- The Hells of War
By Keith Gandal. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018, 274 pp.
By Thomas Boyd. Edited and with an introduction by Steven Trout. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2018, 180 pp.
In “Unadorned” (7–21), the first of eleven stories in American combat veteran Thomas Boyd’s recently republished 1925 collection Points of Honor, Lieutenant Wilfred Bird lies in a hospital bed, the victim of a flesh wound from an assault on the Western Front. Having overheard one of his men ridicule him, Bird feels a pang of cowardice course through his injured body: “If he had not looked down at the blood might he have been able to go on, leading his men, his men who had spoken of him as a coward? That he could not answer, with a final and sweeping No, hurt him and caused him to wonder whether there was not some truth in what his men had said about him.” Yet Bird shows himself to be anything but a coward. He is a model officer and commander, but the memory of fellow soldier John Wainwright referring to him as a “sissy” and a “lah-de-dah” arouses in him a sense of combative validation: “He was not a coward, he fiercely told himself, and he would prove it to them!” (18). The story’s tragically ironic conclusion underscores what Thomas Boyd calls in his Introduction “a mass of more human happenings,” or rather, “tales of human deeds and emotions which were acted and felt either in the heart of war or beneath its long and lasting shadow” (5–6). The long shadow of the Great War provides the canvas for each of the stories that makes up Points of Honor, a masterful book in need of a resurrection. Heroic yet bitter, violent yet redemptive, the stories showcase the work of a major talent hampered by a minor career, a valuable writer remembered if at all for his and his then-wife Woodward or “Peggy’s” brief friendship with the Fitzgeralds in St. Paul in 1921–22, which culminated with both Boyds becoming Scribner’s authors (Woodward Boyd’s The Love Legend appeared in 1922, one year before her husband’s debut novel, the war chronicle Through the Wheat). Boyd’s voice is a crucial addition to the many writers who [End Page 265] felt compelled to chronicle their plunge into “the great experience” that was the Great War (14).
Coincidentally, Keith Gandal seeks to examine many of these writers—many of them forgotten—in his latest book, War Isn’t the Only Hell: A New Reading of American World War I Literature. In his introduction he quotes the blunt reaction of Boyd to his Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins on why the firm initially declined Through the Wheat for lacking a market: “I think that the belief that people are sick of war books is false” (qtd. in Bruce 46). Scribner’s reversed its decision, and while Through the Wheat sold a modest 5,000 copies in just under three months, its positive notices demonstrated that war fiction remained a topic of interest among literary commentators. Many general readers of the literature of the 1920s and 1930s today remain unfamiliar with Boyd, who left Defiance, Ohio, while still in his teens to see combat in France, where he was gassed, and who went on to enjoy a brief literary career thanks largely to Fitzgerald before dying a decade later from a stroke at a premature 36 years old.
As Gandal points out, most of our canonical American Great War literature comes from noncombatant writers like Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and William Faulkner rather than from actual battlefield veterans like Boyd. This proves to be the thrust of Gandal’s reassessment of American Great War writing. He argues that Lost Generation literature reveals “an otherwise missing chapter of American history, namely as telling a version of the noncombatant story in World War I (or any modern American...