The History/Literature Problem in First World War Studies

Title: The History/Literature Problem in First World War Studies
Authors: Milne-Walasek, Nicholas
Date: 2016
Embargo: 2018-09-03
Abstract: In a cultural context, the First World War has come to occupy an unusual existential point half-way between history and art. Modris Eksteins has described it as being “more a matter of art than of history;” Samuel Hynes calls it “a gap in history;” Paul Fussell has exclaimed “Oh what a literary war!” and placed it outside of the bounds of conventional history. The primary artistic mode through which the war continues to be encountered and remembered is that of literature—and yet the war is also a fact of history, an event, a happening. Because of this complex and often confounding mixture of history and literature, the joint roles of historiography and literary scholarship in understanding both the war and the literature it occasioned demand to be acknowledged. Novels, poems, and memoirs may be understood as engagements with and accounts of history as much as they may be understood as literary artifacts; the war and its culture have in turn generated an idiosyncratic poetics. It has conventionally been argued that the dawn of the war's modern literary scholarship and historiography can be traced back to the late 1960s and early 1970s—a period which the cultural historian Jay Winter has described as the “Vietnam Generation” of scholarship. This period was marked by an emphatic turn away from the records of cultural elites and towards an oral history preserved and delivered by those who fought the war “on the ground,” so to speak. Adrian Gregory has affirmed this period's status as the originating point for the war's modern historiography, while James Campbell similarly has placed the origins of the war's literary scholarship around the same time. I argue instead that this “turn” to the oral and the subaltern is in fact somewhat overstated, and that the fully recognizable origins of what we would consider a “modern” approach to the war can be found being developed both during the war and in its aftermath. Authors writing on the home front developed an effective language of “war writing” that then inspired the reaction of the “War Books Boom” of 1922-1939, and this boom in turn provided the tropes and concerns that have so animated modern scholarship. Through it all, from 1914 to the current era, there has been a consistent recognition of both the literariness of the war's history and the historiographical quality of its literature; this has helped shape an unbroken line of scholarship—and of literary production—from the war's earliest days to the present day.
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