The War That Used Up Words: American Writers and the First World War

The War That Used Up Words: American Writers and the First World War

by Hazel Hutchison


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In this provocative study, Hazel Hutchison takes a fresh look at the roles of American writers in helping to shape national opinion and policy during the First World War. From the war’s opening salvos in Europe, American writers recognized the impact the war would have on their society and sought out new strategies to express their horror, support, or resignation. By focusing on the writings of Henry James, Edith Wharton, Grace Fallow Norton, Mary Borden, Ellen La Motte, E. E. Cummings, and John Dos Passos, Hutchison examines what it means to be a writer in wartime, particularly in the midst of a conflict characterized by censorship and propaganda. Drawing on original letters and manuscripts, some never before seen by researchers, this book explores how the essays, poetry, and novels of these seven literary figures influenced America’s public view of events, from August 1914 through the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, and ultimately set the literary agenda for later, more celebrated texts about the war.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300195026
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 03/31/2015
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Hazel Hutchison teaches British and American literature at the University of Aberdeen. She is the author two previous works, Seeing and Believing: Henry James and the Spiritual World and Brief Lives: Henry James.

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The War That Used Up Words

American Writers and the First World War

By Hazel Hutchison


Copyright © 2015 Hazel Hutchison
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-21324-9



The future is very dark in Europe, and to me it looks as if we were entering upon a period quite new in history.... Whether our period of economical enterprise, unlimited competition, and unrestrained individualism, is the highest stage of human progress is to me very doubtful; and sometimes when I see the existing conditions of European (to say nothing of American) social order, bad as they are for the mass alike of upper and lower classes, I wonder whether our civilization can maintain itself against the forces which are banding together for the destruction of many of the institutions in which it is embodied, or whether we are not to have another period of decline, fall, and ruin and revival, like that of the first thirteen hundred years of our era. It would not grieve me much to know that this were to be the case. No man who knows what society at the present day really is, but must agree that it is not worth preserving on its present basis.

These were strong words—but they were not about the Europe of 1914. Disillusionment, disgust and the anticipation of disaster lend a sharply modern tone, but this was Charles Eliot Norton (1827–1908), editor, art critic, and educator, writing home to America in 1869 as he toured Britain, Italy, Germany, and France. Over sixty years later, as Europe yet again spiraled into unrest, T. S. Eliot would quote this passage in his lectures in honor of Norton at Harvard University in 1932. To Eliot, Norton stood for the viewpoint that culture was the mainstay of a decent society. Without it, everything came to ruin. As Eliot put it, "the people which ceases to care for its literary inheritance becomes barbaric; the people which ceases to produce literature ceases to move in thought and sensibility."

Henry James wrote to Edith Wharton in August 1914 that he felt "all but unbearably overdarkened by this crash of our civilization." But this was a crash that had been a long time coming, and which would not prove to be final. Norton and Eliot's comments, straddling several decades either side of the First World War, demonstrate that a sense of impending disaster for humanity, and the hope that culture might avert it, were longstanding concerns. In his Harvard lectures of 1932–33, Eliot carefully distanced both himself and Norton from Matthew Arnold's mid-Victorian view of culture as a force for the propagation of good morals. Although he shared Arnold's concern for "literary inheritance," Eliot would place the value of literature not in what it taught but what it showed. Culture was not the cause but the product of a balanced society, one rich in "thought and sensibility." Good writing was not a conduit for truths passed on from the old to the young, but an indicator of a healthy, individual curiosity about self and context. "We must write our poetry as we can," Eliot concluded, "and take it as we find it"—a sentiment very much in line with Ralph Waldo Emerson's delight in "Man Thinking" instead of parroting the traditions of the past.

