Great War Literature: World War I in US-American War Novels
World War I had profound effects on the United States of America. The war years 1914-1918 brought about tremendous changes in the political, economic and social spheres of the USA. Under the presidency of the Democrat Woodrow Wilson did the country abandon its initial neutrality, send more than a million soldiers to Europe and help the Allies prevail against the Central Powers. In the course of the four years the then foremost industrial nation mustered all its financial and economic power and became the biggest creditor of the world. But that strenuous effort was only made possible by the government’s passing many laws that subjected the US population to strict regulation and discipline.
World War I also led to a transformation of American culture and art. Prior to 1914, society was dominated by the optimistic values of the Progressive Era. Most Americans shared a strong belief in Christianity, republicanism, capitalism and patriotism. Their faith in human rationality, technological progress and western civilization was unchallenged. But many of them changed their views once they faced the mechanized killing machine at the front. Fighting soldiers were beset by grave doubts about the political rhetoric and military strategy long before the armistice of Compiègne was declared in November 1918. With the conclusion of the Paris peace talks in 1923, a good portion of society, especially the veterans, were feeling disappointment, frustration and disillusion.
Even before the USA entered the fighting, World War I had found entry into the American press and literature. Journalists characterized the conflict between the Allies and the Central Powers as a clash between democracy and autocracy, calling for immediate intervention of their country when the atrocities committed by Germans in Belgium and the American casualties in the sinking of the British steamer Lusitania became known. Writers created novels full of jingoistic propaganda that focus on heroic knights in fights with German barbarians and present the war as a cathartic antidote to moral degeneracy. The majority of the Americans, however, favoured isolationism until President Wilson declared war on April 6, 1917 after Germany resumed unconditional submarine war and proposed an alliance with Mexico in a secret telegram.
Wilson’s reason for going to war was to make the world safe for democracy; his idealistic intention is found in many of the novels written by the older authors. In 1922, the critically acclaimed regionalist Willa Cather (1873-1947) released her coming-of-age novel One of Ours, for which she received the Pulitzer Prize the following year. Inspired by the letters of her nephew fallen in action at Cantigny in 1918 and supported by extensive research and a visit to the French battlefields, she describes in it the development of a young sensitive man, who volunteers for military service shortly after the USA enters the war to escape his humdrum life in rural Nebraska. To Claude Wheeler, who feels disgusted at the commercialism and consumerism of his environment, France appears as an alternative world to contemporary America. He sees war as a pre-modern adventure in which men prove themselves and show their courage, grandeur and readiness to make sacrifices. When the young lieutenant leads his troops against the enemy, he is shot in the assault and dies with the feeling that his life has not been in vain.
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- Great War American Literature Willa Cather One of Ours Edith Wharton A Son at the Front Thomas Boyd Through the Wheat Company K John Dos Passos Three Soldiers e.e.cummings William Faulkner Ernest Hemingway Soldier’s Pay A Farewell to Arm War Fiction First World War Lusitania Woodrow Wilson William March