- The War That Used up Words: American Writers and the First World War by Hazel Hutchison
In the manuscript of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, probably the most widely read American novel about World War I, there is an unnumbered page that was not included in the published version. It is a typed quotation from an interview Henry James gave to the New York Times in 1915, in which he lamented that the war had “used up words; they have weakened, they have deteriorated like motor car tires” (16). The ruminations of Frederick Henry, the novel’s protagonist, on how the war has made the abstract nouns of political or martial idealism obscene has often been taken as the quintessential statement of how lost generation political disillusion distilled into literary style. Yet James’s literal place in Hemingway’s manuscript suggests that accounts of how literary experimentalism engaged what James elsewhere called the “great Niagara” of World War I need to take fuller notice of the writing produced while the war was raging, and focus less on the formal pyrotechnics of 1920s high modernism as the last word.
The fruits of exploring that proposition are just one of the several accomplishments of Hazel Hutchison’s engrossing, erudite, and elegant book. American writers [End Page E-19] have long been shunted to the margins of literary histories of WWI; “belated” and brief U.S. participation in the war has often delegitimized their work relative to the more “authentic” productions of British, French, or German combatant-writers like Owen, Sassoon, Barbusse, or Remarque. Yet this distance, Hutchison argues, afforded American authors space to take risks of experimentation in ways other nationals could not. Accordingly, she looks at the literary innovations emerging from seven American writers caught up in the war—Henry James, Edith Wharton, Grace Fallow Norton, Ellen LaMotte, Mary Borden, John Dos Passos, and E. E. Cummings. These figures—elder statesmen and sophomores, political conservatives and firebrand radicals, canonical and relatively unknown—are chosen for the complexity and the novelty of how their writing responded to the war’s unprecedented ethical and aesthetic challenges. Moreover, all these figures were volunteers, writers who put their reputations, their bodies, or both on the line in the war and whose motives were intriguingly mixed—with feelings of civilizational duty, curiosity, adventure-seeking, and noblesse oblige in the blend. Methodologically, Hutchison balances biography with close reading, showing how the complex ethical negotiations her writers piloted through the intensities of their war work are elaborated and refigured through the literature they produced. Steeped in a deeply informed sense of social history and original archival research, this approach positions the primary literature as inseparable from lived experience—a welcome choice given how often scholars take the short-cut of imagining the war’s terrible events percolated through the cultural imaginary like some kind of agentless miasma.
This approach works best for the writers who had the fullest and most complex public lives at the outbreak of the war, and so the sections on James and Wharton are consistently among the book’s most rewarding. James emerges as a man shocked by the civilizational affront of the conflict and jolted by its fierce reminder of his painful navigation through the American Civil War of fifty years prior—a war that had never really left his consciousness (as Hutchison reminds us, even in 1914 he customarily wore Civil War cannon cufflinks and a Civil War soldier’s belt). But he was also exhilarated by the mood of public urgency and his sense of agency within it: he hosted refugees at Lamb House, visited wounded soldiers, and became a regular visitor to Downing Street. Such ambivalence, Hutchison recounts, was true of many, especially in the war’s early stages—when the widely held understanding of war as a regrettable but glamorous and often effective tool for resolving international disputes was only gradually morphing into a horrified understanding of what modern, “total war” would mean. Yet his attempts to transform from a...