There is a marvelous scene in Dick Fontaine’s underseen 1968 roustabout documentary Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up? where we are in a bar watching people watch Norman Mailer on Merv Griffin’s show. He’s ostensibly being interviewed about his latest novel, Why Are We in Vietnam?. But just as that book is only obliquely about Vietnam, Mailer is only obliquely being interviewed. Griffin lets the pugilistic author hurl denunciatory roundhouses about the war at the camera, the instinctive performer going for where the real audience is. In the bar, the patrons take it all in passively, much as we all do while watching TV unless the Cubs are winning the World Series or the president is announcing that bombing has begun. Eventually there is grousing at Mailer’s fury, though, and the set duly disconnected. America’s great public intellectual is silenced.
The movie is a companion piece of sorts to The Armies of the Night, Mailer’s nonfiction novel—a genre he had disparaged when Truman Capote, one of his rivals in the world of literary TV jousters and quipsters, had tried it out—about attending and being arrested at the 1967 March on the Pentagon. Like Fontaine’s quizzical and half-jesting film essay on celebrity and authenticity, Mailer’s book is not so much a document of the thing itself but a cockeyed jape about his vainglorious participation. Yoked as it is to a brooding and half-baked analysis of American sin and militarism, The Armies of the Night is fitfully incandescent. But it rewards for being reported on the ground without resorting to canned narratives. All is filtered through Mailer’s sensibility, trained by years of fiery raging against the creeping totalitarianism of American life. It’s best read with Miami and the Siege of Chicago, the other great grounding component of the new boxed set of Mailer-ana from Library of America: Norman Mailer: The Sixties.
At nearly 1,400 pages packed into two volumes, it’s all too much at once, like a supercut of Mailer’s TV appearances, those bright dark eyes and halo hair, his machine-gun sentences snapped out one after the other until the white flag is waved. The delineation by decade isn’t particularly helpful, because it necessitates including a couple of Mailer’s noisier but lesser novels.
Although he had spent much of his writing life after the war trying to be recognized as a novelist, nothing after his still-notable debut, The Naked and the Dead, attracted the kind of heat he desired. 1965’s An American Dream was noisy at the time but embarrassing now. It’s a feverish mess related by Stephen Rojack, a war hero turned philosophy professor and politician who just can’t keep himself out of trouble—a character who, in other words, reads purposefully like an exaggeration of all Mailer’s traits (lest we forget that time he ran for mayor with Jimmy Breslin). After murdering his wife, Rojack wastes no time bedding her maid and then falling into bed with a nightclub singer, not to mention nearly killing the singer’s lover and making friends with the cop who’s investigating him. There is some snap to Mailer’s voice here and there (“the air had the virile blank intensity of a teller’s cage”). But its ludicrous potboiler elements are laughable, and the turgid antihero narrative, reflecting his unfortunate tendency for romanticizing violent outsiders, leaves a sour aftertaste.
As for the collection’s other novel, 1967’s Why Are We in Vietnam?, this slogging faux-Burroughs picaresque mockery of American male braggadocio tries to fashion itself as some kind of commentary on the war and the species, but chases its own tail in exhausting fashion. One can see why everybody at the time wanted to know why the whole book, which only directly references the war at the very end, seemed like a tiresome setup for an unfunny joke, like Portnoy’s Complaint without the wit.
It was Mailer’s nonfiction—an earlier batch of which had been collected in 1959’s Advertisements for Myself—staggering under more ideas than they could conceivably carry and redolent with doom, which ultimately did for him and his reputation what his novels’ scandalous content never had.
By the time The Armies of the Night opens, Mailer is in the full bloom of naked self-regard of his brilliance and contradictions. He views himself as a character—“the novelist,” or simply “Mailer.” Bumbling about a pre-march party in D.C., he gets heroically tanked and makes catty little remarks about fellow peace-marching literati like Dwight Macdonald and Robert Lowell. Then comes a shambling speech at the Ambassador, which he relates in the book as a kind of verbal performance art, but which looks in Fontaine’s movie as garbled and occasionally racist nonsense.
