Twentieth-century American war novels are founded on a bedrock of discontent. Grousing is a soldier's traditional right, and the massacres we call warfare in the twentieth century have been the impetus for turning that right of expression into expressive literature. Many war novelists have taken their experiences of America's wars (be they first-, second-, or third-hand) and constructed out of them indictments of the modern industrial state at large. I will argue that these writers have seen the regimentation and depersonalization of military life as an analogy for a culture, a society that pays lip-service to freedom but brooks no fundamental disagreements from its members. Soldiers are time and again referred to as "automatons" or "cogs in a machine," and the novelists appear to be fixated on the inability of humans to consummate meaningful acts. Nonetheless, the lives of individuals are central to any novel, and war novels are no different. Many critics agree that some of the best twentieth-century war novels paint their individual characters with the brush of naturalism's pathos or of existentialism's heroism, depicting isolated, alienated individuals struggling to make sense of an absurd world. I will begin by discussing novelists of the First World War that I have chosen because their works use the battlefield as an allegory for the world at large and examine the tensions between solitary individuals and their communities, as revealed by the experiences of soldiers at war. In this regard, as in others, the Great War, as a watershed event in American history, and the novelists who wrote about it set the tone for the decades that followed.
Prior to World War I, Americans and people throughout the Western world viewed the dawning twentieth century as the beginning of a golden age of human progress. As many historians have noted, rapid technological advances in industrial techniques, energy sources, communications, and modes of travel, in particular, induced a state of awe in common people and fostered unbridled enthusiasm for the future. Still, underneath the enthusiasm ran a current of discontent, especially among the young. A certain nostalgia for old ways and traditional values brought about feelings of ennui, oddly mixed with fervid idealism, and kindled a desire for adventure, a desire to do something heroic and noble. Thus, we find aspiring writers such as E. E. Cummings, Ernest Hemingway, and John Dos Passos volunteering to serve in various ambulance corps in their haste to experience the adventure of the European conflagration that the United States had not yet entered. It did not take long for most of these men to realize the truth of the matter--that, as Paul Fussell contends, World War I "was a hideous embarrassment to the prevailing Meliorist myth which had dominated the public consciousness for a century. It reversed the Idea of Progress" (8). Fussell believes that the war put an end to the meliorist conception of a "seamless, purposeful 'history'" where values were static and abstractions such as Honor and Glory were "permanent and reliable" (21). Indeed, the war spelled the end of idealism for most of those caught up in it. Hemingway's oft-quoted lines from A Farewell to Arms adequately sum up the disillusionment felt by so many of the Great War writers.
There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates. (185)
Nonetheless, before the disillusionment, enthusiasm for the war ran high. Laurence Stallings describes America's entry into the war in theatrical terms. He writes, "The Doughboys entered the tragedy at the beginning of the fifth act, with millions of men already dead, like off-stage soldiers in a play; and they entered singing." Their exuberance stemmed from the "simple theme" that Woodrow Wilson had supplied for them: "Kaiser Bill was a villain and they marched to make the world safe for democracy" (5). The British-American propaganda machine played many variations on this theme, and America's civilian-soldiers, by and large, believed every word of it. With his depiction in Three Soldiers of troops-in-training watching a movie one evening, John Dos Passos portrays the fervor with which average Americans embraced the propagandists' picture of the heathenish Hun.
There were hisses and catcalls when a German flag was seen, and as the troops were pictured advancing, bayonetting the civilians in wide Dutch pants, the old women with starched caps, the soldiers packed into the stuffy Y.M.C.A. hut shouted oaths at them. Andrews felt blind hatred stirring like something that had a life of its own in the young men about him. He was lost in it, carried away in it, as in a stampede of wild cattle. The terror of it was like ferocious hands clutching his throat. (27)The pervasiveness of the World War I propaganda effort conducted by George Creel and his Committee on Public Information has been well-documented (Cooperman, Novel 13-43; Schaffer 3-12), as has the vigilantism that the government-induced patriotic fever kindled on the home front (Kennedy 67-68, 73-75; Schaffer 13-30). Times of crisis are apt to inspire rituals of inclusion and exclusion--an "us" versus "them" mentality. Yet, such idealistic hatred ultimately fuels disillusionment in thoughtful individuals who come to realize that "they" are little different from "us." The irony of propaganda-fed enmity is not lost on Dos Passos. He writes of the dehumanizing effect of fomenting such hatred:
As he was leaving the hut, pressed in a tight stream of soldiers moving towards the door, Andrews heard a man say:And so, the haters become as inhumane as the hated are supposed to be, and all in the name of making the world safe for the American ideals of democracy and liberty.
"I never raped a woman in my life, but by God, I'm going to. I'd give a lot to rape some of those goddam German women."
"I hate 'em too," came another voice, "men, women, children and unborn children. They're either jackasses or full of the lust for power like their rulers are, to let themselves be governed by a bunch of warlords like that." (27)
Ironically, the very liberties so many Europeans had come to America to enjoy were repressed in the interests of fighting a European war. The Great War required Americans to curtail, to sacrifice some of their accustomed individual freedoms in order to achieve victory. The first thing to go was the very right to life itself as conscription, euphemistically called "selective service," was instituted from the outset of American participation in the war. Local boards were formed to implement the draft so that the role of "the government" in the resulting loss of liberty was disguised (Kennedy 151-52). Despite some resistance, the vast majority of American men who were required to register did so and did their duty when called, not in small part due to the tremendous social pressure that was a direct result of the government's propaganda campaign. Another key liberty that suffered restrictions due to American belligerency was the right of free speech. Censorship was accomplished largely through broad powers given to the director of the Post Office, Albert S. Burleson, under the Espionage Act of June 15, 1917 and the Trading with the Enemy Act of October 6, 1917 and also through the Sedition Act of May 16, 1918 (Kennedy 75-80). Furthermore, the application of propaganda-induced social pressures was usually enough to facilitate individual self-censorship. Careless talk, let alone deliberate opposition, could easily land one in jail or put one at the mercy of vigilantes and their violent forms of self-righteousness.
