Today I was reading an ancient book review from 2001 by Frank McLynn, a Professor of Literature and also a historian, and a sentence brought me up short. Discussing (and endorsing) the “futility” myth of the war, he says of Gary Sheffield, the revisionist historian:
He cannot explain why there is not a single literary production in Britain or the US extolling the Great War as a “good thing”. He does not seem to realise that you cannot call the War Poets “unrepresentative” unless another group is representative – but no such group can be discerned.
Is this just an unguarded statement in a hastily written review , or does it really display a monstrous gulf of ignorance? Obviously there are no books or poems claiming that millions of dead are a “good thing”, but there are hundreds that, while acknowledging the pain of the war, endorse it as both necessary and righteous.
More than this, there is a whole wartime literature about the war as an agent of moral rebirth. I’ve been thinking recently about Arnold Bennet’s The Roll-Call, a novel whose unsatisfactory hero is transformed at the end by the act of enlisting, discovering a role and purpose in life.
Then there are books like Ford’s Tietjens tetralogy. These are sometimes lazily claimed as “anti-war” because they present war as unpleasant – but they are much more complicated than that. The description of civilian life in the first book shows jobbery and sexual corruption, a world in which Tietjens struggles to maintain his honour. When war comes, it at first promises a nobler field for his idealism, but the war itself becomes corrupted by civilian values (symbolised by dreadful Sylvia’s entry into the war zone).
If you want a “representative” literature, then look at the fiction in magazines like the Strand – often acknowledging the pain of war, but very different in tone to the select few war poets who have made it into the canon and onto the syllabuses.
Reading Prof. McLynn’s comments, I wondered – could a professor of literature make the same statements today? In the seven years since he wrote those words, a new understanding of the war has edged towards acceptance, partly through the influence of the book by Gary Sheffield that he is describing with disfavour. From another direction, feminist critics during the past few years have done excellent work in unearthing women’s wartime writing, and have encouraged an understanding of attitudes to war that go beyond the “Anyone who supported the war is a dupe of ideology and false consciousness” line.
Poetry anthologies have moved on, too. The excellent pair that came out last year – The Winter of the World, edited by Hibberd and Onions, and Vivien Noakes’s Voices of Silence – venture far beyond the usual canon, and include several literary productions ” extolling the Great War as a ‘good thing'”.
On the other hand, one finds non-specialists still endorsing the “futility” thesis – like Mary Warnock last Remembrance week, writing of “truthful accounts, like Goodbye to All That” with the implication that all who had gone before wrote books less truthful than Graves’s enjoyable mix of exaggerated anecdotes. The myth of the dreadful useless war is just too precious to some people to be discarded quickly.