…The first thing that you found about the dead was that, hit badly enough, they died like animals. Some quickly from a little wound you would not think would kill a rabbit. They died from little wounds as rabbits die sometimes from three of four small grains of shot that hardly seem to break the skin. Others would die like cats; a skull broken in and iron in the brain, they lie alive two days like cats that crawl into the coal bin with a bullet in the brain and will not die until you cut their heads Maybe cats do not die then, they say they have nine lives, I do no know, but most men die like animals, not men.( Hemingway )
The literary generation of the Great War became the first true generation of American writers. But it was a generation adrift; first into the alcoholism and sexual freedom of the 1920’s and then into the radicalism of the 1930’s.
Instead of a derivative European voice or a regional voice, America had grown to the maturity of having a national literature. Many young men had a strong desire to be in the middle of the action but were not physically fit for acceptance in an army. Hemingway, who had defective vision in his left eye, expressed these viewpoints when, prior to joining, he wrote to his sister, Marcelline, “But I’ll make it to Europe some way in spite of this optic. I can’t let a show like this go on without getting into it.”
John Dos Passos was so myopic he couldn’t see the top letter on an eye chart. War was more dangerous than many thought. After getting wounded, a soldier might be sped off to the hospital by a half blind ambulance driver. Somerset Maugham at forty and 5’6″ was both too old and too short to enlist at the beginning of the war. So he joined a British Red Cross ambulance unit attached to the French Army. One of his co-drivers, Desmond MacCarthy, later became literary critic for The Sunday Times.
They would eventually be known as the Lost Generation; American writers who would express the disillusionment following upon the war. The stories and novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940) capture the restless, pleasure-hungry, defiant mood of the 1920s. Fitzgerald’s characteristic theme, expressed poignantly in The Great Gatsby, is the tendency of youth’s golden dreams to dissolve in failure and disappointment. Fitzgerald also elucidates the collapse of some key American Ideals, set out in the Declaration of Independence, such as liberty, social unity, good governance and peace, features which were severely threatened by the pressures of modern early twentieth century society.
But that was later. But in 1917, they were all eager for experience, and were on the high before the hangover. They wanted to see everything so they could write about everything. Their attitudes to the war ran from pacifism to jingoism: whatever the attitude, there was an impatience to get over a see what the war was like and very few of them, proportionately, waited to be drafted. Those who did “get over” served in a variety of military employments, but what did stand out was how many of them enlisted in the French, British, or the Canadian army, and thus remained foreigners in uniform. While facing death they were still, to some extent, the spectators of somebody else’s war.
But what did they learn? They learned that the French army was sullen and mutinous after the butchery of Verdun and the disastrous April, 1917, offensive on the Chemin des Dames, just as the Italians would be mutinous the following winter, after Caporetto. “Finie la Guerre!” they heard the soldiers growling over their wine. With some of their comrades they learned that revolution was in the air and that people were being arrested on vague suspicions of being disloyal. Communism and anarchism were claiming victims. E. E. Cummings was one of them; he spent three months in prison merely because a friend had a written correspondence with Emma Goldman. Like others, Cummings learned to hate authority as personified in the stupid older men who had ordered the arrests and planned the butcheries. An abyss had opened between two generations.
John Dos Passos: “I’ve decided my only hope is in revolution — in wholesale assassination of all statesmen, capitalists, war-mongers, jingoists, inventors, scientists — in the destruction of all the machinery of the industrial world, equally barren in destruction and construction.
“My only refuge from the deepest depression is in dreams of vengeful guillotines.”
