After graduation and on the eve of his embarkation for France as a “gentleman volunteer” ambulance driver,John Dos Passos’s letters almost exploded with rebellion.
“I have been spending my time of late going to pacifist meetings and being dispersed by the police. I am getting quite experienced in the cossack tactics of the New York police force. I’ve been in a mysterious police raid, too; nearly piled into a black maria — Every day I become more red — My one ambition is to be able to sing the international — …. “I think we are all of us a pretty milky lot, — don’t you? with our tea table convictions and our radicalism that keeps so consistently within the bounds of decorum — Damn it, why couldn’t one of us have refused to register and gone to jail and made a general ass of himself? I should have had more hope for Harvard.
Once in Europe, Dos Passos, a myopic volunteer ambulance driver, tells of watching from a village schoolmaster’s parlor while Frenchmen by truckloads went jolting past on their way to death in still another useless and futile attack. “Faces merged into a blur,” he writes,”All we could see in the dim light was the desperation in their eyes.” His tone is more compassionate than Hemingway’s, but still is that of a foreign observer. E.E. Cummings, in a few of his early poems, writes about the war in a fashion that would have seemed unthinkable to infantry officers, describing it not as a shared experience but as something “I have seen,” a spectacle of death with aesthetic properties. Thus he says in “La Guerre III”:
the bigness of cannon
but i have seen
death’s clever enormous voice
which hides in a fragility
of poppies …
i say that sometimes
on these long talkative animals
are laid fists of huger silence.
I have seen all the silence
filled with vivid noiseless boys
i have seen
the night utter ripe unspeaking girls.
Ambulance drivers like Hemingway, Dos Passos, Robert Service and Charles Nordhoff were also learning other lessons of war. Although their pay was that of a French private – five cents a day plus a quart of sour wine- they had the priviledge denied to American soldiers in the ranks of spending their leaves in Paris. Most of them fell in love with the city, and many were fascinated by its little ladies, of whom Cummings was to write:
than dead exactly dance
in my head,precisely
dance where danced la guerre.
la voix fragile
qui chatouille Des
the putain with the ivory throat
Marie Louise Lallemand
n’est-ce pas que je suis belle
chéri? les anglais m’aiment
aussi….”bon dos, bon cul de Paris”(Marie
Like many others, Cummings determined to live in what he called “superb and subtle ” Paris after the war was over-”apres la guerre finie”. Still, perhaps the most important lesson learned was an understanding of the almost magnetic attraction that death seemed to exert on individuals. Dos Passos, though a convinced pacifist, wrote that “the winey thought of death stings in the spring blood.” Later, he was to write, looking back at those days, that the immediate presence of death “sharpened the senses. The sweetness of white roses, the shape and striping of a snail shell, the taste of an omelet, the most casual sight or sound appeared desperately intense against the background of the great massacres.”
Since there was not a sufficient likelihood of death in the ambulance corps, its members took unnecessary risks- as Hemingway, for example who insisted on crawling out to a listening post beyond the Italian lines, where he was blown up by a bomb from an Austrian trench mortar. Several of the “frightfully decent” fellows in Dos Passos’s ambulance section, had themselves transferred into other services, usually French or American aviation, that offered them a better chance of being killed.
Then suddenly the war ended, and most of them were still alive. The war ended too soon for many Americans- not for those who had fought at Bellau Wood or in the Argonne, but for others who had only marched and countermarched behind the lines. Now they would never know whether or not they were brave men. Some were a little ashamed of being unmedaled and unwounded. Others, especially the airmen, had lived more intensely that they would ever live again and felt in a vague fashion that something in them had died on the eleventh of November , 1918.
All the young men had been exposed to a variety of strong emotions. Their individualities had been affirmed, even in the anonymous disguise of a uniform, and they had dreamed of peacetime careers in which they would play the part of heroes. Now the war had ended without giving them a chance, as Fitzgerald said, to expend all that accumulated nervous energy. Many of them-with Ernest Hemingway as the most conspicuous example among the writers- would spend the next ten years looking for another stage on which they could re-enact the dangers and recapture the winey taste of war.
…The young men that Gertrude Stein called the “Lost Generation” were those stranded between two wars. She saw in them no moral guidance,and no respect for women. They had missed the civilizing influences that young men usually have between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. They trusted neither their country nor themselves.
Books like The Great Gatsby and Death in the Afternoon confirm it. Filled with profligate lifestyle choices: extravagant parties, the pleasures of bullfighting, drinking to excess – they prove Stein’s point about the Lost Generation. She would never admit to actually coining the term, although Hemingway felt strongly that she had and used it as his epigraph for The Sun Also Rises. She claimed it had come originally from a man at the garage where she was having work done on her car. The garage man said that this generation did not know how do do anything useful, like repairing automobiles. Everything they knew had been lost in the war. When she told Hemingway the story, he immediately seized on the phrase, “You are all a lost generation.”
Other writers who have been cast as in that category are Sherwood Anderson, Hart Crane, E. E. Cummings, John Dos Passos, T.S. Eliot, John Steinbeck, Thornton Wilder, and Thomas Wolf. All of them shared a certain sense of despair, even while the Jazz Age was distracting them from the knowledge that war would come again. …
“…studies by Sandra Gilbert and others over the past decade have shown how wartime imagery is embedded in The Waste Land – the corpse that won’t stay buried, Lil’s demobbed husband, Rats’ alley, and the death by drowning that is reminiscent of the death of Jean Verdenal at Gallipoli. It is notable, however, that for the first seventy-odd years of the poem’s existence, the war subtext was not identified by critics as significant. Eliot has subsumed the war experience into a deeper sense of life’s horror, of which the war is one symptom.
It is tempting to relate the “ Wounded men laughing in agony on the barbed wire” of the officer’s letter to the horrific laughter of the Sweeney poems, and the returning dead of “On Leave” to the dead crossing London Bridge in The Waste Land, but this kind of searching for direct relevance would not, I think, be productive. On the other hand, we can perhaps see Eliot’s poetry as an answer to the implied challenge in the officer’s despair at communicating horrors – “They shudder and it is forgotten.” When we read “Sweeney Erect”, we shudder and it is not forgotten.
This letter shows that the War mattered greatly to Eliot, but the impact of the war on Eliot’s great poetry, is more than can be suggested by just looking for war references in the poems. I would like to finish, though , by speculating that on at least one occasion Eliot did write a poem that was very directly about the Great War.”