Not everyone was in favor of American involvement in a European war. The American Socialist Party declared its opposition and its intent to resist conscription and any curtailment of civil liberties on the day following the declaration of war. Yet, many of the Party's most outspoken and well-known members, Upton Sinclair for example, dissociated themselves from the Party's resolution and voiced support for the war (Schaffer 26-27). On the labor front, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), long an outspoken opponent of the war, in the face of "state-sponsored terrorism," prudently toned down their antiwar rhetoric after the American declaration of belligerency (Shor 80). The IWW also declined to take an official stand for or against conscription, declaring that it was a question for individual members to decide (Shor 83). Conversely, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and its leader, Samuel Gompers, saw the war as an opportunity for labor to enter into cooperation with the federal government, thereby winning federal support for labor's long-range goal of better working conditions. Gompers even served on the Council of National Defense for the administration and threw the weight of the AFL behind the government's battle against their radical rival, the IWW (Schaffer 67). Another constituency, black Americans, gave grudging support to a war that aimed to win democratic liberties for Europeans that were not extended to black Americans in their own homeland. Some held on to the hope that loyalty would be rewarded by improved racial conditions after the war, but most followed the admonition of the Baltimore Afro-American, "Everybody watch his tongue" (Schaffer 80). The Wilson administration was clearly racist, and Americans, as a whole, exported their racism to the European war-zone. When all was said and done, their Great War experience roused many black Americans to believe more fully in their own worth and, thus, fostered a greater desire amongst them to stand up and fight for their rights. Nonetheless, little changed for black Americans on a day-to-day basis. On the other hand, white women parlayed their enthusiastic support for the war into the right to vote, although most other movement toward equality with men was modest and largely temporary. All in all, President Wilson enjoyed wide support for his war aims, particularly among progressive intellectuals.
Social progress and the relationship between individual liberties and societal needs had been subjects of lively debate in the intellectual community since the turn of the century. The onset of war gave impetus to the debate. John C. Farrell reports that progressive thinkers of the time believed that "man was social in nature, equipped with goodness, reason, and a disinterested concern for the commonweal, and thus fit to control his environment." The progressives maintained that applying the scientific method to social problems would give men the ability to be "masters of their fate, rather than passive instruments of divine will or natural processes, as conservatives and Social Darwinists contended" (300-01). John Dewey, a leading progressive spokesman, concluded that human progress, while not inevitable, is possible and dependent upon creative intelligence. Such progress, though, is not a function of isolated individuals but, rather, is a communal phenomenon. Dewey, as Beth J. Singer points out, asserted that "aims, beliefs, aspirations, and knowledge" held in common, while necessary, are not sufficient to bring about a "community." What is needed is communication between the members of a social group, who must each "perceive the consequences of their joint behavior" and who must understand and care about "their own and one another's influence upon the ongoing process" (556-57). Dewey felt that Americans were far too individualistic and lacked the necessary inter-communication to form progressive communities.
According to David M. Kennedy, "Many progressives yearned for some experience that would heighten social consciousness and tighten social bonds" and saw the war as the perfect opportunity to implement their dream of a responsible citizenry. Others, though, feared a return to a European ethos of regimentation and discipline (44). Dewey was a leader of the progressives who looked to the war as a means of tempering America's individualistic tradition, turning the country toward accepting more communal purposes, and making the masses more socially responsible (Kennedy 50-53). Not all progressives were in agreement, though. Kennedy relates that Randolph Bourne, Dewey's chief critic, "countered with a famous question: 'If the war is too strong for you to prevent, how is it going to be weak enough for you to control and mould to your liberal purposes?'" (52). Indeed, the war was too strong to be controlled, and the only molding that took place was the molding of individuals into a sort of mass-mind by the propagandists and into a huge war machine by the military authorities. Social responsibility became equated with following orders and not making waves, and individual interest in and outspokenness about communal needs and concerns was discouraged, if not crushed outright. In his essay "The State" Bourne insightfully proclaimed, "War is the health of the State. It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation with the Government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd instinct" (71). With the war's end and the implementation of the vindictive Treaty of Versailles, the progressives' disenchantment with the whole war experience was complete, and such a formerly hopeful voice as Walter Lippman's could describe most Americans as "mentally children or barbarians" lacking the intelligence to make decisions in the common interest (Kennedy 91-92). Out of this environment of thwarted dreams, repression, and contradictory values came the first twentieth-century American war novels, many of which clearly portray their author's loss of innocence and consequent disillusionment.
According to Peter Aichinger, with the exception of a few notable works, such as Henri Barbusse's Le feu (1917), Americans began writing literature about the war much sooner than their European counterparts (16). He argues that this happened because war is an accepted part of life for the Europeans and "the soldier is part of the social structure; in America he is an outsider" (22).Thus, we see that preeminent works such as Jaroslav Hašek's satirical look at militarism, The Good Soldier Švejk (1930), and the classic All Quiet on the Western Front (1928) by Erich Maria Remarque were published more than ten years after the war's end. By that time, American authors such as John Dos Passos, Thomas Boyd, and Ernest Hemingway had already produced noteworthy novels about the Great War. One of the first American novels of disenchantment to see print after the war was Dos Passos's largely forgotten first novel, One Man's Initiation: 1917, published in 1920. Dos Passos's second novel, Three Soldiers, followed soon after, in 1921. His two war novels are disdainful of any notion that the war was a "Holy War" or a "Crusade," as so many preachers and Y-men proclaimed. As a Harvard student shortly before the war, Dos Passos was a "pacifist in theory," according to biographer Virginia Spencer Carr, who, like some progressives, "approved of military service from the point of view of sociability" in that it would allow men of all classes to mingle and democratically become acquainted. At the same time, he decried the snobbery of officers and pointed out that an army, if it exists, is likely to be used (71). Still, as I will argue, his war novels clearly contradict any progressive, Deweyan notion that the war would foster community and social-consciousness and reflect his wariness of all collective endeavors.
When war was declared, Dos Passos was attempting to land a position with the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps. He wrote his friend Rumsey Marvin, "Don't think that I've gone militarist or believe in conscription--far from it. I merely want to see a little of the war personally." He told Marvin that American intervention would hasten the war's end, yet at other times, he contradicted that statement, saying it could only prolong the conflict (Carr 117-19). In the spring of 1917, Dos Passos was twenty-one years old and fresh out of Harvard. In his memoirs, he writes, "Suddenly I believed I was a socialist. Even then I think I marveled a little at the suddenness with which passionate convictions develop in the youthful mind. It was a contagion. In the spring of 1917 some people caught socialism the way others caught the flu" (Best 46). He was full of the conviction that "all young men were terribly decent" and that his elders had made a "God-damned mess" of society (Carr 130). Although Dos Passos downplays his radical thought in his memoirs, a probably more accurate assessment is given by Daniel Aaron.
The radicalism of Dos Passos simmered in the early twenties, boiled furiously between 1927 and 1932, and began to cool thereafter. At no time did he consider joining the Communist Party, but he supported it during his fellow-traveling stage as the successor to the I.W.W. and as the "arch-enemy" of privilege. (348)Undoubtedly, Dos Passos was sympathetic to and supportive of radical causes, but all-in-all, he was most concerned with the individual and the individual's personal liberty and with the ability of John Dos Passos to write about them. As Aaron points out, according to his contemporaries, Dos Passos "never found any form of collectivism congenial" (353).
