Stragglers in the Dust and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Dr Scanlon raised the idea of the ‘Tomb of the Unknown Solider’ in the Arlington Cemetery, Washington DC whilst we read Daly’s Not Only War, and we talked briefly and questioned whether the unknown could be an African-American soldier. May Miller’s short story Stragglers in the Dust eludes quite a bit to this idea (in the beginning), and I think it’s fascinating that this story also happens to be set in DC (the references to the ‘Potomac’, ‘Arlington Tower’ and the ‘Capitol dome’). It can be argued that this very short story, published in 1930, could be in response to such a debate, as the ‘Tomb of the Unknown Soldier’ was erected on  4 March, 1921, whereby ‘Congress approved the burial of an unidentified American soldier from World War I in the plaza of the new Memorial Amphitheater’ (https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Explore/Tomb-of-the-Unknown-Soldier).

Although some may argue, I think the fact that the ‘Straggler’- or ‘Captain Lester Bradford Jr’ which he arrogantly and conceitedly refers to himself as – is so vicious and racist to the ‘unknown’ soldier ‘who has taken his place’, it’s as if Miller may have very well been instigating the conversation of exactly who the unknown soldier is – and does their race matter? All soldiers killed, from all countries, equally and even forcefully gave the ultimate sacrifice. So why should the colour of their skin matter? Although, this is to some people more of an issue than others, clearly, as Mac seems indifferent and sympathetic when learning how the man who saved the ‘Stragglers’ life was killed by a shell – ‘Poor lad—poor fellow’(p.7).

Furthermore, ‘Nan’ describes the ‘tomb’ (she believes Jim is buried there) as ‘dat marble box’ (p.3), and the official Arlington Cemetery website describes the tomb as being ‘white marble sarcophagus’ (https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Explore/Tomb-of-the-Unknown-Soldier). Perhaps this story was obviously made to be cohesive with the unknown tomb and I’m just stating the obvious, or maybe, in my view, Miller did want to raise the idea of who the unknown soldier is – or lower it? – but I personally find the parallels and ‘clues’ between the two intriguing. I admit that I found this story quite confusing, especially its ending, so if I made any errors, don’t be afraid to correct me!

57 thoughts on “Stragglers in the Dust and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

  1. I love the connections we can make between literature and our present lives. I always seem to forget that we are so close to DC. Even places like Richmond hold such significant historical sway. I know you said you found this story confusing, but your analysis seemed to match mine.

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