This habit of mental self-reliance, so prevalent in American literature from Emerson onward, was, and perhaps still is, counterbalanced by the potential consequences of its failure, the specter of the "barbaric" so vivid to Eliot in the 1930s. From the mid-nineteenth century, ideas of evolutionary progress derived from the work of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer were projected into the swiftly changing scenery of Gilded Age America by social theorists such as William Graham Sumner and Adna Weber, for whom urban life was an endless and vicious round of competition for space, work, food, and time. Darwin and Spencer had promised improvement toward perfection, but Weber's generation projected bleaker outcomes. Failure in this daily battle for resources could lead to personal extinction in the greater cause of social refinement, or could result in the kind of degeneration forecast by Ray Lankester, and dramatized in the naturalistic fiction of Emile Zola and Theodore Dreiser, or in the dystopian romances of H. G. Wells. Success in the struggle, as Thorstein Veblen argued, led merely to interclass conflict and, through "conspicuous consumption" and "conspicuous waste," to the atrophy of the leisure class—whose very existence was both the defining element of a "civilized" society and its most potent internal threat. Although these ideas did not all originate in America, they resonated strongly in the imagination of many early twentieth-century citizens, who inherited, or self-consciously adopted, a powerful but confused legacy from the nation's Puritan past, in which the value of the individual, the power of the written word, a strong work ethic, the taint of materialism, the certainty of retributive judgment on society, and the hope of some ideal world beyond were haphazardly jumbled together. Even for those who rejected the religious framework which supported (and rationalized) such concepts, stubborn patterns of thought remained. The anticipation of destruction was perhaps the most enduring. James called it "the imagination of disaster."

So, the idea of "a war that will end war" was nothing new in 1914. Rumors of secret pacts and alliances between European nations from the beginning of the century had raised public expectations of conflict, which had been narrowly avoided in a series of diplomatic crises from 1908 onward. When war came, it shocked the world, but simultaneously fulfilled an expectation of an epic conflict between the great nations of the world, which would ultimately purge and strengthen the civilized and virtuous races of humankind. Wharton wrote to the American scholar Gaillard Lapsley in December 1914, "The only consoling thought is that the beastly horror had to be gone through, for some mysterious cosmic reason of ripening and rotting, and the heads on whom that rotten German civilisation are falling are bound to get cracked." For others, the progress brought by war was not so much a bitter consolation as a positive objective. Cleveland Moffett would write in 1916 that the American union "born of war" proved that conflict was essential for peace: "And why not ultimately the United States of Europe, the United States of Asia, the United States of Africa, all created by useful and progressive wars? ... 'United we stand, divided we fall,' applies not merely to states, counties and townships, but to nations, to empires, to continents. Continents will be the last to join hands across the seas (having first waged vast inter-continental wars) and then, after the rise and fall of so many sovereignties, there will be established on earth the last great government, the United States of the World!" From the sinking of the Pequod in Moby Dick (1851) to the freezing over of New York in The Day after Tomorrow (2004), the secular apocalyptic narrative is a powerful, recurring presence in American popular culture. Eliot's poem The Waste Land (1922) both drew on and helped to define the genre. To Henry James, schooled in his father's Swedenborgian conceptions of heaven and hell; to Edith Wharton, well-versed in the social theories of the early twentieth century; and to Grace Fallow Norton, raised in the evangelical fervor of small-town Minnesota, the apocalyptic habit of language and thought was a hard one to break. Each of these writers in their own way carried a deep sense of the precariousness of human civilization. When the war began, it seemed to them, as to many others, that something decisive was finally at hand. Whether judgment and destruction would be meted out by a vengeful deity or an indifferent nature, whether the end would be swift or slow, everyone had a theory and a secret fear.

