Why write about the literature surrounding World War I?

The centenary of World War I, in the minds of most, begins with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, but as is the case with most beginnings, there are antecedents that are much more difficult to place.  Why did Gavrilo Princip and his associates conduct the assassination?  What was the state of affairs in the Dual Monarchy in 1914?  Are there shifts in attitude, ranging from the nationalist to the internationalist, that led to that explosion known as the August Madness?

These questions are but the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to examining this military/cultural/social/political phenomenon we call either World War I or the Great War.  While relatively obscured by its bloodier sequel, World War I is fascinating for historians and literary scholars (and of course, the general public) because so much creativity came into existence around the war, within the war, and through the consequences of the war.  The Edwardian era in Anglo-American literature lurches suddenly into something less pastoral, less concerned with niceties, more discontented, more dangerous to the accepted order (although one could argue that the rise of anarchistic movements in the 1880s presages the war and supplies some of the rhetoric employed during and after the global conflict).  Outside of the Anglophone sphere, similar developments, albeit with some different elements, were transpiring in the French colonial empire, in Central Europe, and in the regions most directly affected by the new imperialism of the 1870s-1890s.

In creating this site, I want to explore how these divers regions and their diverse reactions (and perhaps proactive responses?) to the war generated the postwar developments of the 20th and early 21st centuries.  This blog over the next few years will try to explore further responses to the questions listed above and to others not yet formulated.  With the possible exception of the 16th and 17th century Wars of Religion, no singular conflict has had such a profound cultural impact on modern European history (and to a lesser extent, global history) than the Great War/World War I.  It is this perpetual question of “why?” that drives my curiosity.  Why were so many writers, but not by any means all, so anti-war by the end of the conflict?  How does this contrast with the jingoism of June-August 1914?  How did perceptions of war on the Eastern/Southern/African fronts differ from those of soldiers on the Western Front?

In exploring these questions, I will not limit myself to just the usual Anglo-French-German perspectives, as seen through their writers and historians, of the war.  Instead, as is fitting for such a global conflict, there will be efforts made to discuss perspectives of soldiers and civilians from all across the world.  If World War I involved “total war,” then this will mean an examination of the “home front,” or the internalization of war in the larger societies than those created in the army groups and trenches.  Too often, the effects of war on women and their “place” in society are just relegated to a few pithy diary accounts and propaganda pieces on female workers in the factories.  This site will endeavor to explore the myriad ways in which women and others who did not fire shots affected the war and came to integrate the war into their own lives.

In addition, while the majority of the poems, movies, novels, short stories, memoirs, and histories will be primary sources from the war years, there will be pieces devoted to how later generations utilized World War I to create fictions and histories that affect us even today.  There will not be a linear discussion of the war; I will not start with 1914 and proceed in order to 1918.  Instead, there will be a mixture of contemporary and much more recent fictions, dependent on what is read next.  There will be some common themes, however, that will be explored in these pieces, whether they be just a few short lines devoted to a singular poem or thousands of words on a particular battle.  When I finish this project, likely in 2018 or 2019, I want to revisit this post and see just what I’ve learned about the war and its influences on the writers reviewed here.  I suspect that just as the poetry of Sassoon and Owen changed dramatically from 1914 to 1918, there will be a shift of understanding here as well.  I am looking forward to see what comes of this.

Expect the first few commentaries in the next few weeks.

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