Book Review: The War That Used Up Words
American Writers and the First World War
by Hazel Hutchison
Yale University Press, 2015
It’s fitting that Hazel Hutchison, who’s written two good, accessible books about Henry James, should take a phrase of his for the title of her new book, The War That Used Up Words. The book is a study of a handful of American writers who witnessed the First World War up close, including both giants of the literary canon like Edith Wharton, John Dos Passos, and James himself as well as names that are lesser-known today, like Ellen La Motte or Mary Borden. And the James quote neatly illustrates both the fascination of Hutchison’s new subject and its frustrations:
One finds it in the midst of all this as hard to apply one’s words as to endure one’s thoughts. The war has used up words; they have weakened, they have deteriorated like motor car tires; they have, like millions of other things, been overstrained and knocked about and voided of the happy semblance during the last six months than in all the long ages before, and we are now confronted with a depreciation of all our terms, or, otherwise speaking, with a loss of expression through increase of limpness, that may well make us wonder what ghosts will be left to walk.
As will be immediately obvious from that quote, the First World War was no more successful in ‘using up’ all of James’s words than anything else had ever been. On the contrary, he burbled right through it, and he wasn’t alone: as Hutchison quite accurately points out, “Before the war was more than a few weeks old, Ferris Greenslet, commissioning editor at the Boston publishing house Houghton Mifflin, realized that it would be good for business.” Hacks and geniuses of all stripes gravitated toward the clash and carnage suddenly happening along the Western Front, and although Hutchison narrates their various adventures with her customary gusto, her book shares with that Henry James quote just the slightest whiff of innocent fatuity.
As a result, we get a few too many passages that are a bit too easy to write or to read:
We hanker after immediacy and authenticity in accounts of the war, but we gravitate toward texts composed with hindsight, free from the ideological confusion and personal indecision of wartime. We insist on the centrality of the war as a defining historical event, but we dismiss those texts which engage too closely with politics as propaganda. We validate artistry, style, and a dispassionate command of form, but we want to be told the truth. It seems that writing, or even reading, about the First World War is (pardon the expression) something of a minefield.
Hutchison insists – quite correctly, I think – that it was the ghastly, immediate charge of the war itself that animated her group of writers and imparted “the really creative moment, the ignition spark of innovation.” But when she’s dealing with the better-known of her subjects, she slips fairly easily into a prose-patter that feels like filler. This is never more true than when she’s writing about Edith Wharton:
She was dazzled by [the war] … but she refused to look away. Just as it seems never to have occurred to Wharton to abandon France during the war, and retire to the safety of Britain or America, it also seems never to have occurred to her that she might not write about the conflict. Others might feel that there was nothing to say about the fighting, but silence was simply not in Wharton’s vocabulary.
Granted, Wharton is a notoriously difficult writer to grasp (Hutchison rightly calls her novel A Son at the Front simply “exasperating,” for instance), but a writer so steeped in her kindred spirit James might be expected to do better than “silence was not in her vocabulary.”
The book is much stronger on its lesser-known writers, especially Mary Borden, who volunteered for the French Red Cross at age 28 and whose spikey, disturbing book The Forbidden Zone gets a spirited and very shrewd reading from Hutchison, who’s sometimes as baffled by it as virtually all its readers have been over the decades:
No one can confidently use text to locate Borden’s ideological position on issues such as national identity, gender, or even the legitimacy of the war itself. Her words conceal as much as they reveal. Moreover, The Forbidden Zone confronts the reader with an odd mix of immediacy and retrospect, which makes it difficult to disengage the composition of the text from the scenes that it describes.
The smaller-fry authors (though brisk-selling in their day) are likewise handled with a wit and sympathy that makes you wish they’d been the sole object of Hutchison’s regard (after all, it’s not like the subject of Henry James-and-WWI or Edith Wharton-at-the-front hasn’t been written about before). Instead, the names and titles flicker by: Florence Barclay’s My Heart’s Right There (1915), Berta Ruck’s Khaki and Kisses (1915), Leslie Buswell’s Ambulance Number Ten (1915), James Norman Hall’s Kitchener’s Mob (1916) … we’re told that Mildred Aldrich’s 1915 book A Hilltop on the Marne was a hit when it first appeared, for instance, but we learn precious little else about it. Hutchison can be refreshingly skeptical (although again, perhaps just a big wide-eyed) about the you-are-there veracity of the more sensational accounts, like the “Under Shell-Fire at Dunkirk” piece Ellen La Motte wrote for the Atlantic Monthly:
Did she really write an elegant eight-page journal article as shells whistled overhead? The final result seems too polished; the beginning of the piece gives no clue of this origin; the admission of her paralyzing fear under fire for the first time seems too considered. The task would have required incredible composure.
But there isn’t enough of this kind of thing lavished on the authors who most repay it for The War That Used Up Words to feel sufficiently substantial to warrant its 200 pages. The First World War may have been so shocking and terrifying as to lead some of its foremost windbags to claim it had exhausted their store of words, but now, a century later, more words – maybe a lot more – would have been greatly appreciated.