- The Peculiar Sanity of War: Hysteria in the Literature of World War I
Traditional studies of Great War literature, most notably Paul Fussell's seminal work The Great War and Modern Memory and Bernard Bergonzi's Heroes' Twilight, tend to view the war as a kind of rupture from the Edwardian period, the start of war in 1914 completely disrupting the lives of all citizens in the countries involved. While many authors of the period, such as Siegfried Sassoon, viewed their lives as divided into clearly marked prewar and postwar periods, this rupture has been largely overstated. In The Peculiar Sanity of War, Celia Malone Kingsbury examines the historical fluidity between the Edwardian period and the Great War, finding several striking connections, including those between the "social warfare" of British and American public morality campaigns and both the wartime Defense of the Realm Act in England and the Sedition Act in the United States. All of these negotiated power through gossip and rumor, and all had the goal of "ensur[ing] uniformity of thought and action and pillory[ing] those who did not comply." Kingsbury analyzes how gossip and the attendant fear of scandal impacted prewar morality crusades, atrocity stories and propaganda used to raise public support for the war effort, and shell shock suffered by civilians and combatants alike.
The term "peculiar sanity" comes from Joseph Conrad's 1905 essay on the Russo-Japanese War, "Autocracy and War." Conrad writes, "Great numbers of soldiers and regimental officers go mad as if by way of protest against the peculiar sanity of a state of war." Kingsbury describes the term as "almost an oxymoron," but it proves useful in describing the popular abandonment of reason in favor of patriotic [End Page 511] fervor and unquestioning nationalism during wartime. Relying on Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization,Kingsbury argues that if definitions of sanity and madness are subjective, then it is difficult to describe such pervasive conditions in such circumstances as "irrational" or "insane," though such a description might be apt in different historical moments. Therefore, peculiar sanity is a suspension of seemingly contradictory forces and ideas. Kingsbury writes, "Conrad's term 'peculiar sanity' accurately describes . . . the sudden vilification of 'the enemy,' the suspicion that friends and neighbors are enemy sympathizers, and the fervent desire of civilians to kill or maim the villains." In this context, "shell shock becomes a logical response to horror." Conrad's term also allows Kingsbury to analyze connections between forces or groups that have been often viewed as separate, oppositional, or antagonistic in the study of Great War literature: male and female roles and experiences, civilians and combatants, militarism and pacifism.
In the study's five chapters, Kingsbury discusses a mixture of American and British authors—Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, H. G. Wells, Rebecca West, H. D., and Rudyard Kipling—alongside propaganda posters, morality campaign publications, atrocity stories, medical accounts of shell-shock treatment, and government reports. This study functions well as a companion text to Trudi Tate's 1998 study Modernism, History, and the First World War, as both books address many of the same works and themes, including civilian war neurosis or shell shock in H. D. and Kipling, the use of atrocity stories to garner public support for the war, and the role of gossip and rumor in Parade's End.
In Kingsbury's study, Ford and Conrad receive the most attention, appearing in three chapters each, and it is in her examination of these authors' prewar and wartime writing and experience that her argument is most successful. For example, in her analysis of the role social conventions and the fear of gossip play in the peculiar sanity exhibited by the characters in Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, Kingsbury proves adept at close reading. Ford is a central figure in her argument. Kingsbury argues that his prewar writing, like The Good Soldier, challenges the rigidity of Edwardian social conventions. However, at the outset of the war, he wrote...