Over the years, many critics have commented upon Dos Passos's depiction of the individual in modern industrial society. Melvin Landsberg finds that the young, just-out-of-college Dos Passos believed industrialism to be the greatest problem society faced because it threatened individuality (32-34). Likewise, Stanley Cooperman recognizes the industrial, machine-like nature of the military, as Dos Passos depicts it in Three Soldiers, which destroys the "traditional values of individual pride, individual aesthetic action, [and] individual success" (Aesthetics 23). The industrial model of "socio-political-military structures" was an object of distrust for Dos Passos throughout his career, according to Cooperman. Equally enduring was his "insistence upon the ultimate validity of individuation" (Aesthetics 31). Alfred Kazin concurs and adds that Dos Passos's protest is a protest against all collectivities, be they capitalist, socialist, or other (Dos Passos 104-05). The artist is Dos Passos's representative individual, and as Kazin contends, the "army is the public self (Dos Passos can never accept the public self); the artist can only conceal himself in it or die by it" (108). A. S. Knowles, Jr. points to John Andrews' words in Three Soldiers as a statement that "could well stand as a motto over all of Dos Passos' work" (131)--"human society has been always that, . . . organizations growing and stifling individuals, and individuals revolting hopelessly against them" (421). Similarly, Richard Layman argues that Dos Passos "refused to accept a theory of social organization that subordinated the welfare of individuals to interests of the state" (187). Ellwood Johnson sees Dos Passos subscribing to a tradition of "elitist anarchism," which he contrasts to naturalism. He contends that Dos Passos "saw the sources of tyranny and inequity not in the institutions of society, nor in the villainy of its leaders, but in the common people who bring, often unconsciously to themselves, such institutions and despotism into being" (69). Johnson argues that for Dos Passos the best the isolated individual can hope for is the denial of "his collective self so that his sentient, creative self can be freed" (71). Finally, Michael Clark sees a certain duality in Dos Passos's war novels. He describes John Andrews, in Three Soldiers, as both a pragmatist and an idealist who "never fully integrates his self into the requirements of reality" (96). Basically, this failed integration with reality is the reason I will end up calling Andrews' existential stand quixotic.
Although uneven in execution itself, Three Soldiers is a better novel than One Man's Initiation: 1917 and received largely positive critical attention at its publication, with a smattering of negative criticism from conservatives who disliked its antiwar tenor. The very chapter titles of the book are an accurate reflection of Dos Passos's theme: "Making the Mould," "The Metal Cools," "Machines," "Rust," "The World Outside," and "Under the Wheels." Men are the commodity being molded and turned into machines that eventually decay and crush any individual parts that fall away. The dehumanization of men by war and the military machine is pounded home by Dos Passos's repeated references to men as automatons (201, 331) or slaves (91,199). Men are also referred to as furniture (26), bales of hay, meat (44), calves (45), beasts (46), sheep (71), brutes, machinery (92), oxen, dogs (158), and goats (206). And the uniformity insisted upon by their military masters is emphatically stated. "Their steps were all the same length. Their arms swung in the same rhythm. Their faces were cowed into the same expression, their thoughts were the same" (272).
The title is Three Soldiers, but one soldier gets the majority of Dos Passos's attention. John Andrews is the Virginia-bred, Harvard-educated, New York sophisticate in a sea of countless common minnows, a musician and composer who is sick of his individuality and of his thoughts, who did not balk at being drafted because he wanted to lose himself in "the mud of common slavery" (26). The others are Dan Fuselli from San Francisco, the former clerk in R. C. Vicker Company's optical-goods store who yearns to "move along" (48) in the army but ultimately feels "lost in the machine" (71), and "Chris" Chrisfield, the farm boy from "round Tallyville" in Indiana, who is filled with a barely-contained rage toward anyone he feels is "pickin' on" him (28). Dos Passos uses the experiences of these three soldiers, all of whom are subject to feelings of isolation and alienation, to explore the crisis of individuality in a mass culture and to ponder the resulting implications for society. Modern society is a reflection of the military community in that the individual is and must be subservient to the group in order for the whole to function as it is designed to function. We have all heard that what is good for General Motors is good for the country--meaning, what is good for General Motors is good for you and me. In other words, putting it in a military context, the individual is not as important as the corporate (mass) entity. In Three Soldiers, then, Dos Passos compels readers to consider some questions raised by this state of affairs. Can one maintain one's individuality in the face of regimentation? Can mindless automatons be of any use, of any help to one another? Is there such a thing as a community, or is life simply a series of meaningless hierarchical power structures? Is it possible for an individual to consummate a meaningful act, and is an act meaningful if it bears no relation to the needs of a community?
In Three Soldiers Dos Passos suggests answers to these questions by way of a comparison between the existential hero and the individual overwhelmed by life in the modern world, as represented by the military machine. Dan Fuselli falls into the latter category. He finds that his desire to "move along" and his willingness to work at it are not guarantees of success. In the process he shuns some people as detrimental to his advancement and lets peer-pressure override his instinctual values. At times, like an inmate of a panopticon, he feels overwhelmed, "as if people were watching him from everywhere out of the darkness, as if some gigantic figure were driving him forward through the darkness, holding a fist over his head, ready to crush him" (94) (cf. Foucault 213-17). Fuselli is caught between two contradictory feelings--a sense of "importance" and a feeling of being "lost in the machine" (71). He needs to hang on to the former feeling and not "get in wrong" (48) with his superiors to realize his ambitions, but the latter feeling slowly and surely overtakes him. As a soldier fresh out of training camp, Fuselli can say, "It's great to be a soldier. . . . Ye kin do anything ye goddam please" (40). But soon, when he finds himself on a troop transport ship, his tune changes. "They had no right to treat a feller like that. He was a man, not a bale of hay to be bundled about as anybody liked" (44). Trying to do the right and honorable thing so as to not "get in wrong" with those who have power over him, he proposes marriage to the French girl, Yvonne, whom he has been seeing, only to have her laugh in his face and to discover that he has been cuckolded by his own top sergeant.
Dos Passos drops Fuselli's story at this point, and as if to emphasize his status as nonentity, we do not run into him again until Andrews has a very brief, chance encounter with him in Paris. Only then do we learn that not only was Fuselli cuckolded by Yvonne, but he contracted a venereal disease from her as well and suffered the harsh disciplinary fate that awaited all soldiers who fell victim to sexually-transmitted diseases, court martial and a sentence of confinement with hard labor. With all ambition gone, Fuselli is now on permanent K.P. with a labor battalion, simply waiting out the interminable days until he can be discharged. And so, through Fuselli, soldier number one, Dos Passos illustrates the apparent futility of human intention and action. Fuselli intends to do right, to play by the rules of the community of which he is a member, the U.S. Army, and to be a model soldier. Yet, that community, in Dos Passos's eyes, is nothing more than a mindless machine ready to run over any individual who happens to misstep, regardless of that person's attitude toward the community. Ironically, in the end, Fuselli is a model soldier, totally assimilated into the Army, as he intended to be. Yet, he has become an unprotesting cipher occupying the position assigned to him, still striving to avoid getting in wrong, but no longer nurturing any feelings of importance. Fuselli's fate, then, suggests that regimentation produces feelings of apathy, anomie, and alienation in the individual.
