Monday, June 22, 2015

W.D. Howells on "The War Feeling"

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called A Brief History of American Literature, in which I read through The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and report on what I learn.

 
W.D. Howells (1837-1920)

W.D. Howells was editor of The Atlantic Monthly from 1871-1881, and was one of the preeminent literary critics of his day.  He was also a prolific novelist, publishing several works like The Rise of Silas Lapham, A Traveler from Altruria, and The Shadow of a Dream.  Howells was a champion of literary realism, as opposed to the more romantic works of novelists like Sir Walter Scott.  He sought to investigate and criticize prominent social values of his day.  In his short story "Editha" (1905), he "explores the double moral failure of a society and of an individual who has been corrupted by its worst values."

The story is set at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War (1898)--a war which I had to look up to remember what it was all about.  Basically, it had to do with American imperialism vs. Spanish imperialism, and resulted in the United States' acquisition of The Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam.  In hindsight, it was not such a glorious war, but rather a war of conquest.  In "Editha," Howells examines the popular mindset at the time which lead young men to sacrifice their lives for a cause that turned out to be, morally, pretty murky.

The story begins, "The air was thick with the war feeling, like the electricity of a storm which has not yet burst." Having lived through (at least) three American wars (Iraq part 1, Iraq part 2, Afghanistan, and the nebulous "Global War on Terror"), I am well aware of a certain popular mindset, fostered by the media, which allows people to "get on board" with something as terrible and complex as war: black and white thinking, super-patriotism, equating war with religion, and oversimplification of complex issues.

The story follows a romance between a couple named Editha and George, whose courtship "was contemporaneous with the growth of the war feeling."  They are caught up with the jingoistic/simplistic ideas that equate war with romance, an idea fostered by the media, politicians, and even popular literature.  As a true realist, Howells clearly abhorred such a gross idealization.  Here are a few quotes from "Editha" which illustrate the simplistic reasoning of "the war feeling":

"She was conscious of parroting the current phrases of the newspapers, but it was no time to pick and choose her words."

"There are no two sides any more.  There is nothing now but our country."

"I call it a sacred war."

"God meant it to be war."

"If we cannot be one in everything we better be one in nothing."

"There is no honor above America with me."

Each of these phrases contains logical fallacies, but critical thinking is not a part of "the war feeling."  Though George has misgivings, he ultimately enlists and goes to fight the "enemy."  He is killed in one of the first battles.  Near the end of the story, Editha goes to visit George's grieving mother, who gives a scathing indictment of "the war feeling" and its tragic consequences:

"No, you didn't expect him to get killed.  You just expected him to kill some one else, some of those foreigners, that weren't there because they had any say about it, but because they had to be there, poor wretches--conscripts, or whatever they call 'em.  You thought it would be all right for my George, your George, to kill the sons of those miserable mothers and the husbands of those girls that you would never see the faces of.  I thank my God he didn't live to do it!  I thank my God they killed him first, and that he ain't livin' with their blood on his hands!"

After a brief period of questioning her ideas, Editha sits for a portrait artist, who sketches her in a very lovely and idealized way, dressed in her mourning clothes, and the two get talking about "the good this war has done," and this allows Editha to rise out of her reality, and "to live again in the ideal."  It's a powerful visual depiction of how tragedy and moral complexity can get subsumed by simplistic idealism.

W.D. Howells was often criticized by later modern writers for being too "19th century" and too "Victorian."  But this, too, is an oversimplification.  His stories like "Editha" show him wrestling intelligently with themes that are as relevant today as they were over a century ago.  A story like "Editha" pushes us to question "the war feeling" whenever and wherever it emerges, because it is the enemy of important critical thinking, and usually has tragic consequences.

U.S. Military propaganda from the Spanish-American War.

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