War Stories

At the Oxford University Press blog, Keith Gandal writes something of a, er, call to arms to academic critics to engage more deeply with the subject of literature and war. Gandal is a Northern Illinois University English professor who’s written The Pen and the Gun, which has a great thesis: “Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner were motivated, in their famous postwar novels, not by their experiences of the horrors of war but rather by their failure to have those experiences.”

Gandal figures he knows what’s created the dearth of war stories in academia:

We know why the subjects of war and the military have fallen out of favor, and why most professors in English, as well as history, prefer to oppose war and criticize the military rather than to study them. The Vietnam War changed the meaning of war and of the military in this country, at least on the left, and the cohort of professors that for the most part has dominated and set trends in these fields in the last twenty years is of the generation that came of age during the Vietnam era; most of these professors were students when the huge protest against the war took place, and most of them were against the war.

What struck me here is that thinking back to my high school and college days (late ’80s and early ’90s), I can recall that a great many novels about war were recommended to me, appearing on supplementary reading lists and the like, but I can’t think of an occasion when they were actually taught as part of the syllabus. I had to find Catch-22 and Going After Cacciato on my own; I never even heard of books like Dog Soldiers until I was out of college. This may speak more to the shortcomings of my schooling, but it’s interesting how rarely war literature made it to the discussion table.

One response to “War Stories

  1. “The Red Badge of Courage” and “Johnny Tremaine” were in the New York state English junior high and high school curriculum of the 1960s, but I suspect things changed after I graduated in 1968.

    We also read a lot of war and soldier poetry too: Whitman, Owen, etc.

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