"Chris" Chrisfield, the Indiana farm boy who left off his schooling at age twelve, is the second of Dos Passos's three soldiers. Like Fuselli, he is an isolated individual overwhelmed by circumstance. Chrisfield, in insisting that others grant him the respect he believes he deserves, falls prey to his own rage and becomes a murderer. As Stanley Cooperman sees it, Chrisfield "redeems his manhood by murdering an officer (an act made imperative by a deeply inbred code of the Intolerable Affront)" (Novel 154). After the murder, which he performs almost instinctively, without deliberation, Chrisfield finds a certain solace and an end to his isolation in returning to the ranks. "His feet beat the ground in time with the other feet. He would not have to think whether to go to the right or to the left. He would do as the others did" (190). For Chrisfield, the army supplies life with meaning. He says, "Reckon a feller wouldn't know what to do with himself if he did get out of the army" (267). Eventually, he becomes a deserter--an individual at odds with any of the traditional or mainstream communities--but not until he has shown himself to be a good soldier, rising to the rank of corporal on the strength of his abilities. He deserts because he feels that another man in his unit knows about the murder he has committed, and when he is reunited briefly with Andrews after his desertion, Chrisfield seems haunted by guilt. In the context of a conversation about revolution that ensues, we get a peek at his psyche when he says, "Fellers like us ain't got it in 'em to buck the system, Andy" (400). Even though he rails at the system, declaring he would shoot an M.P. without thinking about it because a "doughboy's less'n a dawg to 'em" (405), he is completely cowed and can do nothing but run away. He is impotent as an individual, reacting rather than acting out of any sense of existential authenticity and unable to exist in isolation. Chrisfield is simply one of the herd, and when we leave him, it is with a sense that it is only a matter of time before he is led to the slaughter.
Dos Passos's theme of the individual overwhelmed by modern life was shared by other Great War authors, with varying degrees of pessimism. We should consider two significant examples of the use of the theme, in the nihilism of Thomas Boyd and the naturalism of William March, before we look at Andrews, Dos Passos's third soldier. One of the earliest novels about World War I is Boyd's Through the Wheat, published in 1923. Boyd, a newspaperman, novelist, biographer, and "Communist candidate for governor of Vermont in 1934" (Noverr 99), fought in the war as a Marine and brought his personal experiences to his novel. According to Douglas A. Noverr, "Boyd's outlook was essentially deterministic, behavioralistic, and naturalistic" (99). Peter G. Jones sees Boyd's novel as a "classic example" of the fact that candid and blunt narrative is the best method for presenting war "in its proper light" (218). Although criticism of the novel is sparse, most critics seem to agree with Cooperman, who contends that Through the Wheat contains the intersection of "two major World War I literary reactions"--"rhetorical indictment" and "benumbed negation" (Novel 165). Noverr maintains that Boyd "intensely identified with" people he saw as victims of circumstance and had great admiration for "those who struggled against their fate and asserted their individualism" (100). Boyd's protagonist, struggling against his fate, is Private William Hicks, whom Cooperman calls an "antihero of total withdrawal" (Novel 95). Peter Aichinger argues, correctly I believe, that Hicks represents the individual whom the war has moved to "a new plane of comprehension [of the insignificance of the individual], but in the process it destroys him as a member of society" (14). Comprehending his situation, Hicks is simply numbed by it; isolated from his companions, he merely goes through the motions of living.
We meet "young Hicks" emerging from a French canteen, not yet overwhelmed but, nonetheless, feeling that life is "worth very little" because he has been in France for nine months and has yet to see combat (1). He really has no hatred for the Germans, but he desires combat because "in conflict, he felt, would arise a reason for his now unbearable existence" (4). In his first chapter, Boyd makes a point of showing that individuals are basically isolated and self-interested. To Hicks it seems that most of the soldiers have "not entered the army to further the accomplishment of a common motive," but rather for the "purpose of aiding their personal ambitions" (5). Hicks is no different. When he goes looking for a missing man in no-man's-land and finds him dead, Hicks leaves the soldier on the field because he feels he would look like "a fool" carrying a dead man back to the trench. His motive for even searching in the first place is to be seen as a hero for saving the man, with an eye to exonerating himself for his previous lapse of sleeping on guard duty (35-36). A persistent theme throughout the novel is the common soldier's disdain for any authority that impinges upon his personal liberty. For example, as the platoon marches and some of the men discuss rumors, we read,
"Pipe down, you men back there. Who gave you permission to talk?" Sergeant Harriman called.Such exchanges call to mind the attitude toward authority held by Dos Passos's Chrisfield. Yet, as the platoon gains combat experience, while still insisting upon their individuality, "There was a sameness about the expressions on the men's faces" (126). The filth, stench, mud, death, and monotony of trench warfare has a leveling effect, in Boyd's vision. All men are helpless against the war and, by extension, against the universe. In time we find Hicks feeling "the fury of impotence" (159); nonetheless, Hicks has not yet reached bottom.
