New Directions in Literary Criticism:
Studying War and the Military
Keith Gandal is Professor of English at Northern Illinois University. He is the author of The Virtues of the Vicious: Jacob Riis, Stephen Crane and the Spectacle of the Slum and Class Representation in Modern Fiction and Film. He is also the author of a novel, Cleveland Anonymous. His most recent book The Gun and the Pen: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and the Fiction of Mobilization he argues that Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner were motivated, in their famous postwar novels, not by their experiences of the horrors of war but rather by their failure to have those experiences. In the original post below Gandal looks at the lack of reflection on war in America.
The PMLA, the publication of the Modern Language Association, the major association of professors of English, has called for papers on new directions in literary criticism for the twenty-first century. In a World War II era poem, “Of Modern Poetry”, Wallace Stevens declared that among other things, modern poetry “has to think about war.” In a similar fashion, as the Iraq War grinds on now into its sixth year, and it has become painfully obvious that, despite some wishful thinking in the wake of Vietnam, protracted American ground wars are hardly a thing of the past, I would suggest that contemporary literary criticism, a great deal more of it anyway, needs “to think about war” and the military. More than two decades have gone by during which time American literary and “cultural studies” critics have had relatively little to say about these subjects.
About World War I and American literature, for example, there have been few major studies since the early 1980s: Stanley Cooperman came out with World War I and the American Novel in 1967; David Kennedy issued Over Here: The First World War and American Society in 1980, and Jeffrey Walsh published American War Literature 1914 to Vietnam in 1982. This subject has since gone out of fashion in English departments. Back in the mid-1980s, I fulfilled the breadth requirements for a Ph.D. in English at Berkeley, and I never had a single course that addressed literature of war or the military: I was never asked to read, in American literature classes or for my American literature field exams, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers, Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Heller’s Catch-22, or Herr’s Dispatches, nor was I asked to read the criticism cited above. At its forthcoming conference this fall, the Modernist Studies Association could not find room for a panel on World War I and literature. Meanwhile, I was the sole literary scholar in attendance at this year’s 75th annual Society for Military History conference. Even in the field of history, where groundbreaking new work has recently been done on the social-military history of World War I, by the likes of Nancy Gentile Ford, Jennifer Keene, and Nancy Bristow, these social-military historians find themselves to some degree marginalized within their larger discipline because of their “unsavory” choice of subjects.
We know why the subjects of war and the military have fallen out of favor, and why most professors in English, as well as history, prefer to oppose war and criticize the military rather than to study them. The Vietnam War changed the meaning of war and of the military in this country, at least on the left, and the cohort of professors that for the most part has dominated and set trends in these fields in the last twenty years is of the generation that came of age during the Vietnam era; most of these professors were students when the huge protest against the war took place, and most of them were against the war. The couple decades of relative silence about the American experience in World War I by English professors is now beginning to be broken: most notably with Richard Slotkin’s 2005 Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality. But more needs to be done and more will be. Studies are forthcoming on World War I and American literature from a number of younger English professors, who, like the small cohort in social-military history who have done groundbreaking work, did not personally experience the ordeal of the Vietnam era.
Perhaps the other major change that we might ask of literary criticism for the twenty-first century is that it have more interchange with other fields, such as history: that it become more truly interdisciplinary. At last year’s MLA conference, in its Presidential Forum on “Humanities at Work in the World,” Peter Brooks nostalgically conjured up the moment of high promise back in the 1980s when literary theory was providing tools of analysis for other fields and for real-world inquiry, for example for legal scholars, in a talk called “The Humanities as an Export Commodity.” If the interdisciplinary potential of that era faded, it is partly because English professors’ cultural studies went on to develop a highly specialized, hermetic or esoteric style and perhaps also to become somewhat too focused on a few favored subjects, notably race, gender, and sexuality. If English wants again to be in the position Brooks remembered of the 1980s of exporting its analytic and having an influence even in the larger world outside of academia, then it needs to attempt to develop a more accessible style of expression as well as to import from other disciplines. It was heartening that this year’s Hemingway Society conference invited a social-military historian to give a keynote address. In terms of literary criticism’s engagement both with the issue of war and with other disciplines, let’s hope it is a sign of things to come.