The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Teaching Representations of the First World War

Teaching Representations of the First World War.  Edited by Debra Rae Cohen and Douglas Higbee. MLA Publications, 2017. 378 pp. $29.00 (paper).

Reviewed by John C. Orr, University of Portland

A few years ago, I attended a conference on American literature and eagerly went to the single panel on literature of World War I. After the panel, I had a question for one of the panelists, a British scholar, and in the course of our conversation she expressed her amazement and dismay that Americans seemingly care so little about the Great War and the vast compendium of literary works touching the war in some manner. That over two-thirds of the contributors to this timely collection of essays hail from American universities indicates that the war has not been elided from Americans’ collective national memory.

This collection comprises thirty-five essays and a bibliography that treat a variety of subjects relative to the Great War and its representations, and the essays offer discussion of a wide range of different genres and modes of representation that extend far beyond literature. Likewise, it provides numerous approaches to understanding and teaching these different types of cultural artifacts. Experienced teachers of First World War literature will find many valuable and, at times, new ideas, materials, and methodologies in this volume. And while I heartily agree with several of the authors who noted “the seeming impossibility of adding new content to already stuffed courses” (30), anyone teaching a World War I course will benefit from some aspect of this collection.

The general objective of the book is to move past the understanding of World War I literature promulgated by Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory and subsequent monocular approaches to the literature of the war. Instead of valorizing a singular war experience, the essays seek to recognize the vastness of the many and varied war experiences that extend far beyond what the editors term “the master narrative for our teaching of the war” (4): the writings of European soldiers who fought on the Western Front. Such a rethinking of the war’s many representations will of necessity be “multinational” and “multigeneric” (4).

In essence, the book is structured like a funnel, with the first four longer essays providing overviews of the organizing principles that orient the collection, followed by increasingly specific and concise essays that focus on individual issues, genres, or approaches. While it may be unlikely that many people will read the entire book, those who do will be rewarded with theoretical, pedagogical, and just plain practical guidance as they think about teaching in this arena.

Anne E. Fernald’s opening essay, “What is War?” sets the tone for many of the subsequent essays, since she urges us to “draw upon a pedagogy of variety” (18), one that refuses to “reinscribe a hierarchy based on proximity” (23). Her goal is to question received notions about the nature of war, both spatially and temporally, and to consider the many intersections with some aspect of the war conceived in its totality that were experienced by many people, not only the combat soldier. Likewise, Claire Buck’s essay, “The ‘World’ in World War I: Learning to Think Globally,” notes that “the literature classroom is still centered on European and North American war writing” (28), thereby silencing the voices of nonwhite people from European colonies. To recover those missing voices means opening up the classroom to discussions of “letters, oral histories, folksongs, and sound recordings” (33), thereby turning that space into a “contact zone, representing new encounters and possibilities of relationship across racial, cultural, and national divides” (38).

The other two organizing essays focus on understanding the war and the literature of the war in relationship to modernism and a modernist aesthetic. Vincent Sherry’s “What Is the Relation of the First World War to Modernism?” seeks to reframe the war’s relationship to the modernist moment by viewing the war as “the climacteric, at once the failure and apotheosis, of a long European history of liberalism” (43). That political crisis informs both the “emotional intensity of being closed in,” a common trope in combat literature as well as providing a space “to create a new literary idiom” associated with Pound, Eliot and Woolf. Likewise, Patrick Deer’s “Rupture or Continuity? The Myth(s) of the War” contends that the challenge of teaching Great War literature is “to balance the desire to demystify with a critical exploration of the war’s various myths” (52). Because the war texts “come to us already imbued with mythic significance,” the teacher has a unique opportunity both to explore and displace those very myths that arose globally in the years following Armistice.

Following these four essays, the book is organized into four sections that approach the material from different foci. The first of these sections is “Global Narratives,” and for those readers who are well-versed in the canonical literature of the war but not so familiar with other works and perspectives, these essays are rich in content. Whether exploring French literature beyond Barbusse, German beyond Remarque, American beyond Hemingway, or lesser-known works by Jewish authors from Eastern Europe, several of these essays will leave the reader compiling a new list of books to find and read. Likewise, the twenty-five page list of texts in the Works Cited section for the entire collection is a feast of primary and secondary works from which any student or scholar of World War I will benefit.

The global approach also necessarily includes modes of representation that, in the words of Santanu Das, put “pressure on the very scope and definition of the word literary” (126). Since many colonial subjects whose lives intersected with some aspect of the war were semi-literate or illiterate, the various media that Claire Buck identified must be brought into the classroom. This issue raises questions about the accessibility of some items, but thankfully many materials have been digitized and are available in that form. One of the most welcome components of this collection are the many references to digital materials mentioned among the various essays as well as an annotated bibliography of World War I-related websites compiled by one of the editors, Douglas Higbee.

The next section, “Cultural Motifs,” continues to explore media beyond the strictly literary by looking at other modes of representation and the means by which the war was employed in realms such as consumer culture and advertising. Essays in this section touch on issues and topics often associated with the war but which normally lie slightly outside of the purview of a traditional literature class: shell shock, pacifism, the rise of fascism, sexual identity, spatial mapping, and the influenza pandemic. Each of these themes offers an entry point for approaching elements of the war experience, and many provide historical contexts for understanding the topic as well as references to how it is represented in various media.

Essays in the section entitled “Genres” focus on other media and forms that are already commonly employed in conjunction with literature in many First World War classrooms: painting, theater, memoir, film, memorials. But also appearing are explorations of the fascinating (and terrifying) children’s literary culture of the war era, graphic novels dealing with the war, and even the war’s influence on contemporary popular music and music videos. Given their truncated length, many of the essays in this section are essentially teasers, drawing readers in with some excellent analysis of a few key items and then setting us off to go explore a topic on our own.

The final section “Places and Pedagogies” closes out the collection with a few essays focused on such topics as mining digital archives, using community-based learning approaches, and employing genre-based approaches in a German classroom. The final essay is essentially a syllabus (and a very good one) of an entire course that pairs literary works with a number of other media. This closing section of the collection is rich in practicalities.

As welcome as this volume is, no book is without its weakness. And in this case I have two criticisms that are essentially the obverse of each other. The first is that it is essentially a book for people already deeply immersed in the literature and culture of World War I. It assumes that its audience is well-versed in the canonical works of Owen, Sassoon, Remarque, and Hemingway. The novice approaching this book would likely be overwhelmed by the plethora of materials expanding or disabling the standard canon but will encounter little actual investigation and discussion of the canon. That issue leads directly to my second criticism: rather than focus all of the essays on extra-canonical and/or non-combatant representations of the war, I, for one, would have appreciated reading some new approaches to Owen and Hemingway. Yes, there are passing references to how a theory might impact readings of some standard piece of literature, but they are only in passing rather than being the focus of a section in the collection. I recognize that I am wishing for a slightly different book and understand how unfair that is, but I do think that rather than ignoring the soldier poets, we would all benefit by looking at them afresh.

Those quibbles aside, I heartily recommend this book to anyone with an interest in delving deeper into this monumental cataclysm and the many ways in which it will forever be available to us solely via representation.


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