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Soldiers Once and Still

Ernest Hemingway, James Salter, and Tim O'Brien

Alex Vernon

Publication Year: 2004

As the world enters a new century, as it embarks on new wars and sees new developments in the waging of war, reconsiderations of the last century’s legacy of warfare are necessary to our understanding of the current world order. In Soldiers Once and Still, Alex Vernon looks back through the twentieth century in order to confront issues of self and community in veterans’ literature, exploring how war and the military have shaped the identities of Ernest Hemingway, James Salter, and Tim O’Brien, three of the twentieth century’s most respected authors. Vernon specifically explores the various ways war and the military, through both cultural and personal experience, have affected social and gender identities and dynamics in each author’s work.

Hemingway, Salter, and O’Brien form the core of Soldiers Once and Still because each represents a different warring generation of twentieth-century America: World War I with Hemingway, World War II and Korea with Salter, and Vietnam with O’Brien. Each author also represents a different literary voice of the twentieth century, from modern to mid-century to postmodern, and each presents a different battlefield experience: Hemingway as noncombatant, Salter as air force fighter pilot, and O’Brien as army grunt.

War’s pervasive influence on the individual means that, for veterans-turned-writers like Hemingway, Salter, and O’Brien, the war experience infiltrates their entire body of writing—their works can be seen not only as war literature but also as veterans’ literature. As such, their entire postwar oeuvre, regardless of whether an individual work explicitly addresses the war or the military, is open to Vernon’s exploration of war, society, gender, and literary history.

Vernon’s own experiences as a soldier, a veteran, a writer, and a critic inform this enlightening critique of American literature, offering students and scholars of American literature and war studies an invaluable tool for understanding war’s effects on the veteran writer and his society.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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p. vii

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pp. ix-xi

While in the United States the generation that lived through the war in Vietnam currently runs the country, occupying leadership posts in government, industry, religion, and academe, the following generations have had practically no direct experience of their nation at war. The brief fights in Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), and the Persian Gulf (1990–91) hardly registered on the collective psyche,...

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pp. 1-25

Don DeLillo’s lengthy, intricately crafted 1997 novel Underworld opens in 1951 with J. Edgar Hoover’s learning that the Soviet Union has successfully detonated its second atomic bomb, and it ends in the mid 1990s with a nun’s visiting the H-bomb Internet home page where she views pictures of bombs and videos of bomb explosions. The novel thus deliberately spans the Cold War era and, in...

Part 1: Reading American War Literature, Reading Ernest Hemingway

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1. Reading Twentieth-Century American War Literature

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pp. 29-62

War and military service bear a difficult and complex relationship with the literature produced in response to them and to a person’s participation in them. Attempting to explicate such texts leads into what Malcolm Cowley once called “a curious borderland between literary history and military tactics” (162), and scholarly efforts to assess this body of work reflect...

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2. War, Gender, and Ernest Hemingway

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pp. 63-85

Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Big Two-Hearted River” remains perhaps the most famous piece of fiction about war with no mention of the war in it. The absence of war is exactly the point of the story, as Nick Adams, a recently returned veteran of the Great War, attempts to forget the war, to recover his prewar adolescent self by engaging in his favorite prewar adolescent...

Part 2: Reading James Salter

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3. James Salter Biographic and Cultural Context

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pp. 89-108

Unlike Ernest Hemingway’s or Tim O’Brien’s works, James Salter’s best novels — A Sport and A Pastime (1967) and Light Years (1975) — do not directly concern war or the military. Like Hemingway and O’Brien, however, Salter can never completely escape the formative effect of those experiences on his person and consequently on his writing. “You can only write what you are,”...

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4. The Hemingway Influence and the Very Modern A Sport and a Pastime

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pp. 109-128

Like every other American veteran turned writer — very nearly like every other American writer — James Salter bears a complicated relationship with Ernest Hemingway. So many critics have noted the similarities of style and theme and the “obvious” influence; so many times has Salter discussed Hemingway disparagingly.¹ In explaining the difference between the critics’ and...

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5. From Flying to Writing

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pp. 129-152

James Salter’s decision to change his name for his writing career can be interpreted as a first significant step toward inserting personal and artistic distance between his old life and his new one, a first step in his abdication of his old self. Inasmuch as it represents a divorce from the past (his military self as well as his familial identity), indeed a killing of the old self and thereby...

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6. Death, Desire, and the Homosocial

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pp. 153-171

Burning the Days (1997) is for some readers Salter’s best work, and it is the only entirely original book-length work he has published since 1979. Hemingway once wrote in a letter that he “by jeesus will write my own memoirs sometime when I can’t write anything else” (Selected 388). There is a whiff of death in the line, even in its casual invocation of Jesus. When I can’t write anything else, he...

Part 3: Reading Tim O’Brien

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7. O’Brien’s Literary Project

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pp. 175-200

July 16, 1969. James Salter sits in a New York hotel room, watching on television three astronauts, one of them Buzz Aldrin, a former air force squadron mate, proceed to the Apollo 11, go through the countdown, and launch, on their way to the moon, the first men in history. I was watching three white-clad men who were preparing for my annihilation. . . . They arrive at the top, like the top of a scaffold.

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8. Submission and Resistance to the Self as Soldier: Tim O’Brien’s War Memoir

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pp. 201-219

I suspect it is safe to say that most readers come to Tim O’Brien’s first book, his 1973 Vietnam memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, only after having read one of his two major fictional treatments of the war, Going After Cacciato (1978) or The Things They Carried (1990). The scholarship certainly bears out this supposition. Online search results of the MLA...

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9. Salvation, Storytelling, and Pilgrimage in The Things They Carried

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pp. 220-241

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried participates in a tradition of literary revision unique to twentieth-century American war literature, joining E. E. Cummings’s World War I novel The Enormous Room (1922) and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s World War II novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) in their evocation of John Bunyan’s seventeenth-century spiritual tract The Pilgrim’s Progress as a...

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10. O’Brien’s War, O’Brien’s Women

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pp. 242-258

Since the dark years that peaked in 1994, O’Brien’s effort to reinvent his textual relationship with the Vietnam War has been accompanied by an effort to reinvent his textual relationship with women. In Tomcat in Love, targets for O’Brien’s parody include “conventional pieties of American maledom” by means of “over-the-top” sex scenes and postfeminist women characters who...

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pp. 259-261

While working on an early draft of this study a couple of years ago, I was approached by an undergraduate student after class. Aware of my experience in the Persian Gulf War and also of my writing, he said he wanted to come by my office to talk about the effects war has on veterans who then become writers. I smiled, imagining myself having a lot to say, and told him he...


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pp. 263-296

Works Cited

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pp. 297-308


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pp. 309-314

E-ISBN-13: 9781587294877
E-ISBN-10: 1587294877
Print-ISBN-13: 9780877458869
Print-ISBN-10: 0877458863

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2004

Edition: paper

OCLC Number: 66385981
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Soldiers Once and Still

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • War and literature -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • O'Brien, Tim, -- 1946- -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Soldiers' writings, American -- History and criticism.
  • Soldiers -- United States -- Intellectual life.
  • Veterans -- United States -- Intellectual life.
  • Salter, James -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • War stories, American -- History and criticism.
  • Hemingway, Ernest, -- 1899-1961 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Veterans' writings, American -- History and criticism.
  • War in literature.
  • American literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
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