- The New Death: American Modernism and World War I by Pearl James
Taking its cue and title from Winifred Margaretta Kirkland’s long forgotten religious treatise, The New Death (1918), Pearl James’s study seeks to situate the traumatic experience of the Great War at the center of modernist literary production in the United States. Even though the United States did not officially enter World War I until 1917, popular texts such as Kirkland’s The New Death and Alexander McClintock’s Best O’ Luck (1917) demonstrate that the American reading public was transfixed by the horrors of mechanized warfare since the outbreak of hostilities in Europe. According to James, popular accounts of dismembered bodies and bloody corpses entangled in barbed wires brought “a vision of New Death before Americans” that indelibly shaped the postwar writings of modernist literati (p. 4).
Based on close readings of four canonical postwar novels—Willa [End Page 526] Cather’s Pulitzer-Prize winning One of Ours (1922), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929), and William Faulkner’s Sartoris (1929)—Pearl contends that the “omissions, silences, and interruptions” that mark these modernist narratives reveal “a cultural preoccupation” with “male death” that has hitherto gone largely unnoticed by literary critics (p. 165, p. 12). The conspicuous absence of detailed depictions of mass slaughter and trench warfare in these novels, Pearl maintains, speak to ways in which modernist writers of the 1920s rendered the traumatic experience of “sheer physical horror” in “allusive, cryptic, or symbolic styles” that “alternately sanitize death and make it apparent” (p. 1, p. 5, p. 17). Before the backdrop of an unprecedented “new death,” which confronted the public with jarring images of grotesquely disfigured male bodies, American modernist authors developed an aesthetic that sublimated the experiences of loss and mutilation and rendered them emblematic of a modern age haunted by gender conflicts and postwar violence.
To students of American literature, Pearl’s perceptive and nuanced rereading of One of Ours, The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, and Sartoris will no doubt be of great interest, not least because her study does a superb job of placing the representational techniques and thematic concerns of these novels within the context of contemporaneous debates about shifting gender roles, the threat of industrial mechanization, and the treatment of war veterans. Considerably less satisfying is Pearl’s overly ambitious concluding chapter, which sketches out the argument that the crime fictions and gangster films that proliferated throughout the 1920s were animated less by Prohibition–era violence than by suppressed memories of mass killings on the western front. This is a tantalizing suggestion that deserves a much more sustained discussion and, perhaps, an entire study of its own.
Pearl’s literary-critical claim that the postwar fictional works by Cather, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner sanitized and dislocated the World War I experience is not nearly as novel as she would have her readers believe and her brief discussions of Kirkland and McClintock are hardly sufficient to argue that popular American [End Page 527] wartime discourses gave rise to “a vision of New Death” (p. 4). Without a carefully documented account of its cultural circulation, Kirkland’s notion of the New Death is made to carry too much weight and at best serves an evocative organizing concept for Pearl’s selective rehearsal of critical debates about the impact of World War I on American literary modernism. That said, the four chapters that comprise the heart of Pearl’s commendably readable study afford many original insights into the postwar politics of modernist novelists and are bound to enlarge our understanding of the sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle ways in which the cultural memory of war structures literary expressions.
KARSTEN H. PIEP teaches literature and cultural history at Union Institute & University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of Embattled Home Fronts: Domestic Politics and the American Novel of World War I (2009...