War has a tendency to fundamentally change a country, or even the entire world. It shakes the foundation of what a culture thinks about themselves and how they perceive their own lives.
In 2015 and 2016, I read a series of books that were written before, during, and after the first World War. The books had no connection to one another, other than that they were written by western authors on the same timeline. I was struck at how the narratives transformed — it was clear that fictitious novels made some pretty drastic changes during and after WWI.
What I found wasn’t some fall into cynical storytelling; it wasn’t a simple spiral down into disillusionment. There was pessimism and optimism both before and after. However, there was a very distinct departure from a certain way of things. All things that were proper. All things that “separated us from the animals.”
After all, World War One served as a stark reminder that we are separate from the animals. But instead of the highfalutin Gods among beasts, we found once again that we are more than capable of scraping around in the dirt and the mud, shirking our own “humanity” at a moment’s notice. We do things to one another than pale in comparison to anything you’d find in the animal kingdom. We turn a field of grass into a butcher’s shop of human beings.
The books I tackled that were written prior to the war included Ragged Dick by Horatio Alger, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Pandora and Daisy Miller by Henry James, and The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. I won’t say that these books weren’t compelling, engaging, and profound — they absolutely were, and many of them did not shy away from the hard realities of the world we live in.
Still, there was this general sense that mankind has departed from our uncivilized ways. The House of Mirth is acutely aware of this, and its themes tend to point toward the deep flaws of the upper echelons of society. Henry James’ novels tend to feel like really entertaining romantic comedies that you might see on the screen today. Mark Twain’s books might take a good look at the perils of a boy’s often difficult adventures, but they are saturated with American philosophy, fun idealism, and boyish charm.
Then the Great War consumes the world.
You do get some great pieces of literature that are overwhelming in their despair and destruction — “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot comes to mind. You have more optimistic poetry as well, especially from men like Rupert Brooke.
But optimistic, pessimistic, or some point in between — they are all firmly rooted in reality. Reading literature on this timeline made me acutely aware of just what a slap in the face (maybe a slap in the soul) the war was for the entire world. You can feel it as you read these books on a timeline.
Fast forward to WWII, and though the casualties of the war were far greater, it was not such a cultural shock to fiction and literature. Reading around WWII and one gets the impression that the collective world rolled up their sleeves for round two — they were under no romantic impressions regarding human nature by that time.
Both during and after WWI, the characters in fiction are operating under the understanding that we’re all just clawing forward in the dark, scraping by day after day in our own ways, trying to make it through. Any ideas that we are some pinnacle of civilization, some master-level of human beings is simply an illusion.
Of these works, I looked at Rupert Brooke’s and T.S. Eliot’s Poetry, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, and a bit later in time — the works of Ernest Hemingway, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, and Animal Farm by George Orwell.
The effects of these are even apparent in film today. The thirst for “realism” has only grown as film has evolved over the last hundred years.
These post-WWI stories tend to understand that human nature is a war in and of itself, rife with pain, struggle, and suffering. Some take that reality and promote various themes — The Grapes of Wrath, at the end of the day, is about community when neck-deep in hard times. “The Waste Land” arguably has a positive ending (sort of), but it’s more meant to be a source of empathy for those who felt the crushing despair of the war. Like mourning at a funeral.
Again, don’t get me wrong, that may sound pessimistic but that’s not necessarily the case. Later, two actual soldiers from WWI would pen some very optimistic works, despite possibly being the most combat experienced fiction authors in modern history. Their names were J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. The Chronicles of Narnia series and The Lord of the Rings series (as well as their other works) certainly do not paint a picture of shining, wondrous humanity at the top of civilization. They accept our fallen nature and yet still accept some inherent goodness, even among those in the trenches.
Featured image: Books courtesy of Pixabay, Trenches photo from Wikimedia Commons; images altered by the author.