Five Under-read World War I Works

In early 1918, the first U.S. soldiers arrived in France to join the Allied forces in the Great War (as it was then known). Many future American writers would take part in the war efforts in one way or another, and some of the most famous works of American Modernism reflect those experiences and the war’s effects: Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time (1925) and A Farewell to Arms (1929); F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925); T.S. Eliot’s The Waste-Land (1922); and more.

Yet our collective focus on those justifiably famous authors and works has led us to forget the broader body of World War I literature, including many texts that deal with the war itself more deeply and with more nuance than some of the more famous works. In honor of the centennial celebration of the end of that conflict, here are five under-read WWI works that would help expand and strengthen our collective memories:

  • John Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers (1921): Dos Passos served with the U.S. Army Medical Corps in France, and based his second novel (published when he was only 25) on those experiences. In that way, Soldiers is quite a bit like Hemingway’s Farewell (which was based in large part on the author’s wartime service in Italy), if written and published far closer to the events in question. Perhaps that closeness helps explain the more raw and immersive depiction of war in Dos Passos’ novel, what L. Mencken called its “bold realism” that “at one blast … disposed of oceans of romance and blather.” In any case, Dos Passos’ book brings us as far inside the war as any American work.
  • e e cummings’ The Enormous Room (1922): Cummings was a college friend of Dos Passos and they enlisted together in the Ambulance Corps in 1917. But as anyone familiar with cummings’ unique and experimental body of poems would expect, his war novel is quite different from his friend’s. Room focuses on the more than four months that cummings and another friend, William Slater Brown, spent imprisoned by the French military on suspicions of espionage. The book combines psychological tension and horror with whimsy and collective spirit, prefiguring the pessimism yet humor of cummings’ poetry. But it also helps us remember the surveillance state that World War I helped bring into full existence.
  • Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings’ What Price Glory? (1924): Glory, a hit Broadway play co-written by playwright Anderson and veteran Stallings (and adapted into films in both 1926 and 1952), combines comedy and drama to tell the story of a pair of a rival Marine Corps officers fighting with the U.S. forces in France. Military and religious groups tried to censor the play, both for its vulgarity and for its anti-war stance; as often, those efforts simply drew more attention and audiences to the work. Indeed, Glory can be seen as having successfully extended the tones and perspectives of Dos Passos’ and cummings’ works to the popular setting of the Broadway stage, marking a culmination of the shift in narratives and images of the war that Mencken had seen underway in Dos Passos’ book.
  • Jessie Redmon Fauset’s There is Confusion (1924): The first of four novels by Fauset, perhaps best known as the literary editor for the NAACP magazine The Crisis and a key early proponent of the Harlem Renaissance, is the least focused on the war of these five, as it portrays the lives of a number of middle class African Americans in the 1910s. But the book’s final third is set during and just after the war, and includes both characters serving in Europe and others experiencing the war from the homefront. Fauset deals with particular power with the discrimination and violence that faced returning African American veterans, such as the horrifying “red summer” of 1919. That section alone makes Confusion a vital novel to add to our collective memories of World War I literature.
  • Victor Daly’s Not Only War: A Story of Two Great Conflicts (1932): Daly’s book is the only known novel by an African American World War I veteran (he received the Croix de Guerre for his service in France), and thus offers an important complement to both Fauset’s (on issues of racism, which form Daly’s second titular conflict) and the wartime experiences chronicled in the other three works. It’s also just a compelling and interesting read—not as stylistically innovative or formally groundbreaking as the Modernist texts with which I began this post, but rather more in line with the political novels of the 1930s (such as Dos Passos’ S.A. trilogy, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and Richard Wright’s Native Son).

As we continue to commemorate the Great War’s centennial, and here in the United States focus in particular on the period following our entrance into that conflict, all five of these books have a great deal to add to our memories and conversations.

-Ben Railton

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