"Who the hell gave you permission to give us permission to talk?" some one indistinctly asked. (56)
As the novel progresses, we encounter Hicks lying in a field of wheat contemplating insects that "waddled over the ground with as great a seriousness and importance as if they supported the burden of the world." The passage is reminiscent of Fuselli and his feelings of "importance." But this experience inspires Hicks, unlike the imperceptive Fuselli, to wonder whether the insects' "lives were not as important as the lives of men; whether they were not conscious of a feeling that, were they no longer to exist, the end of the world would come" (188). Boyd's protagonist is gradually sinking into a mire of nonentity. The impersonal war treats men as things, as cannon fodder, worth nothing aside from their use to the war machine. It gets worse. After a grueling engagement from which only one in five men return, the platoon is napping in a forest when a branch, previously weakened by bombardment, falls from a tree, striking a sleeping soldier in the head and killing him. This event has a profound effect on Hicks. Boyd writes, "The incident of the falling tree had broken him." He has come to realize that there is "no safety anywhere," and consequently, he ceases to care where he goes (213). Hicks sees the absurdity of it all, saying, "it seems so damned ridiculous" (215). Yet, feeling physically sick and totally depressed as the troops once more embark upon an attack, Hicks is advised by a newcomer to the platoon to go back to the aid station, to which he replies, "Yeh. And have every one of you birds think I'm yellow? I will not" (232). The irony is clear. No matter how much one insists upon one's individuality, self-esteem is still dependent upon the opinion of one's community, even at the risk of one's life. According to Boyd, "Their cowardice made them brave men, heroes" (247). Hicks's part in the battle "had been brought about more by a great tiredness than by any courage." He was simply annoyed at having to lie there under fire, so he got up and acted without thinking, for it "all seemed so senseless" (252). As Boyd concludes his tale, we see Hicks on the field of battle, striding among the dead, and "Each body was alone, drawn apart from its companions by its separate and incommunicable misery" (265). The fate of humans is solitary, Boyd seems to say, and devoid of meaning. His last sentence describes the fate of modern man, in the person of Hicks. "The soul of Hicks was numb" (266). He has become an automaton, going through the motions of life without thought or care. Hicks makes no redeeming authenticating gesture. He no longer struggles against his fate. Only annihilation awaits him.(1)
Dos Passos's pessimism and Boyd's nihilism stand in contrast to the largely uncritical naturalism of William March. March's characters are not depicted as overwhelmed so much as they are as victims, or potential victims, of the vagaries of chance, which makes them, nonetheless, just as powerless as any character we find in Dos Passos's or Boyd's novels. Even though most reviewers had grown weary of war novels by that time, the 1933 publication of March's Company K was followed by a spate of largely enthusiastic reviews. The reviewers' descriptions ranged from "poignant and significant" to "sensational and morbid" (Simmonds 72-75). Subsequent criticism, though, has been scant. Like Boyd, March drew upon his own battle experiences as a Marine in the war. The novel is modernistic in its style, consisting of 113 vignettes, each one an event seen through the eyes of a single member of Company K. According to Roy S. Simmonds, his biographer, March intended the 113 accounts to be unified by the "common theme of the triumph of stupidity over everything" (39). The sketches are ordered chronologically, so the reader can follow the thread of the company's history through the fragments of observation.
By not focusing on a particular protagonist, March is able to portray the absurdities and horrors of the Great War in a way that accents the isolation of the individuals involved. Alexander Medlicott, Jr. argues that, by revealing the reality of warfare, Company K helps us understand "the nation's transition from naive, romantic optimism to the cynicism and disillusionment of the fictional heroes of the novels of the postwar decades"--the so-called "lost generation" (223). Simmonds maintains that March's viewpoint is very much a "subjective one" (72), despite his professed intent to "present all sides of the picture" (62). Peter Aichinger contends that March's novel is too realistic to be as enduring as the works of Dos Passos and Hemingway, that it lacks their use of "the war as a metaphor for the ills besetting their generation" (15). Perhaps this explains the paucity of critical appraisals of the work, yet I think the novel's realism does convey significant philosophical and social commentary that still speaks to our age. For example, as Cooperman points out, March critiques the endorsement of war by religious entities (Novel 20, 110) and the dehumanizing nature of machine warfare (Novel 88-90), topics emblematic of the hypocrisy and alienation of modern society. Jeffrey Walsh, like Aichinger, falls short of the mark when he calls Company K a "naturalistic" novel (195). March portrays a rather meaningless universe, but he does hold out for rare moments of existential freedom.
Like Dos Passos and Boyd, March examines humanity's relation to the universe in many of his sketches. In one vignette, March subtly shows the meaninglessness of the universe through his account of a wall with a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus hanging upon it that is the only thing standing after a bombardment. A soldier, Al de Castro, wanders over to look at the wall in amazement, only to have it fall upon him, crushing him to death (27). This account contrasts with the "luck" of Private John McGill, who has frequent close calls but never is even slightly wounded (70-71). We also find the story of Private Martin Passy, who visits a fortune-teller before embarking for the war. She tells him he will neither die nor be wounded, and Passy believes her. He subsequently acts on his belief, saying, "I wasn't braver than anybody else and besides that I knew all the time that nothing could possibly happen to me, no matter what I did" (99). Passy's story is followed by Private Leo Hastings' account of how he frustrated a German sniper by pacing in full view of him, randomly varying his stride, making it impossible for the sniper to get an accurate bead on him. With these tales March invites us to ponder the workings of chance and agency in individual lives. The survival of McGill and death of de Castro seem to be the workings of pure chance, whereas Passy's and Hastings' survivals are matters of personal agency, Passy's as an act of faith and Hastings' as a rational and logical deduction. Still, the agency of the latter two soldiers is an ephemeral thing, proving nothing more than that the vagaries of chance had not controverted them up to that point in time. Thus, we see that not all of the individuals portrayed in Great War novels are depicted as irredeemably overwhelmed victims of circumstance, yet victims they are, nonetheless. Still, Company K can serve as our entrance to a discussion of the possibilities for individual redemption that some authors hold out to their readers.
March's most poignant tale is that of "The Unknown Soldier." This man finds himself eviscerated and inextricably entangled in the barbed wire of no-man's-land. As he is dying, the soldier remembers his hometown mayor's annual address in praise of those who "died gloriously on the Field of Honor!" He remembers himself as a boy "listening enraptured to the speech and believing every word of it; and at that instant [he] understood clearly why [he] now lay dying on the wire." He realizes that the honor and glory of war is "all a lie that people tell each other, and nobody really believes" (120-21). The unknown soldier then manages to throw away every last bit of identification that he possesses so that his body can never be taken home to have the mayor's speech recited over it. He refuses to be used, saying, "I've beaten the orators and the wreath layers at their own game! . . . Nobody will ever use me as a symbol" (122). As he dies, he whispers, "I have broken the chain. . . . I have defeated the inherent stupidity of life" (123). Here is a form of agency in which March invites us to believe, using a rhetoric designed to defeat the dehumanizing rhetoric of the war machine. The unknown soldier has made a free choice on moral grounds. He has chosen to be not a symbol of war's glory but, rather, a symbol of its destructive power, the power to even destroy the very identity of its victims. He has chosen to discard the identity imposed upon him by the group, the military machine, in order to embrace his own, internal sense of self. In doing so, he is true to his own sense of himself as a moral being and a member of a much wider collectivity, humankind.
