The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | The New Death: American Modernism and World War I

The New Death:  American Modernism and World War I.  By Pearl James.  Charlottesville:  University of Virginia Press, 2013.  xii + 259 pp.  $29.50 paper.

Reviewed by Will Kanyusik, Loras College

In The New Death: American Modernism and World War I, Pearl James aims to reorient critical debates surrounding American modernism’s relationship to the violence of the First World War. Focusing on works of American modernist fiction that tend to represent the carnage of war obliquely, James argues that death—made newly palpable by violence of World War I—is the central preoccupation of American modernist fiction produced during and after the conflict, even in texts that do not address the war directly. In James’s words, her book “identifies modern, mechanized, mass death as one of the signal preoccupations and structuring contexts of canonical American modernist writing—and this, despite the relative brevity of U.S. involvement in the conflict and its geographic distance from the war theaters” (2). Describing the effect of World War I on the postwar United States, James writes: “Death seemed new; wounds seemed obscene; male bodies became the site of abjection and trauma” (61). American modernist writing is, James argues, haunted from the beginning by “physical damage” so vast it “threatens our ability to find, name, bury, and mourn the dead” (4). Such death defies representation through the language of realist fiction, leaving writers to resort to tropes of the unspeakable and the unrepresentable when referencing the war (15). 

The New Death takes its title from Winifred Kirkland’s 1918 book of the same name, which proposes that American culture became increasingly preoccupied with death after the First World War, not because of the amount of carnage produced by the conflict, but because the war’s violence itself was different from that wrought any previous conflict (James 1). As James explains, New Death is characterized on the battlefield by its suddenness and its totality: “It occurs when it is not expected; it is recalled after the fact and feared in advance” (3). On the home front, New Death is characterized by uncertainty and absence, as “the war disrupted people’s ability to prepare for, witness, and ritualize death according to customs of deathbed attendance, funerals, and burials” (7). While James notes that Kirkland—an early commentator who observed the aftermath of the war without the benefit of historical perspective—tends to overstate the effect of the war’s violence on postwar society, she argues that “subsequent commentators have almost universally done the opposite by understating it,” and positions her book as a corrective to prevailing arguments surrounding death in American modernist writing. The author writes that “canonical modernist literature and its contemporary criticism tend to allude to, sometimes to mystify, historical sources of pain and loss” (11). It is for this reason, James argues, that contemporary critics of modernist writing overlook the importance of texts written in the immediate postwar years and thus tend to underestimate the extent to which the trauma of World War I pervaded American culture following the war (2,10). 

James’s account of American writing and its relationship to World War I offers historical specificity to the field of modernism studies by linking discussions of fictional narratives seemingly unrelated to the war for the most part to primary accounts of the war itself written soon after the events they depict; it argues for the importance of seeing a direct thematic link between these two modes of representing the war. In her introduction, the author argues that World War I interrupted a cultural narrative of industrial and social progress. The war, James writes, temporarily reversed a trend of longer lifespans and lowered infant mortality rates “by sending millions of young, healthy, able-bodied men to die in the prime of their lives” (17). At times, James overstates the extent to which the critics whose work she critiques in The New Death elide the effect of World War I in their scholarship. James’s argument foregrounds the violence of World War I to a greater extend than one finds in other recent discussions of elision as a narrative technique in American modernist fiction, but a number of the critics James cites in her book do link modernist aesthetics directly to the violence of the war in their recent work. 

Though primarily directed to scholars of literary modernism working in American Studies, The New Death is also useful for scholars in gender and masculinity studies, as the effect of the New Death, James writes, is often gendered. For James, silences and moments of elision in texts written in the wake of World War serve to evoke a masculine reticence to self-expression (particularly in regards to trauma), and instances of wartime violence, when evoked, tend to be re-inscribed on female bodies due to the taboo nature of displaying male bodies rendered abject by wounding or death (23).

What stand out most in James’s book are her vivid, insightful close readings of the individual texts she discusses, rendered in lucid, eloquent prose. Her first chapter reads Willa Cather’s One of Ours as a meditation on gender trouble connected to wartime trauma, interpreting a farming accident experienced by the protagonist as an event that “foreshadows without naming where Claude’s fate will lead”: a death on the battlefield (40). James’s critical eye is on display here in a nuanced reading which connects “the closing and domestication of the American frontier . . . to the apocalyptic landscape of no-man’s-land on the Western Front” through a similar foregrounding of “the fragility of male bodies in an industrialized world” (41, 42). Her subsequent chapters, examining The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, and Faulkner’s Sartoris, respectively, offer similarly nuanced close readings of these texts, connecting the repressed war narratives she finds in these novels to the discussion of the totalizing effect of the First World War’s militarization of American society laid out in the book’s introduction. James concludes that the first three authors “manage [their] contradictory portrayals of New Death by relocating aspects of modernity and violence into either female actors . . . or female victims.” Faulkner, on the other hand, “represents the horror of bodily disappearance in modern war and the traumatic symptoms and repetitions that open around the absence of witnessing death” that occur when a deceased soldier’s body does not return home (200). These four chapters present individual reconsiderations of canonical modernist novels in relation to a death-obsessed postwar culture while making a cogent case for the presence of wartime trauma in a broader array of World War I-era texts than some critics acknowledge. 

Overall, James’s keen eye for detail and thorough attention to history make The New Death essential reading in a number of disciplines. James’s book is a welcome addition to modernist studies, a field that at times neglects the role of American modernist writers in its account of the cultural and historical influences that combined to produce the modernist movement. Moreover, James’s discussion of the New Death’s disruption of temporality places her book in productive dialogue with reconsiderations of time in other disciplines such as film studies, in which scholars like Mary Ann Doane have reframed modern temporality as a tension embodied in cinema’s capacity to capture and archive ephemeral, transitory moments (Doane 22). The New Death, James argues, produces in the modern subject a “constant vigilance [and] need to prepare for death,” amplifying individual war related traumas and infusing postwar society with an anxiety that defies localization in specific causes and symptoms (3-4). 

Works Cited

Doane, Mary Ann. The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2002.

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