So I’ve done a couple of these that could be considered a bit of a stretch — the last one being Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat.” I included it because I really enjoy fiction that parallel’s an author’s personal experiences, be it in combat against man or combat against nature. There are just details and moments that add to the richness and often weight of a story when it’s coming from someone who has experienced those exact things themselves.
You might see this one and think, “Eh, it’s still a bit of a stretch. I read ‘The Great Gatsby’ in eighth grade and I don’t remember one mention of war or physical conflict in the whole thing.” It might seem like I’m reaching, but I promise you I’m not.
The First World War was catastrophic. You can read the numbers — American losses were staggering. The machine gun became an effective weapon of war for the first time. Chemical warfare was abundant on the battlefield. Trenches were brimming with disease and despair alike. There were battles where entire swaths of units were simply wiped off the face of the earth.
As I mentioned in the first entry of this series, a lot of people read books by author, but I would recommend reading on a timeline. Read several books prior to World War One–Henry James’ “Pandora” for example, or Edith Wharton’s “House of Mirth.” You have high society concerns, like who to marry or what the upper class will think of you if they find out your dirty little secret. After WWI hits, that all abruptly stops. T.S. Eliot writes “The Waste Land” and Hemingway would begin to write “In Our Time” and “A Farewell to Arms.” The world is broken, and you can almost feel the cracks in the very fabric of society. The entirety of western civilization had been ripped off its high horse and told, “You have achieved nothing. You are not the pinnacle of society. You are simply animals scraping in the dirt, just like you were a thousand years ago and a thousand years before that.” To make it all worse, The Great Depression hits about 10 years later. Now you’re getting books like Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men.”