March reinforces this point of view with the story of Private Walter Drury. Drury's rifle squad is assigned the task of executing prisoners. Rather than do so, Drury throws down his rifle and runs away, ultimately deciding to give himself up to be tried as a deserter in hopes he will not get more than twenty years in prison. He does not regret his moral choice, saying, "I'll only be forty-two, when I come out, and I can start life all over again" (84). Again, a free choice is made, an existential choice to be true to one's own vision of oneself as a moral being. Drury draws the line at the cold-blooded murder of prisoners, an attitude clearly founded in the biblical and republican tradition that values human life. Drury's act and attitude are in stark contrast to that of Private Everett Qualls, who goes along with the execution but has to live with it for the rest of his life. Eventually, Qualls commits suicide after years of hard luck that he considers God's retribution for his part in the murders (153-54). The interesting aspect of the existentially authenticating moral choices made by Drury and the unknown soldier is that both individuals realize that they are members of a larger community, the community of humankind, much like Dos Passos's Andrews, as we shall see. The demands of what is in the best interest of the larger community are the deciding factors in their choices, despite the fact that most of the members of the community are unaware of their own best interests. The suggestion, then, is that freedom is found in asserting oneself as human, as an individual human above all, and to be true to one's humanity is to be true to oneself.
John Andrews is the character who receives most of Dos Passos's attention in Three Soldiers. Cooperman calls Andrews an "antihero" who "enlists because of a need for sacrificial gesture" (Novel 177). He wants to immerse himself in the mass in order to "take refuge from the horror of the world that had fallen upon him," because he is "sick of revolt, of thought, of carrying his individuality like a banner above the turmoil" (26). Andrews, for all his education, has found no meaning in life and wants to give up the search--temporarily. While shunning thought all day, he reserves the nights alone in his bunk for thoughtfulness, for "He must not let himself sink too deeply into the helpless mentality of the soldier. He must keep his will power" (31). And will power, we gradually come to realize, is what differentiates Andrews from his comrades, Fuselli and Chrisfield. None of the three take long to realize the deadeningly dull and depersonalized nature of the soldier's life. But only Andrews is able to apply reason to his plight and explain it to himself, thinking, "What a coward he had been anyway, to submit. . . . he had not been driven into the army by the force of public opinion" (207). He had freely allowed himself to be drafted for no particular reason, unlike the undertaker, his fellow patient in the hospital, who enlisted so that the people in his community would continue to do business with him. Furthermore, Andrews
had not had the courage to move a muscle for his freedom, but he had been fairly cheerful about risking his life as a soldier, in a cause he believed useless. What right had a man to exist who was too cowardly to stand up for what he thought and felt, for his whole makeup, for everything that made him an individual apart from his fellows, and not a slave to stand cap in hand waiting for someone of stronger will to tell him to act? (207-08)This realization of his cowardice is invigorating to him, and he feels emboldened, thinking that "He was ready to endure anything, to face any sort of death, for the sake of a few months of liberty in which to forget the degradation of this last year. . . . It seemed the first time in his life he had ever determined to act" (211). Before he can act, though, the armistice is declared, and after a brief fling AWOL in Paris, Andrews returns to his unit to don once more the blouse of servility.
Andrews eventually manages to get himself assigned to a Paris school battalion so that he can study composition at the Schola Cantorum, all the while chastising himself for the humiliating boot-licking and begging he had to do to accomplish it. The small taste of freedom this assignment affords him sets him to thinking again. He tries out his ideas on Jeanne, a French girl he has met. "'Now I have learnt that life is to be used, not just held in the hand like a box of bonbons that nobody eats.' . . . 'What do you mean?' she said slowly, 'One takes what life gives, that is all, there's no choice'" (321-22). Jeanne does not understand his point of view at all, saying, "But what's the good of freedom? What can you do with it? What one wants is to live well and have a beautiful house and be respected by people" (327). Here we have laid bare the heart of Dos Passos's concern in this novel. According to Virginia Spencer Carr, Three Soldiers "was his document of the dehumanization of the individual. Personal liberty was one's most precious possession, and if [one] lacked that, the dehumanization process was irreversible" (171).
The novel continually calls upon its readers to ask, what is freedom? What is free will? Is individual choice even possible? Can an individual act freely? Should one even care about freedom, or as Jeanne says, should one simply concern oneself with the respect of other people, with fitting in to one's community? These are the questions Andrews struggles with through the rest of the novel with ever-increasing dread. He thinks, "Today everything was congestion, the scurrying of crowds; men had become ant-like. Perhaps it was inevitable that the crowds should sink deeper and deeper in slavery. Whichever won, tyranny from above, or spontaneous organization from below, there could be no individuals" (343). His despair at his lost individuality finds nearly its nadir when he realizes that "in index cards and piles of typewritten papers, his real self, which they had power to kill if they wanted to, was in his name and his number, on lists with millions of other names and other numbers" (347). However, worse is to come as he goes off on an outing with Geneviève Rod without a pass. He falls into the hands of the Military Police, is severely beaten, and put into a labor battalion without any sort of trial or attempt to establish his identity. The "slavery" Andrews knew prior to this was nothing by comparison, and he finally acts to secure the freedom he so desires, abandoning even his uniform and embracing the role of deserter.
As a deserter, Andrews is clearly in a situation that we can call an existential dilemma, although Dos Passos would not have known the term at the time he wrote the novel. Andrews is an isolated individual, totally alienated from the society in which he moves. His desertion was not planned or prepared for in any way. Andrews himself says, ". . . I, by pure accident, have made a gesture, feeble as it is, towards human freedom" (423). A "gesture" is, indeed, all his act seems to be, certainly not an act of will power--initially. As far back as his stay in the hospital, Andrews had remarked the futility of life and the "forlorn" men who had tried to show others the way out--"Democritus, Socrates, Epicurus, Christ" (211), and later, while chastising himself for his cowardice in not acting, he acknowledges that protest would be a "futile gesture" (340). He has no illusions about the possibility of change either, saying, "human society has been always that, and perhaps will be always that: organizations growing and stifling individuals, and individuals revolting hopelessly against them, and at last forming new societies to crush the old societies and becoming slaves again in their turn" (421). Nonetheless, as Michael Clark points out, in Three Soldiers "gesture" is frequently used to "describe actions by diverse characters, to suggest an essential truth, the moment at which the concrete action and the spiritual life of the character are melded inextricably" (91). Now that he has made the "gesture" of desertion, now that he has taken off the uniform, he is in a position to consummate a freely determined act, to choose to be himself, to choose to "live like John Andrews" (265).
After his desertion, Andrews is not immediately isolated from society, from his community of friends. He makes his way back to Paris and to his old rooms, where he encounters his friends, Henslowe and Walters. These two desperately try to convince him to return and assure him that the problems of returning are not insurmountable, and they are correct in their assessment. But Andrews is adamant that "Being free's the only thing that matters," prompting Henslowe to mutter, "As if anyone was ever free" (394). Later, Geneviève Rod urges the same argument as his other friends, to which Andrews replies, "I am ashamed of many things in my life, Geneviève, I'm rather proud of this." And she responds, "But can't you understand that other people haven't your notions of individual liberty?" (428). This is precisely the point. Dos Passos has set up Andrews to be what we now call an existential hero. He has made a Sartrean choice to be free, and despite the fact that he is later apprehended by the military police and presumably imprisoned for many long years, he has freely made a choice to be free. As we will see in this study, such choices are almost always quixotic, but nonetheless existentially authenticating for the individual. Yet, Andrews is not fully contented because, despite his isolation, he has been influenced by the biblical and republican traditions and still has concern for others.