“He laughed when he read the red bordered story in Time about his scatological solo at the Ambassador Theater—he laughed because he knew it had stimulated his cause.” What cause was that, exactly? He doesn’t discuss the war itself much at all, in fact. When Mailer can wrest the book away from contemplation of “Mailer,” Armies is a tactical work about how the protestors formed, scattered, and regrouped in their move on the Pentagon, a building whose sheer size made any confrontation or encirclement impossible. (There’s an irony here, in that Mailer had a few years earlier complained about James Jones’s The Thin Red Line, which had been compared to his own World War II Pacific Theater combat novel, The Naked and the Dead, saying that “it is too technical. One needs ten topographical maps to trace the action.”)
In Mailer’s highly personal history, there isn’t any grand forward momentum. Rather, it’s a chaotic melee in which batches of fuzzy-headed youths and intellectuals, and the odd tight phalanx of true activists, swarm fitfully toward a monstrous and unassailable target with no idea of what victory would constitute. As such, Mailer analyzes the whole “ambiguous event” with enough distance to keep from romanticizing it. A note of sorrow pervades the account when he can wrest his eyes from himself, worrying over a “terror” that “nihilism might be the only answer to totalitarianism.” He looks over it all like a tactician studying a dusty book of battle: “they assembled too soon, and they attacked too soon.”
Strategies are also promulgated throughout Miami and the Siege of Chicago. A tighter and angrier piece of work than Armies, it finds Mailer in leaner form. Leaving behind some of those toys that cluttered up the earlier book, he keeps to the subject while not abandoning his orotund voice. It’s an account of a seemingly doomed nation told in two meetings: the 1968 Republican convention in Miami in early August and the Democratic convention that followed in Chicago later that month. Mailer’s voice is fulsome but not playful, as though he has come to the end of things after the killing of Bobby Kennedy two months before: “Like pieces of flesh fragmented from the explosion of a grenade, echoes of the horror of Kennedy’s assassination were everywhere.”
The “Nixon in Miami” segment is a classic slice of New Journalism. Spiky with overblown metaphors and heavy with luxuriantly dark language (“the vegetal memories of that excised jungle haunted Miami Beach in a steam-pot of miasmas”), it delivers cynicism by the truckload as Mailer stumps around the plasticine pirate place, sweating in his reporter suit as he delivers the nit and the grit of delegate counting. The competition between a desperately mugging Richard Nixon and serene but outmaneuvered Nelson Rockefeller is handled as mostly a foregone conclusion whose result at this phenomenally dull Potemkin event is ultimately beside the point: “unless one knows him well…it is next to useless to interview a politician.”
At one point, Mailer aims a full racist sneer at the black musicians playing for the white crowd, calling them “a veritable Ganges of Uncle Toms.” This racism is of a piece with many other moments throughout this collection. Witness his observations in Armies of the black people at the march who he thought held themselves apart, referring once to a “Black contingent [drifting] off on an Oriental scramble of secret signals.” Or, after he was arrested, seeing the “sly pale octaroon” with “hints of some sly jungle animal who would scavenge at the edge of camp.”
Like in Armies, with its uncertainty over tactics and goals, at the start of “The Siege of Chicago,” Mailer arrives in town as no friend of Daley’s pro-war hippie-thumping fascists. But it takes time for him to line up behind the protestors. Delving somewhat back into his old self-regarding ways, Mailer puffs himself up as a supposedly unique breed of “Left Conservative” as though there weren’t also millions of Americans who hated the war and the reactionary attitudes of its supporters but still wanted nothing to do with the slovenly utopian narcissism of the Yippies and their compatriots. But the war veteran who first wonders if “these odd unkempt children” were the kind of allies with whom “one wished to enter battle” is turned around once he witnesses the “nightmare” of the police riot on Michigan Avenue and sees the tenacity of the bloodied protestors who faced down assault after assault: “Some were turning from college students to revolutionaries.”
