Although we are still two years away from the centenary of America’s entry into the First World War, Hazel Hutchison’s compelling study of the work of US writers is timely, not least because her approach is a refreshing mix of the historical and the literary that does not focus on the obvious. The War That Used Up Words is a thoughtful and meticulously researched endeavour that brings together not only a diverse range of writers with varied experiences of the war, but also considers the importance of the interface between war, writing, art and nationality in a world where nothing remained straightforward.
Hutchison’s previous work has prepared her well for this book. She has written extensively and authoritatively on Henry James and here uses his words to sum up the dilemma at the heart of the book. “It’s a complex fate being an American,” James concluded; Hutchison adds, “This was never more true than in 1915.” Indeed, it is the belated entry of the US into the war that underlines the truth of this complexity, and Hutchison maps this ambiguous position, neutral but interested, against the careers of her chosen writers. James himself, Edith Wharton and poet Grace Fallow Norton represent an older generation of non-combatant participants who found new roles in a range of war-related charitable and patriotic undertakings. James also provides Hutchison with her title: he feared “the war has used up words”. His anxiety offers the book a neat framing device, but in fact Hutchison devotes the rest of her text to proving him wrong, intentionally or otherwise.
A younger generation of writers who saw active service of some kind, whether medical or military, is also represented. Mary Borden, whose important First World War book The Forbidden Zone Hutchison edited for republication in 2008, offers a nursing perspective. This is juxtaposed with that of her colleague Ellen La Motte, whose book The Backwash of War is almost as influential if less well known. Both e. e. cummings and John Dos Passos began their war work with ambulance units, although their subsequent experience and war writings were quite divergent. Apart from their medical beginnings, what all these writers have in common is an experimental literary style. While Hutchison is reluctant to use the term “Modernist”, the younger authors she considers draw on a range of contemporary influences (Hutchison cites Gertrude Stein in particular) that are more commonly associated with that movement. The recognition of aesthetic self-awareness in these writings, a mechanism for finding new words to write about the war, is paralleled by a preoccupation with art generally, thus linking their works back to those of their elders. The figure of the artist often looms large as they try to understand how art, like literature, might survive the conflict.
Hutchison constructs a solid historical framework for the book, offering the reader a good understanding of how America’s war differed from the European experience. Again, James is useful here as he compares it with the Civil War of his youth, and takes ownership of this later conflict long before many of his compatriots. This historical approach is set alongside detailed close readings and literary analyses of the writings, one of the book’s greatest strengths. Although it is a tiny bit repetitive in places, as an exploration of “the ability of art to handle human experience” it is very successful.
Angela K. Smith is associate professor (reader) in English, Plymouth University.
The War That Used Up Words: American Writers and the First World War
By Hazel Hutchison
Yale University Press, 304pp, £25.00
Published 28 May 2015
Print headline: How art might survive conflict
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