- World War One, American Literature, and the Federal State by Mark Whalan
In light of the centenary of World War I, cultural historians have revived debates involving the meaning of the war and its seismic re-making of modern life. The historians have been matched, in at least one respect, by the culture industries: the Golden Globe for Best Picture was recently awarded to 1917 (2019), a harrowing cinematic glimpse of the cruelty and morbid devastation that for years defined life in the European trenches—and at a scale never before fathomed. The war, as we memorialize it, revamped our most basic understanding of the human condition, rending apart the frameworks that for centuries had guided the forward march of history. In the arts, the well-known story is that of the advent of modernist aesthetics, the wholesale remaking of artistic sensibility itself by those alienated and disillusioned survivors— soldier or not—that constituted a vast generational rejection of the old order and the bloated, hyperbolic nationalism it had inflamed. The war has thus come to represent a sort of epoch shift in our collective recollection, with the divide between before and after as great as any in the [End Page 858] historical record, and with the culture that outlived it bearing, indelibly, the mark of that ordeal with techno-industrial slaughter.
For Americans, however, a people who spent comparatively much less time in the actual fighting, that mythic story does not quite match up. While the experience of the war unleashed a host of new perspectives on the new century’s range of cultural meanings and while we can detect something of a sea change in the artistic interests that emerged thereafter, one recent study, Mark Whalan’s World War One, American Literature, and the Federal State, argues that it was not so much fighting the war abroad that conditioned that cultural break as the encounter with the federal state at home. That is, for Americans, the central cultural change came from encountering the vast new network of institutions and governmental practices engineered and expanded to prosecute the war. As he puts it, he wants to offer, at least in the context of American literary history, “an alternative to scholars who identify the existential shock of attritional, industrial trench warfare as the war’s primary influence on modernism” (3). Instead, he presents the record of numerous writers’ attempts to synthesize, as an aesthetic intervention of sorts, contradictory encounters with “the modern liberal state, bordered on the one hand by America’s extensive culture of voluntarism and obligation, and on the other by the immense bureaucratic and infrastructural resources of its large private corporations” (36). “Whether in the activities of sending mail, receiving health care, driving a car, writing in free verse, or thinking about one’s ‘regional’ experience,” Whalan contends, “authors sought to craft forms capable of mediating the state’s insinuation into the practices of everyday life, and to frame the new systems of power and political and social subjectivity this entailed” (4). Moreover, importantly, rather than rehearse the well-known account of disillusionment generally associated with the postwar generation, Whalan’s story shows how this multivalent negotiation with ascendant state power generated a range of divergent, heterogenous responses, ones demonstrative of “the new forms the state had assumed in the war in manifold and usually equivocal ways” (30). Here, US modernism’s “experimental approach to form often took pleasure and satisfaction as well as umbrage from accommodating the new infrastructures and institutions,” and in ways that—politically speaking—cut left toward liberation and social justice, swerved right in elitist or populist reaction, or, more often than not, lingered in a kind of ambivalent centrism shot through with inconsistency (9).
The book begins with the well-known but necessary history of “Progressive Era” commentary leading into the conflict and, particularly for those in the circles of the New Republic, the “managerial dream” of social revitalization that it ubiquitously sought (16).1 It was that fantasy of national renewal that would...