Don't Be Afraid to Study War

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 21st century.

October 13, 2008

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 21st 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 (which is the concern of my new book, The Gun and the Pen: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and the Fiction of Mobilization), 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 the University of California 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. (I only encountered one war novel during an undergraduate English major, but that was in England where I was assigned A Farewell to Arms on a junior year abroad.) In an article in the current PMLA on “The New Modernist Studies,” the authors compile a list of a dozen new and old “currents” in scholarship, but the issue of war is not among them. 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, Stephen Ortiz, 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 can perhaps guess why the subjects of war and the military have fallen out of favor. 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 of English and history in the last 20 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.

Since the Vietnam era -- and this marks a break with previous attitudes -- most American intellectual elites have not wanted to be in the military or to study it: They associate the military with an aggressive foreign policy and with homophobia, and the military’s degree of complicity in these policies is of course a legitimate concern. However, the relationship English professors generally adopt in regards to the military is strictly an oppositional one: They usually want only to criticize the military, not also to understand its undeniably major role in our history and culture. Not incidentally, that role has, historically, been in part a socially progressive one, as it was even in World War I (as the new scholarship has revealed), despite the army’s appalling discrimination against blacks and its mistreatment of women. Indeed, for most of the 20th century, the army was in the vanguard in the development of equal opportunity and meritocracy. In any case, to study war and the military does not, of course, make one pro-war. After all, much American war literature is antiwar or anti-military or both.

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 21st 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 or esoteric style and thus perhaps also to become, over time, somewhat hermetic in its discourse -- and thus literary criticism today sometimes appears to other disciplines as to some degree remote and isolated.

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. My suggestion for a new direction in literary criticism is what might be called “mobilization studies,” by which I mean not merely the study of war literature, but much more broadly the study of the wide-ranging social and literary effects of mobilizing armies and populations for war and demobilizing them. Analogous to the new sub-field of social-military history developed by historians, “mobilization studies” will be situated at the intersection of policy history, social history, and literary analysis. 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.


Keith Gandal is professor of English at Northern Illinois University and the author of The Gun and the Pen: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Fauklner and the Fiction of Mobilization (Oxford University Press).


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