The Bugle sings:
“Go to sleep!
Go to sleep!
Slumber well where the shells
screamed and fell.
Let your rifles rest on the muddy floor,
You will not need them any more.
Now at last,
Go to sleep.” ( Joyce Kilmer )
I’m not sure I’d use the word “glamour”—not, certainly, of our life, Ada’s and mine. But there was a certain relaxation. We were all of us out of that “worst of wars.” Ernest had been shot up. Scott had not really been involved in it, but that was tragedy too. I had had a year of it in France. My brother had been killed. Almost everybody that we saw—certainly all the French, and all the English in Paris at that time—had lived through it. So the whole city gave off a sense that you had something coming to you—just what, you never asked . . . or learned. ( Archibald MacLeish)
For Americans in 1917, the war was something you “went to” , in the words of Archibald MacLeish. It was not a condition but a place, and the place was far away in Europe- “over there,” as we should soon be singing.
Over there, over there,/ Send a word, send a prayer over there/Say the Yanks are coming, /The Yanks are coming,/They’re drum, drum,drumming everywhere.
As a matter of fact the Yanks were singing, not drumming, in those days, and their songs were not of a memorable sort, lacking as they did the direct feeling of Union army songs in the Civil War. The best of the World War I songs, like “Mademoiselle from Armenteers,” were borrowed from the English, who had been fighting long enough to find expression for the sadness and bawdiness and cynicism of veterans. The American songs were usually concocted in Tin Pan Alley, though Irving Berlin wrote some lively ones when he was a sergeant at Camp Upton. Most of the songs by others apostrophized Joan of Arc or “the girl I left behind,” on whom the singer promised to pin his medal: She dserves it more than I/ For the way she didn’t cry.
There is on earth no worthier grave
To hold the bodies of the brave
Than the place of pain and pride
Where they nobly fought and died.
Never fear but in the skies
Saints and angels stand
Watching with their holy eyes
On this new come band.
St. Michael’s sword darts through the air
And touches the aureole on his hair
As he sees them stand saluting there,
His stalwart sons,…
Still, a few of them were good enough songs to sing on marches, and they added a theatrical note to the war, transforming it into a melodrama with sound effects and a musical setting. There was indeed, a theatre of war,
The train was slow, often stopping for more soldiers returning from their leaves, but it hadn’t many miles to travel. Three or four hours later, you were at a railhead, picking a louse from your tunic, and listening to the rumble of artillery. There were great flashes of light against the evening clouds. You went to war as if going to an evening theatre that had billed itself as an incredible spectacle with a cast of millions. The greatest show on earth, and as P.T. said, “There is a sucker born every minute.”
…However, came the war, Hilda and Connie were rushed home again after having been home already in May, to their mother’s funeral. Before Christmas of 1914 both their German young men were dead: whereupon the sisters wept, and loved the young men passionately, but underneath forgot them. They didn’t exist any more….The gay excitement had gone out of the war…dead. Too much death and horror. A man needed support arid comfort. A man needed to have an anchor in the safe world. A man needed a wife….Women had always known there was something better, something higher. And now they knew it more definitely than ever. The beautiful pure freedom of a woman was infinitely more wonderful than any sexual love. The only unfortunate thing was that men lagged so far behind women in the matter. They insisted on the sex thing like dogs…. ( D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterly’s Lover )
Something that might be called the spectatorial attitude was especially prevalent among soldiers who were also young American writers, and this for reasons that are not impossible to explain. In 1917 there happened to be a larger than usual number of apprentice writers, including a few of exceptional talent, who were still in American colleges or had lately been graduated. Their attitudes to the war ran the full gamut from pacifism to jingoism. Whatever the attitudes, almost all of them wanted to get over and see what the war was like. In the words of a song:
Oh, I don’t know what this war’s about/ But I bet, by gosh, I’ll soon find out
Very few of them, proportionately waited to be drafted. Two or three, including Michael Gold, were among the radicals who escaped the draft by fleeing to Mexico. Jack Reed, perhaps the best reporter of his generation, went to Russia and fought in the revolution as well as reporting it. Most of the others “Got Over” to France, with the exception of William Faulkner who languished as a military cadet in Cadet and F.Scott Fitzgerald who eager as he was, was marched off before he got started since the Germans begged for an armistice. With his lively imagination, Fitgerald had already suffered the wounds of an infantry officer, and Faulkner, through the power of extrapolation was to write vivid accounts, nurtured by the adventures of Billy Bishop, of vivid and persuasive stories that ended with dogfights over the German lines.
“American letters at the turn of the century had reached something which looked to my generation like rock bottom, and the achievements of Eliot and Pound during and after the First World War, though they had raised our hearts, had not wholly persuaded us that we belonged in this great resurgence of all the arts which was evident in Paris—this world resurgence of great art. So our excitement, real enough, was a little hesitant, a little tentative. Hemingway’s In Our Time was the first solid American proof to appear on the Seine—proof that a master of English prose had established himself and that this master was indubitably American, American not only by blood but by eye and ear. But In Our Time was a collection of short stories. Would there be a great novel? A great American novel? We didn’t know in Paris in the twenties. We only knew anything was possible.” ( Archibald MacLeish )
In 1933 Archibald MacLeish explained the background to the poems His Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller’s City.
Here in America, to me an American now living here, there is this fact: a great continent, a great section of the earth until a dozen generations ago unknown has been discovered, changed, overrun, and at last completely subjugated. The railroads have been built and the farms fenced and the banks have strung their spider webs over the whole face of the land.
But this is the wrong relation of man and earth – exploitation – promotion – Mr. Hoover. This poem then is the poem of the relation between man and the earth worked out by satire and by praise and it celebrates always the true: it satirizes the false: it uses the actual names of actual men and the actual events of actual history: it imagines a true and actual civilization instead of the false and sour communism or the hoggish capitalism.
Archibald MacLeish, The Struggle in Spain, Fortune Magazine (April 1937)
The real struggle of our time was not between communism and fascism but the much more fundamental struggle between democratic institutions on the one side and all forms of dictatorship, whatever the dictator’s label, on the other.