Mailer presents himself as the grounded intellectual, one who might find common cause with the agitators but still holds himself to the side. Some of this is the querulous discontent of the middle-aged man (born in 1923, he was well into his 40s by the time he marched on the Pentagon). Part of that constructed image is also a leftover of that detachment he tried to identify in 1957’s “The White Negro,” that weird firebomb of an article on the permutations of Hip.
But in the ’60s, some things were different. Mailer had determined to put drugs behind him. His contempt for the liberal establishment, especially after they gained power in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, grew ever larger. The divorces and children kept adding up, as did the bills. Paying journalism kept the paychecks coming in more than those pieces for Dissent or the novels that never blew the doors off as much as he imagined they would. So he kept himself going on TV to stir the pot and keep his name out there. He also kept knocking out the articles that fill up this collection’s second volume.
As in any collection of Mailer, this batch is part premature wisdom and part gasbag. Some pieces have both in abundance. “Ten Thousand Words a Minute,” supposedly about the 1963 Patterson-Liston heavyweight fight in Chicago, has top-notch material on the fight itself and a half-comic ode to the “shabby-looking” sports reporters feverishly bashing at their typewriters, all worked into soliloquies on “the Negroes,” the nation, and whatever else was coursing through Mailer’s overtaxed neurons at the time. Occasionally he fixates on a person, and the result is never good, as seen in “An Evening with Jackie Kennedy,” which contains among the most meaningless sentences one could ever read: “Afterward one could ask what it was one wanted of her, and the answer was that she show herself to us as she is.”
But, then, he was writing about a woman, and they eternally flummoxed Mailer. Take 1963’s “The Case Against McCarthy,” a clumsy blatherskite of a piece supposedly reviewing Mary McCarthy’s The Group. It was not only a bestseller, which infuriated Mailer, but written by a woman and about women, which pushed him over the edge. Loosely framed as a trial enunciating the author’s transgressions, Mailer’s piece windmills frantically. Even as he acknowledges her craft, he huffs and condescends about this lady daring to ascend the Olympus of Male Writers, calling her, a “duncy broad” and “Mary” (nowhere does he say “William” for Burroughs), imagining her as a shop lady with “a little boutique on the Avenue,” and concluding that “she is simply not a good enough woman to write a major novel.” Unlike, say, Mailer, who was a good enough man to have stabbed his second wife, Adele, with a penknife three years before writing this piece. She had reportedly told him he wasn’t as good as Dostoyevsky.
Misogynist character assassinations aside, the essays are replete with literary jousting of the kind one doesn’t see anymore. While savaging Another Country, Mailer extends a deft and graceful appreciation of James Baldwin (“Nobody has more elegance than Baldwin as an essayist, not one of us hadn’t learned something about the art of the essay from him”) before twisting the knife one more time just for fun (“and yet he can’t even find a good prose for his novel”). It’s illuminating also, in this time of shellacked appreciation for J.D. Salinger, to read this dismissive and probably correct assessment: “there is nothing in Franny and Zooey which would hinder it from becoming first-rate television.”
The digressions are, as ever, not just rampant but part of the attraction. In the middle of “The Debate with William F. Buckley,” Mailer finds time for an extended journey into “the plague” of the century:
Even 25 years ago architecture, for example, still told one something about a building and what went on within it. Today, who can tell the difference between a modern school and a modern hospital, between a modern hospital and a modern prison, or a prison and a housing project? The airports look like luxury hotels, the luxury hotels are indistinguishable from a modern corporation’s home office, and the home office looks like an air-conditioned underground city on the moon.
What was his point, again? Something about alienation and the Right Wing and our disconnection from reality and responsibility in the great postwar malaise of homogenized madness. Doesn’t matter—he was essentially correct even without being anybody’s idea of an architecture critic.
Mailer and his writing was essential to his time because he declared it so. Later, with the onetime public intellectual’s turn to gaseous fictions (Harlot’s Ghost, Ancient Evenings) and a retreat from the constant engagement demanded by nonfiction journalism, that was not the case. But in the 1960s, he planted himself in the streets and in the pages where battle took place, told what he saw, and made his stand.
