The Myth of War Literature

‘veterans did not start to produce war novels until the later 1920s’

This quotation comes from Fiona Reid’s Broken Men: Shell Shock, Treatment and Recovery in Britain 1914-1930  (2010), a book I am thoroughly enjoying (more on which later) but which has raised a couple of issues relating to the sort of assumptions we make about the war.  Reid’s book is about the myths that have grown up around shell shock as a symbolic image of the First World War in British culture, a condition that has moved from being historically specific to being cultural shorthand for what we think we know about the experience of war as a whole.  Yet, despite much excellent work on examining myths related to shell shock and placing the condition in a clear historical and cultural context, she can still come out with this statement which, despite being widely repeated in both academic and popular histories of the war, simply is wrong.

Veterans of the First World War began publishing novels about the war and its aftermath as early as 1919.  H.C. McNeil (better known as ‘Sapper’) published Mufti that year.  It is not a good book, to be sure, nor did it sell particularly well (19,636 copies by 1939 compared with 162,432 for The Lieutenant and Others, his most popular collection of short stories and 396,302 for Bulldog Drummond, the novel which he remains best known for), but it is a novel about the war and its aftermath that found a publisher and an audience in the early 1920s.

And there were plenty of other, more popular novels, published in the early 1920s.  Rosa Maria Bracco, in Merchants of Hope: British Middlebrow Writers and the First World War, 1919-1939 (1993), identifies three out-and-out bestsellers: The Way of Revelation (1921), Simon Called Peter (1921) and Tell England (1922).  R.H. Mottram published the first volume of his Spanish Farm trilogy in 1924 and Warwick Deeping’s best known novel, Sorrel and Son, was published in 1925.  Bracco notes that ‘After a spate of novels in 1919 there was a sharp decrease in numbers during the following years (from thirty-nine in 1919 to seven in 1925)’ but this is a decrease, not a silence, as Reid’s statement implies.

Reid is not alone in her assumption about publishing patterns of novels about the war.  The general belief is that no one wrote or published ‘war books’ until the boom of 1929-30.  Why?  Partly, I suspect, because of a general oversimplification of an actual phenomena.  There was a war books boom in those years, much of it literature of the ‘disenchantment’ variety, although Bracco argues persuasively that there was also a great deal of popular, middlebrow literature in circulation at the time which presented a view of war that can’t be classified as disenchanted.  It is easier to understand and explain this fairly dramatic cultural shift (and to underline its dramatic nature) by arguing that there was no significant literature being published beforehand.

‘Significant’ gives a hint as to the other part of the explanation, the extent to which our understanding of war literature (like our understanding of the war) is dominated by our interpretation of what is ‘good’ literature.  All Quiet on The Western Front, Goodbye to All That, The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, Parade’s End (first published between 1924 and 1928) are all classed as literary classics.  Tell England, Simon Called Peter and Sorrell and Son, are not, despite being bestsellers in their day.  Many of the war novels published in the early 1920s are bad books, or, more properly ‘good bad books’, the classic definition of the middlebrow.

Should they still be read and studied today?  Possibly not, although they can be great fun to read and the field of middlebrow studies is a growing one in its own right.  But scholars of the cultural history of the First World War cannot simply write them out of existence because they do not fit comfortably with a narrative of post-war veteran silence that we have come to accept and aren’t very good in literary terms.  Veterans were not silent; whether the public wanted to hear what they were saying is another matter entirely.  To ignore the existence of these novels and their popularity in the 1920s is the equivalent of ignoring the cultural impact of The Da Vinci Code or Fifty Shades of Gray in commentaries about Anglophone culture in the early 21st century.  They may not have a great deal to say, they may not be very good books, but ignoring them entirely is intellectually dishonest.

So this is a plea that we finally start laying to rest the great myth of First World War literature. The books of the war books boom and the literature of disenchantment are hugely important parts of our understanding of the cultural legacy of the war in Britain, but they are by no means the whole story.

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