Henry James, Grace Fallow Norton, and Edith Wharton were among many American exiles for whom London and Paris were irresistible points of cultural attraction and production, centers of the very "civilization" which appeared to be threatened by the political and military maneuvers of the European nation-states. As John Dos Passos would note decades later, American international perspectives in the early twentieth century were characterized by "a nostalgic geography of civilized and cultured Europe where existence was conducted on a higher plane than the grubby materialism of American business." In the popular imagination, this was especially true of Paris, which seemed to many "the crossroads of civilization." James, who had lived in Europe, mostly in England, for some forty years, was more shrewd than most people about the failings of European society. However, as the following pages show, the coming of war, and the threat which it offered to a social world which he had observed, admired, and mimicked for decades, forced a searching reappraisal of the value of that world, and raised sharp questions about how the writer should respond to conflict and distress: with actions or with words? Wharton, however, based permanently in Paris since the break up of her marriage in 1910, had quickly made herself at home in the elegant and exclusive circles of the Faubourg St. Germain, where the good conversation and sophisticated taste which she prized were recognized and maintained. As her friend Percy Lubbock noted in later years, "She had attained, and not without complacency she knew it, to a far closer intimacy with France than is often granted to an alien—with France of the French, the old and the traditional, which has never easily opened to a stranger's knock." However, in 1914, this process of assimilation was in its early stages, and Wharton's passion for the integrity of France during the war had all the idealism and raw enthusiasm of the newcomer. At this stage, her attitude was not unlike that of the fictional American exiles in her postwar novel A Son at the Front (1923) who felt that, "If France went, western civilization went with her." But, there was self-irony in this retrospective statement, and Wharton's idealism would be tested and overhauled during the next four years. Nevertheless, in the political and ideological tussle for American popular sympathy during the early years of the war, the trope of France as a symbol of civilization was a recurrent one. Both Wharton and James would exploit it for practical, if charitable, purposes. Grace Fallow Norton, too, would subscribe to the apocalyptic vision of the war as a threat to social, political, even to geological, stability. However, her conception of civilization was more concerned with the rights of the common citizen than with the preservation of an elitist culture—even while she participated in that culture. France, to Norton, represented the possibility of personal freedom, both in terms of democratic governance and moral tolerance. If her concerns were less commonly voiced among the literary classes of the day, they were perhaps more representative of the attitudes of less privileged, and also younger, Americans. Norton's views at the outbreak of the war certainly suggest that the later, more pronounced social perspectives of writers such as Cummings and Dos Passos were not kneejerk reactions to their experience of war, but rather extensions of deep-seated changes already in process in the fabric of American society. However, in August 1914, the most urgent question for each of these writers was how to define the boundary between the demands of artistic response with those of real life. Put more simply, if civilization was falling apart, what on earth were they supposed to do next?

This Grand Niagara

It began for Henry James as a nightmare from which there was "no waking save by sleep." On 5 August, through the balmy summer weather, news of Britain's declaration of war in response to Germany's invasion of Belgium reached James's home in the little town of Rye, near the coast of Sussex on the English Channel. The change in James's mood was immediate and electrifying—captured with photographic clarity in a letter to his friend Howard Sturgis. The first half, written the previous day, before papers arrived in Rye bearing the dramatic news, is relaxed and expansive, full of chatter about friends; the second half, written in full knowledge of events, is a darker, yet strangely energized text, passionate in its dismay and its condemnation of the German and Austrian rulers: "The taper went out last night, and I am afraid I now kindle it again to a very feeble ray—for it's vain to talk as if one weren't living in a nightmare of the deepest dye.... The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness by the wanton feat of those two infamous autocrats is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for any words." Nevertheless, words were what James turned to, over the following days, as a means of ordering his intense reactions. Always richly articulate and self-conscious, his letters now took on an unfamiliar sense of urgency and scope. Treachery, nightmare, murder, abyss: these words flowed again and again from James's pen as his powerful imagination struggled to accommodate the scale and the horror of the conflict. It was, he recognized at once, about much more than the immediate political objectives of the warring nations. James appeared to grasp instantly what many social commentators would take years to work out. The lasting impact of the approaching storm would be social and cultural, and the world he knew would not survive it. It was not just the fact that the old order was passing that grieved him; it was the suspicion that it had all been, as he wrote to Rhoda Broughton, a sham: "Black and hideous to me is the tragedy that gathers, and I'm sick beyond cure to have lived on to see it. You and I, the ornaments of our generation, should have been spared this wreck of our belief that through the long years we had seen civilization grow and the worst become impossible. The tide that bore us along was then all the while moving to this as its grand Niagara—yet what a blessing we didn't know it."

