Reflections on the personal accounts of combatants in an exploration of the literary responses to the great wars of the 20th century.
Hynes (Emeritus, Literature/Princeton Univ.; The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War, 2014, etc.) was a decorated Marine combat pilot in World War II. In this series of essays, reviews, and introductions collected over many years, however, he mostly looks toward World War I. The author argues that WWII lacked the “high drama and moral complexities” of WWI and thus did not produce classic literary expressions of the struggle. It was after WWI, he writes, that rhetoric (romantic, glorious war) met reality, and when reality changes, so does the artist's imagination. Hynes is fascinated with how the artist, in turn, shapes the ways we feel about and interpret war. A critic rather than a military historian, Hynes sometimes succumbs to a bit of romanticism, though this is very much the exception. In the superb essay “In the Whirl and Muddle of War,” he assays the work of men who had a deep need to record what they witnessed and felt, explaining why the individual accounts of those bearing witness to the experience of war are of particular value yet are too little read. These, as well as the work of poets and artists, are accorded their due. From renowned figures of literature to the less celebrated, the author offers powerful perspectives on the drama of destruction, exploring the character of wars “good” and “bad.” But the analysis is his own. He acknowledges, gloomily, that even the greatest art bears little power as a preventative instrument. Hynes studies what our literature and art tell us, or fail to tell us, about war, and there is much wisdom in his critique. He believes we have come to the end of “the Big Words and brave gestures and the tall stone monuments.”
A penetrating collection of pieces on war and how art responds to it.