World War One (1914-1918) was also known as the Great War and, shortsightedly, the War to End All Wars. This class, prompted by the centenary of that conflict, focuses on
literary representations of the war and its far-reaching effects not only on individuals but on social hierarchies, beliefs, practices, and institutions.
War literature has been emphatically and narrowly defined as a masculine genre shaped by direct experience of combat and the camaraderie of fighting men, and is marked by a strong belief that those persons not at the front can never understand war authentically or meaningfully. Such assumptions are complicated by women’s role in propagandizing and encouraging enlistment, as well as by the ambivalence that met women’s entry during the war years into public roles and spaces traditionally occupied by men. Our readings, which represent writers from Germany, England, and the United States, will broaden that convention by including both traditional war texts and literature from the Home Front and of women’s experiences of service.
We will gain basic understanding of the war’s conflicts, technologies, landscapes, and maladies. Though war is often documented retrospectively and publicly as facts, names, campaigns, geographies, and tallies, the literature shows its penetration into even the most intimate arenas. Our course topics include but are not limited to production of/challenges to values and ideologies such as heroism, honor, and patriotism; representation of trauma, disability, and mental illness; and constructions and representations of gender, sexuality, and identity.
Of course, our most important concern will be the representation of the First World War in language, a study which must consider the (in)adequacy of that medium for trauma and horror. How do these writers figure belligerence, militarism, courage, grief…? How do the formal structures and styles of the texts work to convey what is often unspeakable or unthinkable? What tropes or symbols emerge in the literature? In what way do the texts participate in or revise traditional literary genres like the romance or the bildungsroman? What is the relationship between trauma, senseless massacre, suffering and aesthetics, narrative, metaphor?