And why, instead of writing music that would have been worth while if he hadn't been a deserter, he kept asking himself, hadn't he tried long ago to act, to make a gesture, however feeble, however forlorn, for other people's freedom? Half by accident he had managed to free himself from the treadmill. Couldn't he have helped others? . . . No; he had not lived up to the name of John Brown. (431)Of course, John Brown, besides being the alias Andrews is using, is a reference to the anti-slavery hero of Harper's Ferry who fought for the freedom and dignity of all people. Here, the youthful idealism of the times, the desire to do something noble and heroic is shown in all its impotence by Dos Passos in the person of John Andrews. Yet, one must ask, what if he had heeded the advice of his community of friends? Perhaps then Andrews could have ultimately found means to positively affect the lives of others in ways that will be impossible for him to accomplish while in prison. It appears to me that Dos Passos is suggesting that life is an exercise in futility, and the best one can hope for is to be an authentic individual, true to one's own sense of humanity and one's own understanding of what it means to be a free human being.
Like Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, in his 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms, also examines individuality, liberty, and the war. Hemingway tried to enlist in the army after graduating from high school, but a bad eye prevented him from doing so. Eventually, though, he managed to join the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps and to become severely wounded in Italy before he had turned nineteen. After his recovery, he joined the Italian infantry and served until the war's end. His war experience informed much of his early work and ultimately laid the foundation for one of his most acclaimed and influential novels, A Farewell to Arms. Peter Aichinger contends that the novel is "symbolic of the outlook of the twenties" in that the Italian collapse at Caporetto represents the collapse of American "moral certitude," and the subsequent chaotic retreat "parallels America's frenetic search for new values in the twenties" (17). This may be so, on the whole, but what I want to briefly examine is simply the novel's treatment of one individual possessed of "moral certitude" and the values that Hemingway attributes to him.
A Farewell to Arms is the story of Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver in Italy during the Great War, and Aichinger likens his story of isolation and loss to the alienation expressed by many writers of Hemingway's generation, the so-called "lost generation" (17). D. S. Savage finds Hemingway's characters to be "victims of a meaningless determinism" (95). This description fits Henry well, as he has been "blown up while . . . eating cheese" (66) and eventually deserts rather than allowing himself to be uselessly, mindlessly executed amidst the retreat from Caporetto. He tries to take control of his destiny but is thwarted by circumstance, even losing his lover, Catherine, and their child to the whims of physiology. Michael Garrety sums up, "Man is trapped socially and biologically; life is an unfair game, and the only inescapable fact he has is death" (20). As Hemingway puts it, "They threw you in and told you the rules and the first time they caught you off base they killed you. . . . You could count on that. Stay around and they would kill you" (338). But Henry does not roll over and die.
As Peter G. Jones contends, Henry makes an individual decision to "struggle" on. "Like Sisyphus returning to his rock, Henry knows that defeat is inevitable and that he can assert himself as man only by making the decision to continue" (9). This moral decision to go on, to not give up, makes Henry kin to Dos Passos's Andrews. His is an existential decision in the face of absurdity. Cooperman argues that Andrews and Henry "become heroes of the negative act; it is their insistence upon the imperative of action which sets up their antiheroic role" (Novel 189). Yet, Cooperman sees Henry's actions as a "retreat from rather than an acceptance of existential absurdity" (Novel 187). Scott Donaldson concurs, finding Henry "driven by guilt," the guilt of the survivor, and unwilling "to accept responsibility for his actions" (166). Likewise, John Beversluis argues that Henry is not decisive but, rather, has simply persuaded "himself that what he really wanted to do was exactly what he was doing" (24). I disagree. Henry, like Andrews, makes his crucial decision on the spur of the moment. Like Andrews, he acts; he dives into the river and escapes his oppressors, and everything else follows from that decision. Yet, he continues to take responsibility for his life, making his way to Catherine and delivering both of them to safety in Switzerland. He also accepts the responsibility of Catherine's pregnancy and is perfectly willing to be husband and father. In the end, though, he loses Catherine, which leaves him alone and isolated in the world. But he voices no regret. He prays and pleads but does not shout at God or argue that life is unfair. The decision has been made. He has affirmed his freedom and his value as a human being and has acted upon the affirmation, regardless of the consequences. And the novel ends with him going on, walking "back to the hotel in the rain" (343), the sad, resolute possessor of a "separate peace" (252).
Dalton Trumbo gives us a character who is even more isolated than Andrews or Henry, but who, ironically, understands the tension between individuals and their communities better than either of them. Trumbo's antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun is considered the last major novel of the Great War, the war-to-end-all-wars. Ironically, it was published in 1939, on the very eve of World War II. A left-wing novelist, film writer, pamphleteer, and magazine writer in the 1930s, Trumbo joined the Communist Party in 1943. He was later imprisoned after being cited for contempt of Congress for his refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was blacklisted by Hollywood. His biographer Bruce Cook tells us that Trumbo was anxious to deliver his antiwar message to a "world hurtling toward war" in the late '30s (129). In a letter to his agent in February, 1939, Trumbo explicitly expressed his sense of urgency about getting the book published before "the country is either in war or in favor of war" (Cook 130). As it turned out, Johnny Got His Gun came out a week after Germany invaded Poland. Trumbo's detractors claim his novel was written to order for the Communists, but Cook points out that Trumbo did not join the Party until years later--December, 1943, to be exact (131, 146). Leonard Kriegel criticizes the novel's "overblown rhetoric," sentimentality, and "overly propagandistic ending," while acknowledging that the ending is not a "total failure, for one of the questions we must learn to ask of novels accused of being propagandistic is how accurate their propaganda is" (110). Still, in the protagonist, Joe Bonham, Kriegel finds an absurd reality that cannot be denied, stating that in Joe Bonham, Trumbo has "succeeded in creating our nightmare" (109-10). Jeffrey Walsh calls the novel "the ultimate post-war communication crisis" (30) and finds a certain "residual social energy" in its depiction of the working class that is missing in later war novels (115). Aichinger, quite correctly I think, identifies the novel as the result of a "purely rational," unemotional process, which "dwells on an absolute protest against war and . . . on the loneliness and isolation of the individual" (24).