His distrust for Wilsonian platitudes antedated his war experiences, but his protests were high-spirited and gay. Eastbound on the U.S.S. Chicago in June 1917, he professed huge delight at the presence of five Socialists and poked fun at “Archie” Roosevelt and other patrician officers, bloodthirsty imperialists to a man. Were he back at Harvard, he wrote to Arthur McComb, he would be attacking conscription, the daily press, and “the intellectual classes.” After a month’s spell in a French training camp, his mood darkened:
“Politically, I’ve given up hope entirely — the capitalists have the world so in their clutches — I mean the elderly swag bellied gentlemen who control all destinies — that I don’t see how it can ever escape. There are too many who go singing to the sacrifice — who throw themselves gladly, abjectly beneath the Juggernaut. It’s rather a comfort to have given up hope entirely.” ( John Dos Passos, from Daniel Aron )
There was great enmity toward the generation of their parents. War, in its new found technological glory, was the excrement of the gilded age of Pure Capitalism. The lifestyles of Ann Wharton characters were in sharp juxtaposition to the rats, the filth and the death in Europe’s trenches. That strain of sentiment, expressed forcefully in English war poems, would lead to a bloodless but bitter conflict between the young and middle-aged that continued all through the 1920’s and that, after subsiding for another generation, would be revived in the 1960’s counterculture against the children of those rebels.
The Lost fought back with just the sort of sarcasm, ridicule, and cynicism that was bound to rile their elders. Through the 1920s embittered thirty-year-olds fought ideology with desperate hedonism, babbittry with endless binges, moral crusades with bathtub gin and opulent sex. “America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history,” Fitzgerald bubbled — and John Dos Passos cried, “Down with the middle-aged!” In his 1920 Atlantic Monthly article “‘These Wild Young People,’ By One of Them,” John Carter observed that “magazines have been crowded with pessimistic descriptions of the younger generation” — but added, “the older generation had certainly pretty well ruined this world before passing it on to us.”
One service that attracted a considerable number of writers was ambulance driving on the French or the Italian front. It offered an expeditious means of getting to the front- a fact that young writers, with their curiosity and initiative, were quicker than others to grasp- and it also offered a panorama of the battlefields only a little less extensive than that enjoyed by airmen. The ambulance drivers were gentlemen volunteers , detached in spirit from the foreign armies with which they served, and also from the wounded men they carried back from dressing stations to base hospitals. To the end they remained observers, if helpful ones, and the spectatorial attitude is revealed in much of their writing about the war. Hemingway, for example, might be reading from a laboratory notebook when he tells us how the corpses looked after an Italian counterattack.
“Until the dead are buried they change somewhat in appearance each day. The color change in Caucasian races is from white to yellow, to yellow-green, to black. If left long enough in the heat the flesh comes to resemble coal-tar, especially where it has been broken or torn, and it has quite a visible tarlike iridescence. The dead grow larger each day until sometimes they become quite too big for their uniforms, filling these until they seem blown tight enough to burst. The individual members may increase in girth to an unbelievable extent and faces fill as taut and globular as balloons.” ( Hemingway )
A remarkable number of well known authors were ambulance drivers during World War I. Among them were Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, E.E. Cummings, and Somerset Maugham. Robert Service, the writer of Yukon poetry including The Shooting of Dan McGrew, and Charles Nordhoff, co-author of Mutiny On the Bounty, drove ambulances in the Great War. At least twenty-three well known literary figures drove ambulances in the First World War. If the list were expanded to include those working in medically related fields during the war, such names as Gertrude Stein, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and E.M. Forster could be added.
There were others who did not want to kill. Dos Passos was one of them. But Dos Passos in particular seemed not to mind chancing being killed. He took many chances far beyond the inherent risks of ambulance driving, which many considered risky enough.
Adventure, patriotism, doing what’s right, signing up because others in the same school class signed up, and wanting to participate in what was of significance to the world at the time were all reasons for joining. So was escape. Dos Passos”s father had just died, preceded by his mother. He needed to get away. Harry Crosby considered his life at school and home unhappy and wanted to escape “the horrors of Boston and particularly of Boston virgins.”
The reasons many of these same men returned to participate in Parisian literary circles in the 1920’s were completely different from their reasons for entering the ambulance services. They returned to France after the war because it was cheaper to live there, France did not have prohibition, a wilder life could be led, Paris had the aura as the place to be for anyone artistic, there was less censorship, and France had become familiar to them from their time as ambulance drivers. Also the wild life in Paris could be an attempt to avoid facing what had been encountered in war.