- WORLD WAR I IN AMERICAN FICTION: An Anthology of Short Stories ed. by Scott D. Emmert and Steven Trout
Western literature indisputably was altered by the end of the First World War, shifting from the innocence of an earlier era. The Great War and the events that unfolded on the Western front permeated every element of society and inspired writers to define its significance. “‘I got some great stories to write when I get back to God’s country,’” claims the protagonist of Richard Harding Davis’s “The Man Who Had Everything,” a story included in a new anthology, edited by Scott D. Emmert and Steven Trout, the first of its category to present American literature reflecting the profound impact of the war. And thousands of stories were written, varying between depictions of the front lines and the war efforts in the homeland. Even through divergent viewpoints of the authors, the collected stories distill a concise message: war taints all aspects of human existence, regardless of gender, age, race or social status.
As the editors indicate, the anthology is a sampling of thousands of stories written during and following the war; the collection aims at “juxtaposing works of high modernism with those cast in earlier literary idioms” (3). Chronologically ordered, the stories progress—sometimes cohesively—from the immediacy of the war to the reflection, often symbolically, on the permanent transformations that ensued. The resulting compilation holds a surprisingly diverse focus. Indirectly, or with purpose, for example, various narratives examine the impact of the war on the earth as a living entity. Texts such as Dorothy Canfield’s “The Permissioniare” and Kay Boyle’s “Count Lothar’s Heart,” lend themselves well to what might be called, in contemporary terms, an ecocritical interpretation of war and nature. Others, in particular, James Warner Bellah’s “The Great Tradition” and William March’s “To the Rear,” examine human relationships when exposed to the pressures of the battlefield, with the latter highlighting the loneliness of each soldier. Racial tensions direct several of the narratives, reminding us that the blight of American racism unfailingly persisted even under the banner of war-driven compatriotism. The diverse themes portray the complexity of war and, in turn, the anthology provides readers with an expansive literary assessment of the period’s opinions and prose.
Read sequentially, however, the impact of the anthology depreciates. In the introduction, the editors observe that the American “collective memory of the Great War fractured, breaking into distinct and competing versions of the past, each upheld by its own committed constituency” (11). Correspondingly, when taken collectively, we can grasp how several of the authors approach their chosen war themes from antithetical interpretations, delineating their views through varying prose styles and sometimes only marginally achieving a marked outcome. This discontinuity between [End Page 179] stories arises through the wide-ranging talent of the authors and the “competing cultural efforts” (3) engaged in recording the war. Certain selections even dampen the overall effectiveness of this anthology. The editors knowingly admit that certain stories are “fairly typical—and fairly pedestrian—example[s] of popular magazine fiction” (18); and, while each composition has merit in its own right, the final product is left hindered by certain weaker stories with ambiguous motifs.
Nevertheless, as an indispensable addition to the American representation of the Great War, World War I in American Fiction succeeds in its objective: presenting the assorted and expansive richness of the writing born out of the period. To encourage further literary discoveries, for each author included, the editors give a brief historical overview and provide additional titles of publications by the author. Ideally, the anthology is suited for the university classroom, as the diversity of the texts should provoke students to engage in discussion while encouraging varying critical approaches to the literature. Appearing just before the centennial of the Great War, university literature courses and interested readers will benefit from the selections within this timely anthology.