WWI and Literature
World War I was certainly one of the most productive periods in literature with millions of poets and authors emerging on the scene and each one contributing tremendously to the growth and progress of literature. It is quite strange that while WWI was a deeply disturbing and a largely horrifying experience for most countries, it inspired writers and poets around the globe and this resulted in significant growth of world literature.
In England alone, more than 2000 poets emerged during this period as Harvey (1993) elaborates: "From the very first week, the 1914-18 war inspired enormous quantities of poetry and fiction. The claim that three million war poems were written in Germany in the first six months of hostilities is difficult to substantiate, but Catherine W. Reilly has counted 2,225 English poets of the First World War, of whom 1,808 were civilians. For example, William Watson (then an esteemed poet, today virtually forgotten) quickly decided that his war poems should be 'so much in evidence that people [would] be saying that W.W. is the real national poet in this crisis', and had sixteen different war poems printed in various newspapers in the first six weeks."
But while WWI produced a vast number of poets and writers in every part of the world, these literary figures lives a life of anonymity after the war ended with the exception of few such as Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton. No particular reason can be given for this drastic change of fate but it is believed that the quality of their work may have been responsible for their post-war obscurity.
First World War had a profound impact on literature as it gave birth to some common literary characteristics in fiction and poetry of the time. In the initial stages of the Great War, literature was particularly known for its patriotic themes as writers and poets felt a sudden urge to protect and support their respective countries. But with the passage of time, this feeling wore off as literary figures realized the horrors, absurdity and futility of war and his resulted in the growth of realism literature as cynicism and disillusionment replaced any feeling of patriotism. Poetry and fiction depicted horrific scenes of war and of men dying aimlessly. Some of the best work emerging out of this period revealed the psychological impact of war on writers and poets and WWI turned out to be the most influential literary event of 20th century.
In America, literature followed the same pattern during these years, as did the society and public opinion. Writers who had once urged the government to become part of the Great War became aware of the blunder they had committed and having realized this, turned staunchly against war. Their work in other words, was a fair reflection of society's opinion of war. It is strange that while in previous conflicts, no literary revolution was witnessed in America, the things changed dramatically during the Great War as numerous authors and poets undertook the task of voicing society's views and exposing the utter senselessness that surrounded war.
Granville Hicks (1967) discusses the pattern that American Literature followed during the Great War in his book, 'An Interpretation of American Literature since the Civil War': "Just as the movement of revolt was the most vital political force in the first decade of the twentieth century, so the novel of revolt was the most important literary phenomenon. There were, to be sure, authors enough to satisfy the vanity of the successful, and authors enough to entertain all those who wanted to forget their troubles; but their books have served their purpose and rotted away. The work of the critical observers of American life, however, has remained, at least as an influence on our literature. For nearly fifty years novelists had failed to come to grips with the great economic and political movements, and...
Their attitudes, as diverse as those of their political counterparts, ran the gamut from mild reformism to revolutionary ardor. And as these various attitudes expressed themselves, it became possible to judge the value of each for the author who was trying to understand and re-create the life of his country and his era." (167-168)
Frank Norris' writings serve as an important example of how Great War affected Literature in America. The writings highlight the motif of Great War American Literature i.e. "the intensification of realism and the closer identification of realism with social purpose" (Hicks, 168). Realism thus became the most pronounced feature of Great War literature in America as the likes of Ernest Hemingway produced fiction, which focused on the horrors of war. Even the romantic novels of this period showed marked influence of the war and captured the agony of war and loneliness of beloveds who answered the call the duty. Most women writers in American took up the task of romance and memoir writing as Potter (1997) writes: "ROMANCE and memoir are by far the most common forms used by women writers during the First World War. Most of the authors are unknown to us now. The works themselves are not 'great literature', but they are of literary and historical interest for what they say about the place of women in, and their attitudes towards, the Great War." A typical WWI romance novel would run like this "He answered the Call to Arms at the beginning of the War; gained his commission and lost his leg at Ypres'. She looks at him 'and her heart swells with pride for him. It sinks with shame for herself. And she had thought herself so much wiser, so much better than the infatuated boy at who she laughed." (Raitt and Tate, 1997)
Romance apart, World War I had a deep impact on all genres of fiction produced during the war and immediately after this global conflict. The same holds true for poetry as Paul Fussell maintains that WWI profoundly influenced postwar poetry and cites the example of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, which contains all signs of war-influence with its dull landscape and with theme of death prevailing in the poem. In American literature, even if the story was not directly affected by war events, the background imagery, symbolism and other literary devices showed influence of Great War.
Some of the best representatives of Great War fiction were the novel and stories of Ernst Hemingway. Some critics believe that his work wasn't exactly influenced by the war but if we closely examine the themes and imagery in his novels, we can see a clear connection between the First World War and his work. For example, in The Sun Also Rises, the entire story revolves around the theme of war but this has been wrapped in imagery, allusions and landscape symbolism. Ernest Hemingway was himself greatly affected by the war, which reflected in his writings. His brother Leicester feels that the stories of recurring wounds were not entirely about physical wounds suffered by soldiers but was indicative of psychological problems that people suffered during the war.
Hemingway's letters and articles also reveal significant influence of the war as they consistently dealt with the theme of wounding and death. In one of his letters, he stated: "In the first war, I now see, I was hurt very badly; in the body, mind and spirit; and also morally" (quoted in Cowley, "Wound" 229). This psychological impact of war clearly affected his writings and even his war poems. Some of the early war poems clearly capture the agony of war. For example in "Killed Piave - July 8-1918," we come across a female character shares her emotions for her dead lover and describes him as "A dull, cold, rigid bayonet" (Complete Poems 35). War thus brought a strong element of realism in American literature of the…
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