Before being sentenced for abandoning the Patna, a ship carrying 800 pilgrims in the Indian Ocean, the hero—or antihero?—of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim has ample opportunity to flee, an opportunity the rest of the disgraced crew took. However, as Jim explains to Marlow: “I may have jumped, but I don’t run away.”
Coupling an admission of past cowardice with a defiant assertion of backbone, Jim’s statement exemplifies the uneasy proximity of shame and glory in the novel’s title character. Jim is “as genuine as a new sovereign” but with “some infernal alloy in his metal…the least drop of something rare and accursed.” That ruinous, majestic flaw immediately attracts Marlow, a worldly student of human nature, who sees that in Jim’s case, the “facts” of the sordid case have little to do with the “truth” about the romantic, fanciful and supremely brave youth.
Chris Walsh doesn’t mention Jim’s infamous jump in his plucky Cowardice: A Brief History, but like Conrad, he is interested in painting a fuller picture of this reviled but universal attribute, one which is paradoxically central to heroism: “The coward casts a shadow that throws heroes into relief, giving them substance and credibility.” A fuller picture is precisely what cowardice needs given the reticence surrounding the topic.
Virgil tells Dante, “Let us not speak of them,” upon seeing the shades of cowardly neutrals in “hell’s squalid lobby”; a Spanish proverb states that “of the coward, nothing is written”; and Kierkegaard opines that there “must be something wrong with cowardliness, since it is so detested, so averse to being mentioned, that its name has completely disappeared from use.” We hear of a scholar who undertook a study of cowardice only to run into difficulties. The title of the book he eventually produced? The Mystery of Courage. Cowardice is the flaw that dare not speak its name, or as Walsh wryly puts it: “Every other species of human baseness, it seems, has rated a monograph.”
Enter Walsh, whose study delves into the various and occasionally contradictory social, moral, and psychological pressures at work on the cowardly mind. Walsh strews entertaining etymological and cultural tidbits throughout. He tells us that coward comes from “the Latin cauda, meaning ‘tail.’ The cowardly creature ‘turns tail’ to escape danger, or ‘puts its tail between its legs’ in fear and submission.” The Germans, who can always be counted on for a colorful compound descriptor, have their own term for a coward: Schlappschwanz, or limp dick, which hints at the possible evolutionary drawbacks of the affliction. Walsh also introduces us to the Buid and the Semai, two Southeast Asian tribes who have “so thoroughly adapted a policy of fleeing from fear that they do not even have a word to condemn the behavior.” They have no compunction about abandoning their “grandmothers in collapsed shelters” at the slightest rumble of thunder. This wholehearted embrace of cowardice might seem liberating, especially to the more lily-livered among us, did not these tribes not live in abject terror of their surroundings; apparently, even butterflies spook them.
Anthropological oddities aside, Walsh is most concerned with cowardice in war. Walsh’s working definition of a coward is “someone who, because of excessive fear, fails to do what he is supposed to do,” which aligns with his military focus. From the plains of Ilion to colonial America to modern-day Iraq, Walsh describes scenes from what he neatly calls the “primal theater of cowardice.” There are ample entertainments in this arena, from the redemptive case of John Callender, who disgraced himself at the Battle of Bunker Hill only to perform valiantly through the rest of his career (“an object lesson in the bracing utility of the shame of cowardice”), to the poignant handwritten note produced by the WWII deserter Eddie Slovik, who was executed for treason: “AND ILL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THEIR [sic].”
