- War Isn’t the Only Hell: A New Reading of World War I American Literature by Keith Gandal
In War Isn’t the Only Hell, Keith Gandal sets himself the ambitious task of reframing the way scholars and the reading public regard World War I–era American literature. He contends that the prevailing narrative understands these works, most of which are from the so-called Lost Generation of Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, as “an outcry over the horrors of modern warfare and a revulsion from the patriotic propaganda about a moral crusade and great adventure that [End Page 590] the government mobilized to promote the war and the draft” (9). Rather, the works of these and other writers should be understood as a response to the Selective Service Act of 1917, which brought an unprecedented level of meritocracy to the enlistment and promotion for men entering the Great War. Since merit was such a pervasive force in mobilization, critics will derive a deeper understanding and appreciation of war-related literature by grouping it into at least three major categories of authors: noncombatant males, female participants and nonparticipants, and male combatants. Writers in all of these groups wrote about the shock and anxiety of confronting “new systems of power and publicity” that controlled and categorized men “not on the traditional basis of who they are or where they come from—their families, classes, and ethnicities—but on what they do and what they are deemed able to do” (10).
In the noncombatant section that opens the book, Gandal argues that because Hemingway, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, E. E. Cummings, and William Faulkner did not actually fight in the war, their writings about it reflect a feeling of masculine inadequacy. Thus, in Faulkner’s Soldiers’ Pay, Cadet Lowe, who is stationed stateside for the war’s duration, envies Donald Mahon for the debilitating, yet masculinity-affirming, wounds he received in battle. In Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned, the well-educated and upper-middle-class Anthony Patch never makes it past stateside boot camp, where his love interest in Dot lands him in military jail. In a stand-alone chapter on The Enormous Room, Gandal makes the compelling case that what makes E. E. Cummings accept his imprisonment for having been suspected of sedition is that his jail is run not by the meritocratized American army, but by the French army, which “does not assess each [prisoner] separately or distinguish between them on the basis of individual attributes and behaviors” (72). Gandal then argues that A Farewell to Arms revises the bitterness found in Hemingway’s earlier war fiction, “A Very Short Story” and The Sun Also Rises, which depict characters whose wounds are either symbolically or literally emasculating. In Farewell, Gandal argues, Frederic Henry may lose Catherine tragically in childbirth, but in escaping with her to Switzerland beforehand, he gets the heroic romance denied him (or his creator) as an ambulance driver.
The subsequent section of chapters on female writers begins with a cogent reading of Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” arguing that wartime attitudes toward meritocracy turned women—even those critical of the war effort—into unwitting supporters of a martial masculinity. In the following chapter, Gandal explains how Ellen La Motte’s nursing memoir War’s Waste decries the inadequacies she found among medical personnel who lacked the training and professional experience she had received. Willa Cather’s Pulitzer-winning novel One of Ours, which is discussed alongside La Motte’s memoir, demonstrates the opportunities the military makes available to men from the working classes and obscure rural districts.
Gandal’s most insightful readings are those of the novels by combatant authors. Thomas Boyd’s Through the Wheat shows the dark side of meritocracy as Hicks’s talents and abilities in the ranks eventually bring him to the point of soul-deadening battle fatigue. In Laurence Stallings’s Plumes, Richard Plume feels self-conscious about...