary canon. Here Hutchison conclusively suggests that the very deterioration of language during the war “created new perspectives and new possibilities for how words would be used in the future” (242).

Despite the deluge of recent critical material due to the centenary, The War That Used Up Words addresses a genuine and surprising gap in the field of First World War cultural criticism and suggests the need for further theoretical work. Stanley Cooperman’s World War I and the American Novel (1967) stands alongside only a handful of more recent, and typically narrower, scholarship on American First World War prose and poetry. Hutchison’s book therefore offers the first general literary and cultural history of the war years from an American perspective since the 1960s. This lack of a large critical field necessitates considerable biographical summaries of authors’ wartime activities, drawn—as Hutchison notes in her introduction—from other biographical texts, such as those by Alan Price and Jane Conway. Although this is in line with her biographical and analytical method, there are some sections where the reader wants to know more about the literature, because Hutchison’s analysis offers original and insightful readings, particularly of The Forbidden Zone and The Backwash of War.

Hutchison has brought together a fascinating range of authors and previously neglected texts, but there is sometimes a need for more synthesis within chapters and more justification for the authors selected to represent each year. The reader would benefit from more information on why we should read these authors alongside one another and what can be gained by doing so. These caveats aside, Hutchison’s method is particularly well demonstrated when she tells composite histories, such as her brief but insightful account of the activities of a number of writers in early 1915, which shows what these authors were writing contemporaneously (72–73). Other particularly interesting moments reveal surprising facts about canonical writers, such as Hemingway’s inclusion of a typed quotation from James on an unnumbered page in the manuscript of A Farewell to Arms; that Gertrude Stein’s famous quotation about the “lost generation” was in fact an angry comment about a veteran car mechanic; or that William Falkner became “Faulkner” in order to join the Canadian Royal Air Force (15, 202, 205). There is a lively engagement with the scene of writing, as well as a number of fruitful imaginative excursions, such as when Hutchison suggests (correctly, I think) that Borden was the unnamed “B” in La Motte’s account of an attack [End Page 267] in June 1915 (an attack which Wharton and Borden also wrote about), and where she wonders if a young T. S. Eliot might have read Borden’s sketches in The English Review during his lunch break at Lloyd’s Bank and subsequently come up with The Waste Land (148, 169). Her attention to both the lines of transmission and the conditions of publication makes for fascinating readings, such as her suggestion that although Wharton’s wartime arrangement of The Book of the Homeless “bears the hallmarks of a rushed job,” it unwittingly creates a modernist montage, and so does her afterword on the effect of the war on literary scholarship.

The strengths of Hutchison’s study therefore lie in its historicist return to the wartime moment as the source of innovation, and in her excellent readings of lesser-known works. Along with a helpful bibliography and index, the book will be useful to new and veteran scholars of the Great War alike, and will hopefully pave the way for further studies.

Alice Kelly
University of Oxford