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Postwar Disillusionment

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 11 months ago

Post-war Disillusionment

Created by Katherine Sas 

I. Introduction         www.solarnavigator.com  www.historywiz.com

In the years following World War I, America experienced its painful "coming of age." Though the U.S. was only involved in the war for two years and suffered far fewer casualties than its European counterparts, the war still had a devastating effect. Soldiers returning home from Europe found it difficult to return to old ways of life after their traumatic experiences overseas. For many, the return to rural America was a let-down after months spent in large, industrialized cities. Modern, urban life never seemed more attractive. In addition, the horrors of battle confronted in the ultimately futile war took a harsh toll on its participants. People began to realize that humankind was not making the kind of progress it had optimistically hoped to be making. The status quo America had enjoyed was no more. In addition, the camaraderie forced between the soldiers due to harsh conditions made the assimilation to normal society particularly difficult. Amidst the rubble of Western civilization, many great writers came to the forefront. Patriotism, religion, and traditional values weren't enough anymore. Many authors who fought in the "Great War" articulated their complex emotions in their publications, both poetry and prose. Much of the most representative modernist literature was born out of this inner turmoil. A number of these authors became a part of the Lost Generation, leaving America and moving to Europe.  Some of the most famous works associated with the aftermath of World War I are T.S. Eliot's The Hollow Men, his iconic masterpiece of high modernist poetry The Waste Land, and such classic novels as Earnest Hemmingway's A Farewell to Arms, Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front and John McCrae's poem "In Flander's Fields." It is, however, important to remember that, while the war and the modernist movement have become linked in people's minds, the two are not mutually exclusive. The modernist movement in America had its roots established long before the outbreak of the Great War. With the "waste land" of modern Western civilization as its favorite image, the disillusionment of the soldiers returning from the horrors of the European trenches merely bolstered the feelings already forming in the minds of American writers. The entanglement of the war and the movement was much stronger in Great Britain because of the proximity of the battlefront, and many American expatriates were influenced by the feelings rampant overseas.

       Photo courtesy of Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences    



 Photo courtesy of University of Wisconsin Special Collections Photographs





II. Ernest Hemingway www.answers.com


When America entered the first World War, young Ernest Hemingway immediately tried to sign up for service in the army, but was denied due to poor eyesight. Soon after, in 1918, he jumped at the chance to volunteer for the Red Cross by driving ambulances, and so he crossed the Atlantic for the Western front. On his first day of the city of Milan, shortly after arriving in Europe, he was faced with the horrors of battle first-hand. A factory was destroyed, and he helped to carry the wounded men, corpses, and littered body parts to a nearby morgue. Only a few weeks later, he himself was wounded while distributing food to troops in the trenches of Italy. A shell landed nearby, riddling Hemmingway's leg with shrapnel and knocking him unconscious, as well as killing and wounding others nearby. In a letter home, another ambulance driver who was present reported that Hemingway carried another wounded soldier away from the incident. Though Hemingway never confirmed this, he was awarded an Italian Silver Medal for Valour. His subsequent time spent healing in Milan, and his relationship with his nurse, inspired one of his great novels of World War I, A Farewell to Arms. On his return home, Hemingway experienced all the tell-tale signs of postwar disillusionment. He felt mature beyond his nineteen years, and found it difficult to readjust to the "dull" life of small-town Illinois compared to his life of adventure and romance in Europe.  He felt further alienated by his parents, who did not understand what he had been through. Their concept of war was "romantic," and they could not see how the experience could have had a negative psychological impact on their son. Though the war had ended when Hemingway had only just entered adulthood, it continued to have a great impact on his writing. He gave America many of its great war novels. In addition to A Farewell to Arms, he wrote The Sun Also Rises (introducing the world to the angst of the Lost Generation), and For Whom the Bell Tolls (dealing with the Spanish Civil War).




III. William Faulkner www.mcsr.olemiss.edu


One of the interesting affects the first World War had on American literature was to inspire one of Modernism's most celebrated writers, William Faulkner. After growing up in Mississippi in the early twentieth century, Faulkner trained for the airforce in Canada. Like Hemingway, he had tried to sign up with the army, but was denied (for being too short, at 5'5"). When World War I broke out, he went overseas to join the RAF (the United Kingdom's Royal Air Force), but the war ended before he could see any action. Even without combat experience, however, the war had made a deep impression upon the the young man's imagination. During his enlistment, he sent letters telling family of his adventures overseas. When he finally returned home to Mississippi, he claimed that he had been shot down over France, and suffered a limp. These tales of himself as a war-hero were complete fabrication. Though he had dropped out of high school, and had yet to study literature at university, it is easy to see Faulkner the writer beginning to emerge. It is also apparent that the war did not only affect the minds and consciousnesses of those who fought in it. Though Faulkner can hardly be called a post-war writer, and his fiction deals little with war in any respect, the first World War's influence is undeniable. One could easily wonder if Faulkner would have become the writer he did if not for the influence of World War I. Thematically, death is a pervasive element in his work, and the sense of loss and despair in his novels is easily transferable to the collective consciousness of the West in that era.


IV. Conclusion www.conservativehome.blogs.com

These groundbreaking and influential authors are just two examples among an entire generation affected by the First World War. These two wildly different examples show the pervasiveness of the war, how it left its mark on very different people in very different circumstances. Not long after the war had ended, and the physical wounds and emotional scars were beginning to heal, the Second World War broke out. In many ways it was a continuation of the unresolved issues in play in its predecessor. These two horrors crushed the progressive optimism that had characterized the late nineteenth century. World War One, the Great War, the "war to end all wars," was followed by another, in many ways worse. It is not difficult to see why these experiences left profoundly damaging impressions on those who participated and witnessed them, and created a "lost generation" of disillusioned youth.







 Works Cited


Cowley, Malcolm. A Second Flowering: Works and Days of the Lost Generation. New York: Viking, 1973.
















Link back to Encyclopedia of Modern American Literature

Comments (3)

Anonymous said

at 10:48 pm on Mar 15, 2007

hey...i loved these photos b/c they seem to capture some of the attitudes and issues discussed here...i don't know if you can find better formating.

Anonymous said

at 10:33 am on Apr 2, 2007

For our purposes, I think you should probably note the complexities of World War I in relationship to modernism. (i.e. some of the stuff we've talked about in class about how WWI didn't really cause modernism, but seemed to confirm and accelerate some of its central insights). I wonder if you could do a bit more with the role of the war in direct relation to stuff we've read. Pound, for instance, Faulkner. Others.

Anonymous said

at 7:52 am on Apr 25, 2007

Katherine good basic page. I'm less happy with the photos than anna since I don't feel them illuminating the particular issue of postwar disillusionment or connecting well to the text. (This having been said, I love that you are including images!). Figure out if this is the best you can come up with. I feel like things are a bit truncated just ending with faulkner. Should you come back with one more paragraph, perhaps as short as one or two sentences, that acts as a conclusion?

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