Slovik’s harsh punishment speaks to a core anxiety about military cowardice. Underlying the barbaric or shameful punishments for cowardice over the centuries (e.g., execution, branding, Patton’s hospital assault on a GI suffering from battle fatigue) is an anxiety over contagion: “…fear in the context of battle is generally viewed as excessive when a soldier reveals it in a way that threatens to spread it.” The historical glee with which propagandists paint the enemy as a coward—from cartoons depicting a fleeing Jefferson Davis disguising himself in his wife’s shawl to the New York Post’s headline announcing Saddam Hussein’s capture—“Cowardly Lyin’ Saddam: Bush Whacks Scaredy Rat for Crawling in Hole”—is balanced by the fear of a cowardly plague within one’s own ranks. Reading Walsh on infectious fear, I realized that no cultural artifact dramatizes this anxiety better than the uber-macho Top Gun, a story of contagious cowardice that spreads from Cougar, the original candidate selected to attend Camp Shirtless Volleyball, to a most unlikely host: Maverick, the pilot defined by his recklessness.
Walsh’s loose thesis is that cowardice is at once a “dangerous, harmful idea” that can shame the powerless and the powerful alike into doing senseless, reckless things and a useful tool for self-improvement and self-examination: “It pushes us to ponder seriously what we should do, how we should act, and what it is we’re so afraid of.” That “seriously” is a crucial adverb; Walsh seems to agree with Robert Frost that humor or cheap irony is itself a kind of cowardice, though he does point out that earnestness and sincerity “can be morally cowardly too when it unthinkingly and abjectly stays the course…It is possible to have the cowardice of one’s convictions.”
Such a statement is typical of Walsh’s playful, provocative method of teasing out the ethical implications of cowardice (and courage). In his chapter on the paradox of duty, he points out that military systems in a sense compel courage and seek to forcibly prevent cowardice. One telling ancient example is the Greek and Roman strategy of putting the most skittish fighters at the center of a phalanx so that they would be forced to fight, which Walsh argues “deprives [their] actions of their moral content.” (I wonder if a hoplite would be relieved to be so assigned or aggrieved, as when a kid is picked last on the playground.)
Later, and implicitly in response to Lyndon Jonson’s defensive claim about cowardice having gotten the United States into more wars than has aggressive response to global threats, Walsh cites Adlai Stevenson’s courageous and sensible advice during the Cuban Missile Crisis: “We need a coward in the room when we are talking about nuclear war.” Amen.
In questioning the relative merits of cowardice and courage, those antipodal attributes, Walsh draws on war literature as well. His key texts are Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, the Vietnam writings of Tim O’Brien (“I was a coward…I went to the war” ends one story) and James Jones’s The Thin Red Line, in which, Walsh argues, Jones “…deflates, even denatures” the moral categories of courage and bravery. An aggrieved Hemingway makes an appearance to complain to his editor that Jones is a “psycho and not a real solider.”
Walsh is perhaps a little too intrepid in wading into the field of evolutionary theory to explain the adaptive benefits or drawbacks what he “loosely call[s] cowardly genes.” Cowards are better suited to survive, and thus reproduce, than the reckless; on the other hand, the “erect epauletted soldier in his plumed helmet” trades his safety for the reproductive conquests sure to follow his battlefield ones. In another context, mirror neurons are needlessly invoked to explain a relatively simple phenomenon of spreading fear. The payoff of these quick ventures into evolutionary theory or social neuroscience is questionable, especially when, as Walsh himself admits, the “evolutionary legacy is so complicated and conflicted that it does little to explain our own moral intuitions about cowardice.”
And yet Walsh’s broad-ranging curiosity about cowardice and its manifestations more often than not prove stirring. Take the account of encopresis, or the act of involuntarily soiling oneself. Walsh offers a Freudian explanation for our disgust, which stems from a desire “to indulge incontinence of every kind and be cowardly ourselves. Deep down, we are cowardly, and so we build a wall of disgusted contempt to protect ourselves from such revelations.” After considering the same act as “disturbing preview of human frailty,” Walsh next pivots to its “adaptive value”: shitting oneself drops some excess weight as one prepares to flee, to which the long Port-o-Potty lines at the start of any marathon attest.
