- Remembering World War I in America by Kimberly J. Lamay Licursi
There will soon be a national memorial in Washington, DC, for those Americans that served in the First World War. It will not be on the National Mall, as are memorials to those who served in the Second World War, Vietnam, or [End Page 212] Korea. Instead it will be in Pershing Park near the White House, well off of the usual haunts of the millions of tourists who visit the nation's capital every year. Somehow it seems appropriate that even when the First World War gets its memorial, it still gets shunted to one side. Kimberly Lamay Licursi's fine new work, Remembering World War I in America, seeks to explain the roots of how the Great War was largely forgotten in the United States, overshadowed by World War II. Licursi, an adjunct instructor of history at Siena College in New York, covers the era from 1918 until America's entry into the next war in late 1941 to explain how public memory of the first war never really coalesced into something that would endure.
There have been other fine works on memory and the First World War, including Dan Todman's The Great War: Myth and Memory (2007) and On the Battlefield of Memory by Steven Trout (2012). Indeed, examining the memory of the war seems to be almost as popular a discussion topic for historians recently as exploring how the war began. Todman's study covers the ninety years after the war and argues that memories of how the war was conducted have been distorted. Trout examines how writers remembered the conflict, but also spends a great deal of time on the official commemorations and monuments. Licursi, in contrast, focuses on measuring memory by studying what forms of popular culture were successful, using public popularity as a means to gauge what the American people wanted to remember and how they wanted to remember it. She examines state histories, war memoirs by participants, war novels, pulp magazines, and war movies.
Licursi begins by discussing how attempts to write official state histories were stymied as the public and even the veterans themselves showed little interest in cooperating. The author then examines how the public wanted to remember the war through the era's best-selling books, pulp magazine fiction, and movies. There are insufficient reliable best seller lists from the era, so Licursi looks at what book guides published by the American Library Association recommended their member institutions purchase. Based at least in part on sales, the guides were used by libraries to spend their (always limited) budgets on books their community would want to read. Librarians would have had little interest in the pulp magazines, but they were popular and had their own slant on the war. Although novels and memoirs used a variety of perspectives in understanding the war as heroic or as a mistake, pulp stories often made it sound exciting. None of these forms created a particular popular interpretation, however. The final form the author studies, movies, did not fill this gap in public understanding either. For Hollywood, the war was often a backdrop to the main story.
The problem with maintaining a public memory about the First World War, according to Licursi, is that popular culture was never able to settle on a "collected memory" of the war equivalent to the Second World War being viewed as "the good war" (192). What remained was confusion. Was the first war just and necessary? Was it a mistake? Even the location of war stories remained unfixed, with war movies and stories often set somewhere vaguely in France. As a result, the war became [End Page 213] "a muddle of foreign armies, indistinct locations, and uncertain lessons" in most accounts (190).
Licursi's work struck multiple chords for me as I serve on a local county war centennial commemoration group. Our organization faces many challenges in designing events, including the...