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April 16, 2018
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v2.1 Reference

War Isn't the Only Hell

A New Reading of World War I American Literature

American World War I literature has long been interpreted as an alienated outcry against modern warfare and government propaganda. This prevailing reading ignores the US army’s unprecedented attempt during World War I to assign men—except, notoriously, African Americans—to positions and ranks based on merit. And it misses the fact that the culture granted masculinity only to combatants, while the noncombatant majority of doughboys experienced a different alienation: that of shame.

Drawing on military archives, current research by social-military historians, and his own readings of thirteen major writers, Keith Gandal seeks to put American literature written after the Great War in its proper context—as a response to the shocks of war and meritocracy. The supposedly antiwar texts of noncombatant Lost Generation authors Dos Passos, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cummings, and Faulkner addressed—often in coded ways—the noncombatant failure to measure up.

Gandal also examines combat-soldier writers William March, Thomas Boyd, Laurence Stallings, and Hervey Allen. Their works are considered straight-forward antiwar narratives, but they are in addition shaped by experiences of meritocratic recognition, especially meaningful for socially disadvantaged men. Gandal furthermore contextualizes the sole World War I novel by an African American veteran, Victor Daly, revealing a complex experience of both army discrimination and empowerment among the French. Finally, Gandal explores three women writers—Katherine Anne Porter, Willa Cather, and Ellen La Motte—who saw the war create frontline opportunities for women while allowing them to be arbiters of masculinity at home. Ultimately, War Isn’t the Only Hell shows how American World War I literature registered the profound ways in which new military practices and a foreign war unsettled traditional American hierarchies of class, ethnicity, gender, and even race.

About the Author

Keith Gandal is a professor of English at City College of New York. He is the author of The Gun and the Pen: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and the Fiction of Mobilization.


"A sweeping reassessment of American First World War writing, War Isn’t the Only Hell is simply brilliant, as packed with original insights, masterful close readings, and successful challenges to critical orthodoxy as any book I’ve ever read."

- Steven Trout, University of South Alabama, author of On the Battlefield of Memory: The First World War and American Remembrance, 1919–1941

"The canon of World War I literature, along with scholarship on the Lost Generation and modern war literature more generally, will have to be rethought in light of Keith Gandal’s new study of what it means to go to war and to write passionately about it. Multiple ambiguities and new resonances in the meaning of service, combat, bravery, and trauma emerge in this exhilarating reinterpretation."

- Eric J. Sundquist, Johns Hopkins University, author of Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America

"Gandal brilliantly challenges old interpretations of post–World War I literature and presents a much more complex understanding of the experience of combatant versus noncombatant. Gandal’s excellent work includes a study of gender, race, and class, as well as issues of validation, alienation, disillusionment, maculation, and the US Army’s new meritocracy system represented in the works of 13 prominent authors."

- Nancy Gentile Ford, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, author of Americans All: Foreign-Born Soldiers in World War I

"War Isn't the Only Hell shows how the experience of enlistment and army life impacted the writing of familiar canonical authors, like Hemingway, but also writers whose work is less familiar, including Ellen La Motte and Victor Daly. Gandal provides readings of these texts that illuminate them individually and collectively and uses them to, in turn, shine a light on a crucial moment in American culture. After reading Gandal, you will want to go out and (re)read all the books he mentions."

- Pearl James, University of Kentucky, author of The New Death: American Modernism and World War I

"Exceptionally well-written, War Isn’t the Only Hell combines razor-sharp historical and literary analysis to offer a startlingly original interpretation of Lost Generation literature. Keith Gandal recasts this extraordinary moment of literary creativity as a societal-wide mediation on the American way of war. In the process, he transforms World War I, a long-forgotten American war, into a major cultural touchstone."

- Jennifer D. Keene, Chapman University, author of Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America

"World War I transformed the United States, and along with it the lives of millions of American citizens. Challenging longstanding interpretations of the Lost Generation, Keith Gandal exposes us to a diverse array of writers—white and black, male and female, combatants and noncombatants—to demonstrate the full totality of the American war experience. Seamlessly merging close literary analysis with critical historical context, War Isn’t the Only Hell is a landmark study."

- Chad Williams, Brandeis University, author of Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era


"Gandal's study is enlightening and will be a valuable resource for studying the Great War."

- Choice

"[Gandal] shows how unsatisfactory wartime experiences informed the fiction of a range of writers, including William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, both of whom lied about their military roles in later years."

- Lawrence D. Freedman - Foreign Affairs

"The book is correct to claim that future scholars of Great War American literature will have to take these different military classifications into account. Combatants and noncombatants did experience service differently, just as soldiers who fought in the trenches experienced battle differently from those who did not. And just as importantly, Gandal's book should also be praised for bringing back into the light of day several excellent primary texts that have sadly sunk into obscurity."

- Aaron Shaheen, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga - Studies in the Novel

"Gandal's latest effort provide[s] needed extended analysis into a complicated war... Although Gandal offers insights into women writers of the period, as well as African American writers such as Victor Daly, it is the combatant/noncombatant paradox that drives the book, resulting in a much more complex reading and history of American Great War literature than in traditional analyses."

- Ross K. Tangedal, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point - The F Scott Fitzgerald Review

"Gandal suggests that the conventional binary classification of World War I literature as either pro- or antiwar has in fact distracted us from signal differences between combatant and noncombatant experiences of war.... Gandal persuasively reads A Farewell to Arms, together with other major modernist works, as validating the particular resentments and disappointments of a vast audience of veterans who served in noncombatant roles rather than as speaking to the comparatively few American soldiers who actually served in combat during this conflict. The caste system elevating combat roles, on the one hand, over combat support and combat service support functions, on the other, persists today in the US military... "

- Elizabeth D. Samet, United States Military Academy - American Literary History
Johns Hopkins University Press
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