When he takes a broader view of the topic, Walsh make the convincing case that a series of cultural, medical and military trends have lessened our coward-shaming impulses: a shift from “duty-based republicanism to a liberalism” that values individual choice over sacrificial devotion; the development of an “institutionally sanctioned medical vocabulary” that has begun to mitigate the stigma of cowardice; and the “growing impersonality of modern war,” which, coupled with an all-volunteer military, “narrows the possibility for cowardice” and allows the average citizen to avoid the topic altogether. Or as he puts it in a hypocrite lecteur moment: “Pondering the cowardice of a solider might also lead all too readily to question of why we ourselves have not answered or even heard the call to duty.”
In the last chapter, Walsh shifts to the (non-military) literature of moral courage, a relief after encountering all those sententious moralizers and blustery generals, and considers Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle” and Kafka’s parable “Before the Law.” Walsh handles both of these sensitive authors rather roughly. No doubt many a reader would like to slap a dithering James protagonist in the face, something he recommends for John Marcher, who is paralyzed by “the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen to [him].” But such flippancy misreads the nature of Marcher’s problem, which isn’t cowardice; indeed, communicating his secret to May Bartram in the first place takes courage. Rather, Marcher is tenaciously, almost chivalrously committed to his treasured delusion:
It signified little whether the crouching Beast were destined to slay him or to be slain. The definite point was the inevitable spring of the creature; and the definite lesson from that was that a man of feeling didn’t cause himself to be accompanied by a lady on a tiger-hunt.
Marcher’s “figuring” of the Beast necessarily blinds him its connection with May, and blindness of this type can’t necessarily be cured by courage. Lambert Strether, and his midlife discovery of a rapturous, life-embracing pluck, might have been a better James character to pick.
Walsh’s analysis of Kafka calls to mind those entrepreneurs who have taken to invoking Beckett’s “Fail Better” as a slogan. In “Before the Law,” a man seeking entry to the law is barred by a gigantic, fearsome gatekeeper, who is as trapped in his role as the seeker is in his. The man is “insatiable” and tries every tactic he can to enter over the course of many years. He fixates on this one doorkeeper, forgetting the (possibly) innumerable other doors and guards beyond him. It takes a lifetime before he asks the key question about why if everyone wants to access the law, he has never seen anyone else attempt entry, to which the keeper replies: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”
“Before the Law” is a disturbing, insoluble parable and not, as Walsh would have it, a self-help story: “The implication is that we squander our lives and souls when we await permission to go down a path that is our for the taking.” Bursting past the guard is an inconceivable as Joseph K. being found innocent in his trial. The man is consigned to his own special kind of purgatory, and we are left to wonder whether the glimpse of a radiance he finally sees from behind the door before it is shut for good is the hint of a future blessing or the culmination of a cruel joke.
If I’m harping too much on these literary readings, which take up a mere two or three pages, it’s only because my critical courage was pricked by the rest of this galvanizing history.
In a few years, much of the Western World will, for lack of a better word, celebrate the Centennial of The Great War in Europe from 1914-1918, the anniversary of that one round that loosed trillions more and signaled the death knell for societies and cultures once so steeped in the fine notions of romance and art. The First World War has long intrigued scholars in many fields, but one of the most interesting and unifying aspects of the conflict remains its many dichotomies: the way in which the arcane and the modern clashed in a manner that, unto that point in history, had never been seen before. Enter a new world where tactics so lagged behind the technologies of war that dragoons armed with lances and gasmasks charged headlong against entrenched machine gun nests; where the gentlemanly rules of Old World combat, devised by generals still under the illusion that great men, rather than great machines, achieved victory were put out to pasture and left to die; where educated and idealistic young men wrote of mustard gas and aerial bombardment using sonnets and couplets.
The Great War ushered in a unique milieu of poets—educated and romantic, yet fully modern—who, although they endured all the horrors of industrialized and mechanized warfare, retreated to a forms better suited to Tennyson and his Light Brigade to describe it. This amazingly odd juxtaposition carved World War One poetry a definite niche in the collective literary mindset; no other literary moment, for movement would be too strong a word to ascribe to a mere four years whose overall reputation has been solidified by two or three truly notable and highly antithetical figures, has spoken so drastically to two sides of a popular consciousness. Furthermore, the primary figure come to embody this period, Wilfred Owen, only suffered to have his work “discovered” and celebrated during the commemoration of the war’s 50th anniversary, which brought with it a renewed interest in scholarship for both the war and those who wrote during it.
