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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...