In 1914, James was seventy-one years old. His health was not robust; he suffered from angina and bouts of nausea and depression. He was a foreign citizen of a neutral nation, and he had never involved himself much in public affairs. He was, as he admitted to Broughton, one of the "ornaments" of his generation. It must have seemed unlikely to anyone, even to himself, that he would take an active role in this crisis. Nevertheless, as the early days of the conflict stretched anxiously to weeks, and then to months, James found himself drawn into the war effort. Initially, he attempted to continue working on his two current writing projects: the contemporary American novel The Ivory Tower, and the third volume of his autobiography The Middle Years. But the depressing news from the front and the tension in the air made it difficult to concentrate. It did not seem possible to write about a world that was falling apart so violently. He wrote to his nephew William James Junior: "The extraordinary thing is the way that every interest and every connection that seemed still to exist up to exactly a month ago has been as annihilated as if it had never lifted a head in the world at all." But, this was only how it seemed. In reality, James was being propelled by his past into the storm of the present moment.

"Civilization" was one of James's recurring watchwords in his early letters about the war, but his own parameters for the meaning of the word are not easy to define. Henry F. May characterizes the American ideal of civilization before 1912 as a fragile, golden "triptych" of moralism, progress, and culture—a culture still heavily reliant on the British Victorian voices of Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and Matthew Arnold. James had to an extent distanced himself from this triptych by his decision to settle among the complex social systems of Europe, and there to refine his sharp sense of the subjectivity of all human judgment—although he was hardly going to escape the legacy of Carlyle, Ruskin, and Arnold by moving to England. However, like Charles Eliot Norton, who traveled with the young James in Europe, published his early work in the North American Review, and introduced him to Ruskin in person in 1869, James was ready to form his own opinions about European civilization and its relationship to culture, especially to literary production. For James, "civilization" denoted something rich and precious and old—but it was not always, for him, a concept above censure. In his biography of Hawthorne (1879), James noted the lack of "items of high civilization" in American life in the 1840s: "No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools—no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class—no Epsom nor Ascot!" It is a notorious list, but many of James's readers forget that he had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he made it. James's point was that Hawthorne did not need these things to write. No American author did: "The American knows that a good deal remains—that is his secret, his joke, as one might say." It was a joke at Arnold's expense. For Arnold, "civilization" consisted of the physical infrastructure of a highly developed society: institutions, architecture, and amenities. James admired Hawthorne's rejection of European institutions and tropes, and celebrated his ability to observe, to think for himself, and to draw his own conclusions about American society. Elsewhere, the young James took an even sharper view of "civilization," which seemed at times to signify little more than the fripperies and frivolities of Parisian life that he lampooned in his essays for the New York Tribune in 1875–76. Here, French civilization was characterized by consumption and display—extravagant clothes, light opera, and candy boxes. "The bonbonnière, in its elaborate and impertinent uselessness," he wrote, "is certainly the consummate flower of material luxury; it seems to bloom, with its petals of satin and its pistils of gold, upon the very apex of the tree of civilization."


Excerpted from The War That Used Up Words by Hazel Hutchison. Copyright © 2015 Hazel Hutchison. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, ix,
Introduction, 1,
ONE 1914—Civilization, 27,
TWO 1915—Volunteers, 67,
THREE 1916—Books, 118,
FOUR 1917—Perspectives, 161,
FIVE 1918—Compromises, 202,
Aftermath, 236,
Notes, 243,
Bibliography, 269,
Index, 283,

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