To that end, it can and has been argued that Owen’s place in the pantheon of war poets rests not on the merits of his words or his skill at turning a phrase but because the tenor of his voice fit precisely with an age quickly turning against the idea that war can ever again be glorious or that it ever was an altruistic endeavor in the first place. To imagine a 1960s community of academics and then contemporary poets lauding over the works of Kipling and the once highly celebrated Rupert Brooke, the former capable of such a horrendously puerile take on the actual carnage about to befall the continent:
For all we have and are,
For all our children’s fate,
Stand up and take the war,
The Hun is at the gate!
and of further asking that one “Face the naked days/In silent fortitude” because
There is but on task for all—
One life for each to give.
Who stands if Freedom fall?
Who dies if England live?
flies in the face of all social mores soon to dominate the landscape of counterculture England and America. Owen, although only five of his poems were published before his death in 1918, stood as the main antithesis to this jingoistic sentiment, and he has since not only come to dominate the conversation of Great War poets, but also managed a place in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, where he rests beside his friend Siegfried Sassoon—another notable poetic dissenter— and, to a lesser extent, the aforementioned Brooke, who at the outset of the war, and even a few years after its cessation, appeared as the poster child for all that was right and good with the young men of the Empire.
But politics and agenda aside, what is rather interesting is the range and scope of First World War poetry, for war poetry has never been a mode of discourse possessing a long shelf life. It is not the thing that complements a sunny afternoon, and while there is a decent tradition in American letters of the war novel, A Farewell to Arms, The Naked and the Dead, The Thin Red Line and The Things They Carried all immediately come to mind, these works often arrive long after the final salvo, tend to be imbued with the cult of the author’s persona and to be written from the safety and distance of time, free from the possibility that a sniper bullet might arrest the author mid couplet; whereas the poems of the Great War, for the most part, exist devoid of ego and communicate a collective rather than personal mindset. As Patrick MacGill writes in the final quatrain of “Before the Charge:”
The dead leaves float in the sighing air,
The darkness moves like a curtain drawn,
A veil which the morning sun will tear
From the face of death.—We charge at dawn
Together, reads the unwritten and inferable coda; and together we die.
Still, perhaps the solution to this great paradox, that of Great War poetry’s resilience, lies in the simple fact that if World War II was the last “noble war,” then the Great War was the last chivalrous one, for no other modern conflict possesses the same aura of romance that ironically informs a three and a half year stalemate, where men smeared with mud lived amongst vermin and dead bodies in glorified holes in the ground while suffering exposure to the capricious weather known to suddenly befall Western Europe. In essence, World War One poetry is both the merging of art and suffering at its highest form and a controlled, packaged image of it. Through a masterful slight of hand and a brilliant bit of marketing on the part of those in literary offices away from the moonscapes of the Marne and Ypres, our popular consciousness has acquiesced to transform the craven hell of a No-Man’s-Land ripe with corpses splayed like scarecrows on barbed wire into “We are the dead. Short days ago/We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow/Loved and were loved, and now we lie/In Flanders fields,” which gives the impression that these Belgian poppy fields of John McCrae might not be that bad of a place after all.