Trumbo makes no secret of the fact that he is on the side of the little guy, the individual soldier. He concludes the novel with this sentence: "You plan the wars you masters of men plan the wars and point the way and we will point the gun" (309). They will point the guns at the masters, Trumbo clearly implies. His protagonist, Joe Bonham, has plenty of time to think, and he thinks about slaves, "little guys like himself" (234). Trumbo's novel is, on the whole, a paean to the "little guys," a testament to the worth of the individual, and at the same time, a recognition of the social nature of human beings. He writes, "A man needed to be among other men. Every living thing needed to be among its own kind" (284). The novel tests what it means to be a free individual in the twentieth century against what it means to be a citizen of a nation or a member of the human community. Ultimately, Trumbo finds society lacking in respect for the individual. For example, the paradox of war and personal liberty is explored by Bonham.
Somebody tapped you on the shoulder and said come along son we're going to war. So you went. But why? In any other deal even like buying a car or running an errand you had the right to say what's there in it for me? . . . It was a kind of duty you owed yourself that when anybody said come on son do this or do that you should stand up and say look mister why should I do this for whom am I doing it and what am I going to get out of it in the end? But when a guy comes along and says here come with me and risk your life . . . why then you've got no rights. (143)Bonham comes to the realization that the things men are asked to die for--liberty, freedom, democracy, independence, decency, honor, womanhood--are all just words and of no use to a dead man. Anyone preaching that principles are worth dying for is "either a fool or a liar because he doesn't know what death is," since he has never experienced it (150). Bonham knows because he is a living dead man, and he says, "The most important thing is your life little guys. You're worth nothing dead except speeches" (154).
Joe Bonham awakes one day only to find himself in a hospital bed with no arms, no legs, no ears, no eyes, no nose, and no mouth. By presenting a character with such severe limitations, Trumbo encourages his readers to analyze just exactly what it means to be a human being, to consider what constitutes selfhood. The Bonham who rages against the "masters" on behalf of the "little guys" is confronted with an existential dilemma. Does he, in fact, exist, or does he not? Is he even capable of performing an act that is existentially authenticating? Bonham is first confronted with the question of his own existence when he realizes that he does not know if he is dreaming or awake. The only time he is sure that he is awake is when he can feel the nurse's hands on him. It soon becomes clear to him that the "inability to tell dreams from thoughts was oblivion. It made him nothing and less than nothing" (131). The Cartesian description of selfhood does not apply if one is not conscious of thinking rational thoughts. Thus, Bonham determines to think, and eventually he discovers the importance of time and how it connects one with other people. He thinks, "No matter how far you are separated from other people if you have an idea of time why then you are in the same world with them you are part of them" (163). He becomes aware, though, that simply being awake and conscious of time is not enough. He remains isolated in his mind, alienated from all the human activity that surrounds him until one day he begins thinking about the vibrations he uses to understand what is going on around him.
In the back of his mind something began to glimmer. If he could in some way make use of vibrations he could communicate with these people. The glimmer became a great dazzling white light. It opened up such breathless prospects that he thought he might suffocate from sheer excitement. Vibrations were a very important part of communication. . . . He still remembered the Morse code. All he had to do in order to break through to people in the outside world was to lie in his bed and dot dash to the nurse. Then he could talk. . . . and he would have made another step forward in his struggle to get back to people. (208-10)
Of course, the people around him do not realize that he is trying to talk to them for the longest time, but he never gives up hope and finally a nurse figures it out. In his exaltation at her perspicacity, he imagines the reaction of the doctors. "Listen to him speak. You see his mind is unaffected he speaks like you and me he is a person he has identity he is part of the world" (275, italics added). This raises an important point. Is one a person, a self with an identity if one is not in communication with others? Many post-war authors and thinkers have commented on the increased isolation and alienation of individuals in the modern world. Are these isolated individuals, then, less human to the extent that they are divorced from communicating meaningfully with other individuals? Trumbo seems to say yes. Communication is all important, and as Bonham's attempt to communicate is trivialized and categorically dismissed by the guardians of "REGULATIONS" (299), we feel his horror at being thrust back into the darkness of isolation. Yet, Bonham soon recovers and makes an existentially authenticating choice. He decides to continue tapping his Morse code in the face of their dismissal. "They might not answer him they might ignore him but at least they would never be able to forget that as long as he lived here was a man who was talking to them talking to them all the time" (304-05). He feels his solidarity with the community of "little guys," and sees himself as the "new messiah of the battlefields" (306) whose duty it is to warn his community of the evil future planned for them. And so he taps his defiant message, "You plan the wars you masters of men plan the wars and point the way and we will point the gun" (309).
Clearly, the major war novels written in the aftermath of World War I have depicted the war experience as analogous to modern life. Just as soldiers such as Andrews, Bonham, Hicks, and Fuselli were reduced to little more than isolated cogs in a machine by the regimentation and depersonalization of warfare and military life, individuals in modern American culture find themselves attached to but alienated from their core communities. Rather, what passes for community is all too often simply a manifestation of mob psychology and conformity with none of the elements of communication and care that the progressives, like Dewey, dreamed of. The Great War authors suggest various methods of escape from this isolation and alienation, with varying degrees of success. Some, like Hicks, just grow "numb," becoming mindless automatons. Others, like Fuselli, while not exactly mindless, seek to keep a low profile so as not to make even a ripple in the waters of conformity, let alone make waves. And still others, like Chrisfield, make a run for it, a run that is fruitless from the start because it is self-involved and has neither destination nor purpose. Nowhere in the novels we have examined have we seen a community consciously act as a community of thoughtful human beings. Some individuals, though, such as Andrews, Bonham, and Henry, have acted to secure their liberty and have managed to find a certain existential freedom. The authenticating factor in each of these cases has been the individual acting upon his belief in the traditional value of concern for others. From Henry's concern for Catherine to Bonham's concern for the "little guy" to March's unknown soldier's concern for all the little boys listening to the speeches of the politicos, somehow the existential hero finds individual freedom arising out of care for others, out of his realization of his own humanity. Nonetheless, the freedom of these authentic individuals is shown to be quixotic at best--Andrews is imprisoned, Henry loses Catherine, the unknown soldier dies, and Bonham is ignored. Still, the "gestures" of the existential heroes in the war novels from between the world wars leave the reader with a much more positive and hopeful impression of humanity and of human possibilities than that derived from the futility of Hicks, Fuselli, Chrisfield, and their ilk.
We next turn to the novels of World War II. These works continue to address the Great War themes of the separate peace and the fate of the individual in modern industrial society. Notions of the absurdity and meaninglessness of the universe are pursued, and extremely deterministic, naturalistic visions of the world are espoused--even to the point of bleakness. Meanwhile, existential ideas are in evidence, and the only overtly existential novel in this study will be examined.
1. Strangely enough, Hicks seems to have survived the war as he reappears as the protagonist of Boyd's 1935 novel, In Time of Peace. Return to text
Copyright © Patrick Paul Christle, 2001
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