"when johnny comes marching home" -- 8/21/17

Today's selection -- from The Last Days of Innocence by Meirion & Susie Harries. In World War I, more than 116,000 Americans died and more than 200,000 were wounded. In the immediate aftermath of that war, American literature was permeated with disillusionment:

"As for the [American] survivors [of World War I], those neither killed nor seriously wounded, at the Armistice 1,980,654 men were in Europe, in transit, or in Russia. Another 1,689,998 were in camp in America. Getting home was the only thought in most men's minds. ... When the veterans finally did reach home, they looked for some recog­nition of what they had achieved, some understanding of what they had en­dured; but time after time they were disappointed. After the welcome parades, they returned to their hometowns -- to find, very often, that their jobs were gone. The special employment offices simply could not cope with the lines of veterans looking for work....

"All around them, men who had stayed at home in war industries com­manded what seemed like remarkable wages. The returnees were faced with astonishing price rises -- food, clothing, and home furnishings all at nearly double the prices they remembered --and a government that appar­ently grudged them any help in meeting the bills. The veterans of earlier wars could look to their war bonuses to give them a start in their new life. But this administration was determined to avoid the colossal expenditure of the past, and there was violent argument in Congress over the appropri­ate reward for veterans' services. Not until 1924 would any allocation of bonuses be finally agreed on, and no actual payments would be made until 1945.

After the War a Medal and Maybe a Job, antiwar cartoon by John French Sloan, 1914

"Veterans' bitterness found its way into some of the best and most en­during writing of the period. Some older writers, such as Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, and others who had helped but not fought, still found it possible to revel in the romance of war, and the popular conceptions of heroism and adventure died hard. But for those who had been to Europe with the AEF or the ambulance services, such as John Dos Passos, e e cummings, and Ernest Hemingway, a far more typical reaction was to find creativity in anger, cynicism, and a kind of licensed rebellion. The scarred veteran, it was felt, was entitled to speak his mind. The writing of Laurence Stallings, who had lost a leg after injuries received at Belleau Wood, was powered at this stage, before nostalgia took a hand, exclusively by rancor. In his novel Plumes, the protagonist is obsessed by the secret treaties signed by America's allies, all the time 'trying to face the fact that he threw himself away [in] ... a brutal and vicious dance directed by ghastly men. It was the tragedy of our lives that we had to be mutilated at the pleasure of dolts and fools.'

"In Company K, William March attacked one of the standard texts of the old value system in his grotesque burlesque of an official letter of con­dolence:

Your son Francis, died needlessly at Belleau Wood. You will be inter­ested to hear that at the time of his death he was crawling with vermin and weak from diarrhea. ... A piece of shrapnel hit him and he died in agony, slowly. ... He lived three full hours screaming and cursing. ... He had nothing to hold onto, you see: He had learned long ago that what he had been taught to believe by you, his mother, who loved him, under the meaningless names of honor, courage, patriotism, were all lies."

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Meirion & Susie Harries


The Last Days of Innocence: America at War, 1917-1918


Random House


Copyright 1997 by Meirion and Susie Harries


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