The Impact of World War One on American Literature
As people mature, their beliefs evolve; as a child it is easy to be guided by adults, to believe in adults. As adults, people have their own beliefs. It is the period in the middle that is the hardest. As children begin to grow, they begin to push limits and question authority. The modernist period in American literature is comparable to those teenage years. In the early stages of American literature, America looked to her mother England for guidance. The very traditional literature that resulted had a strong emphasis on religion, family, and country. In early literature it was scandalous to question God; the family was only to be portrayed as a supportive, loving community; and dying for one's country was the ultimate act of bravery and honor. This glorification of war in early American literature and attitude created unrealistic expectations in Americans concerning war. When these same young Americans marched into World War I, they were struck by the true horror of war; the result was a backlash at the society that had deceived them.
America has a long history of glorifying war. Many of America's early presidents were war heroes, a tradition that started with America's first president, George Washington, who was a soldier in the American Revolution. Being a war hero was sometimes all that was needed for a candidate to be successful in his bid for the presidency. Zachary Taylor, for instance, had never even voted in a national election prior to his becoming president, but he was a war hero (Tindall 513). This exalted view of war filtered into American literature. American literature portrays war as the true test of manhood. Any "real" man should be more than willing to die for the honor of his country. Equating a man's manhood with his willingness to kill or be killed is shown in many works, including William Dean Howells' short story "Editha." In the story, there is a young couple engaged to be married when war breaks out. The young man, George Gearson, is unsure about enlisting, for he is more of an intellectual type than he is a soldier looking for a fight. George's fiancée is Editha, who in her innocent ignorance cannot see why George even has to question enlisting. Editha sees war as a chance for George to be a hero and thereby become worthy of her and her love. She threatens to break their engagement because of George's reluctance to serve his country. She writes George a letter telling him, "There is no greater honor above America with me. In this great hour there is no other honor" (365). These sentiments sound ridiculous, but it is actually an accurate depiction of the state of mind of many young Americans in this era. Going to war for America was believed to be their duty, and it was an honor to do their duty.
When America called on her young men once again to go to Europe and fight in the trenches of World War I, they went. America's decision to join a war on foreign soil...