However, in their own strange way, these poets and their poems would have served as a form of reportage for those back home. In the days before twenty-four hour news networks and instantaneous headlines, where radio was in its infancy and print served as the primary mechanism for disseminating information, to read a poem from a lad in a trench alongside the “hard reporting” from Verdun or the Somme would not have seemed out of the ordinary or a mixing of two, now distinctly different media. In fact, it would have been the poem that carried a greater weight, since it was offered by a primary source, one whose heart was both loyal to the Crown and yet burdened with the terrible weight of service to it. The warring poet, therefore, easily represented the very best the Empire had to offer because what cannot be forgotten is the social fabric that enabled such a war to take place and for it to be populated with a relatively erudite—by historical and possibly even modern standards—average fighting man who would have benefited from the recent schooling reforms instituted under the reign of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Much of this learning would have centered around an understanding of literature in a national context, poems which, according to Elizabeth A. Marsland in The Nation’s Cause: French, English and German Poetry of the First World War, were “the nation’s treasury of patriotic and heroic poems.” Thus it dovetails that by August 1914 a generation of young men educated on Byron, who himself went off to an ignoble yet glorious death in Greece, should not aspire to a similar end.
The poet martyr or, as George Walter calls it in his introduction to The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry the “Brooke Myth,” born through the death of Brooke (who ironically never saw action on the Western Front, instead dying of blood poisoning in the Aegean) relies on the trope of “that selfless young literary patriot who heeded his country’s call, only to die tragically and heroically when his promise seemed about to be fulfilled.” This early 20th Century interpretation of the tragic hero came to serve as foundation for an aesthetic disseminated to a market eager to read the massive outpouring of war poetry coming from the trenches of France, as well as serving as a means by which, in the early stages of the war, members of the media and the government could guide the national morale and sustain the recruitment of the troop levels needed to continuously refill ever thinning ranks.
It is this ideal, this myth of the lyric warrior, that strikes to the heart of Great War poetry, which even during its 1960s resurgence never jettisoned the notion of the poetic martyr but reappropriated it to one better suited to an evolving, more realistic social mindset, resulting in a transition from the ‘For God and Country’ mentality of Brooke:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to live, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
to the haunting, humanist reproach of Owen’s famed “Dulce et Decorum est:”
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitten as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
How then, are we to judge the legacy of this literary time period, at once naïve and world-weary? How does it continue to inform a modern consciousness that might easily look back fondly on a time when wars were “good or bad” and enemies were defined? For even after Adorno decried it, both high and popular culture has persisted in looking to the arts for an understanding of the horrific by attempting to render the irrational accessible to the rational mind. Great War poetry serves as just that, a snapshot of a bygone era coming to grips with its misconceptions and imperfections, an example of men trying to communicate sights and sounds beyond comprehension using the only means at their disposal, but to ever imagine our society returning to a space where it would be imaginable for a grunt or Jarhead to compose the “Kandahar Sonnets” and to have them run on the front page of The New York Times or The San Francisco Chronicle is beyond laughable; it is absurd, especially if they should carry even the slightest hint of anything resembling patriotism. The war poem is obsolete in a world become too cynical for such an item, too intelligent to buy into such a jingoistic cliché. Or might it just be a blatant apathy, one born from a glorious remove, both physical and psychological, from all aspects of Operation Iraqi Freedom or of an Afghanistan Campaign being fought by faceless men in fatigues, who hump through the dusty foothills of the Hindu Kush remembered, as people, only by the loved ones or close friends stateside who anticipate their return.
Even in its most ignorant form, the poems of the Great War possess a legitimacy absent from the similar artistic pursuits today, which tend to be relegated to the back lots of Hollywood and undertaken by actors whose true knowledge of conflict comes from however much they might absorb from the technical advisor brought on set to guarantee “authenticity.” Instead, what these poems of the Great War offer is an immediacy, for they are not prey to the trickery of memories sulking in a truth distorted, no matter how slightly. Today, with nearly a century behind them, we allow the works of Owen and Sassoon and Brooke to masquerade as art, as historical iconography, but the idea and legacy of Great War Poetry, and of its serialization in major newspapers during the actual maneuvers on the Western Front, serves as a sobering reminder that war is fought by human beings. In their worst forms, the Great War Poems are not an apology for fighting, nor are they at their best calls for its cessation. Rather, they are evidence that even a human being who holds a gun and has been trained to kill is capable of intelligent and philosophical thought, perhaps even more capable than those who sit safely at home and examine them.