A WAR IMAGINED by Samuel Hynes


The First World War and English Culture
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 Continuing the ground-breaking work of Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory, Hynes (Flights of Passage, 1988, etc.; Literature/Princeton) looks into the origin and impact of the myth that came into being to explain the significance of WW I. That myth depicted an idyllic England shattered irrevocably by the onslaught of a cruel and unnecessary way, by a generation of brave and idealistic young men lost in trench warfare prolonged by stupid generals and unimaginative politicians, and by the subsequent rejection by the embittered survivors of the values of their society. Hynes, like Fussell, uses major literary works of the period to illustrate the origin and growth of the myth, but also draws on newspapers and magazines, art, music, political debates, films, diaries, and letters. In certain respects, he casts doubt on the truth of the myth: The prewar period, for example, was characterized by labor unrest, Suffragette violence, the threat of civil war in Ireland, and a growing violence in the tone of political discourse. Hynes suggests, too, the difficulty of summarizing complex phenomena in so facile a way: There is, he notes, the picturesque popular image of way, which is clear and easy to respond to, and there is the truth, which is inconsistent, contradictory, and threatening. Thus, for example, the early poetry of Rupert Brooke, full of ideals and of the glory of sacrificing one's life for one's country, continued to be popular with some of the supposedly embittered young men late in the war. Ultimately, Hynes implies, these quibbles are almost irrelevant to shake a myth that has profoundly affected the way war is viewed in the 20th century. More suggestive than conclusive in its analysis of the validity of the myth, Hynes's account of the impact of a terrible war is still rich and satisfying. (Sixteen-page photo insert--not seen.)

Pub Date: June 1st, 1991
ISBN: 0-689-12128-8
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Atheneum
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1991


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