Many people like to scroll through the books of their favorite author, knocking them off the list one by one. Are you a Faulkner fan? Start reading “Go Down,” “Moses,” “The Sound and the Fury,” and “As I Lay Dying.” Does Mark Twain spark your enthusiasm? Dive into the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” followed by “Life on the Mississippi” and “Roughing It.”
I would suggest a new method: find a time period surrounding a major war. Read a single classic novel written every five or ten years starting well before the war begins and ending well after. They do not have to be war stories, in fact I would encourage a variety of genres that explore multiple facets of civilization.
Readers can watch as a society is transformed before their eyes, particularly surrounding the First World War. Novels are often fiction, but they speak volumes to the feelings and unadulterated emotion of the society at the time. A history book can tell you what happened; a novel can tell you what it felt like while it was happening. This series of articles will study these books one by one and see what they have to say about the nature of war.
I have often heard our modern war veterans sneer at those who glorify war in the media, and yet I wonder what aspect of the media really glorifies war? There may be an example here or there, but mostly you have war movies and books that focus on the grotesque violence and heartbreaking sacrifices. To see the glorification of war, peruse American literature of the late 1800s, or better yet, British literature of the same time. Prior to World War One, it would be very unlikely to see an early 20th century version of “Saving Private Ryan,” or “Black Hawk Down.”
You will more likely come across books that tackle the troubles and mishaps of the American upper class, like Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth.” Of these high society, “first world problem” novels, Henry James is my favorite. He embraces American culture, often analyzing and admiring it in the context of American travelers in foreign countries. Many of these books are rife with the problems one would expect to find when they have reached the pinnacle of society. There seems to be an underlying belief that western civilization had transcended the barbaric ways of the past and were now focused on things like marriage and money.
Then the war hits. We are violently thrown back into the stone age, clawing at one another as we scrape around in the dirt. We realize we are not above the animals, we are far below them. Machine guns are effectively utilized for the first time, chemical warfare is a common weapon, and the trenches add a brutal flavor to an already devastating war. New, devastating weapons were produced daily.
Then you get works like T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” or Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” or “In Our Time.” The Waste Land, for all its ambiguous language, is crushing. You can feel the raw despair of the whole world as entire cities have been wiped off the map. You can almost hear the vast emptiness screaming from the mass graves and empty homes.
If you continue to read, the books become a little less bleak and a slightly uplifting, but those scars certainly remain. Read more and you will find that there is never really a time for a breath of fresh air–The Great Depression hits a decade later, and then WWII a decade after that.
Nothing changes a society more than war. Reading the classic fictitious literature surrounding these conflicts can give some great insight as to how the mindset of an entire civilization can be radically shifted in a matter of years.
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