Note: Most readers / followers are likely not new to the series, but just in case you are, you might want to glance over the original post. The task is to choose one novel (or two, if your guilt at choosing a standard “dead white male” writer is overwhelming, and you want to amend your pick to include a writer of non-white ethnicity, or a queer / differently-abled white male) and note briefly why you chose that particular novel — what themes / stylistic properties does it portray that you consider instrumental to teaching literature AND history during the given decade?
The series enters what is, in my opinion, one of the most monumental eras in American history, the 1940s. I suspect that this is a feeling that is fading somewhat, amongst younger generations at least, as our connections to this decade and Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” are rapidly disappearing. My grandfather, who served as a medic in WW II (this included treating concentration camp survivors as they liberated the camps), was always reluctant to tell me much about the war, but somehow, that always made his experiences loom so much the larger in my imagination. During one of our last visits, he finally opened up about the war like never before, although I could sense that he was still holding back a lot of very painful memories. Among the few stories he did tell on more than one occasion was one which captured something about himself while also demonstrating just how bizarre the entire enterprise of war could be. Late in the war, as the Allies were rapidly advancing into occupied territory, he was tasked with managing a field hospital. Once the wounded were stabilized enough to be loaded onto ambulances, he had to oversee packing up the tents and equipment, and locate the front lines to set up the hospital again. One time, the process took longer than usual (he never wanted to elaborate on why, but I have my guesses), and he found himself attempting to locate the front at night, in a very dense fog. Finally, he spotted lights on the road ahead, and caught up, thankful to have found a convoy to follow all the way to camp. But the convey kept on going, and he was increasingly worried that they were also lost, perhaps going in the wrong direction. Finally, they reached a stopping point, and my grandfather got out to see where they were. This was the moment at which he discovered that he had followed a convoy of German tanks into occupied territory! Luckily for him, because it was late in the war, the German soldiers weren’t interested in capturing a field medic and his equipment; instead, they gave him directions back towards Allied forces, and sent him on his way.
If you’ve read my posts on the 1920s and 1930s, you may be able to predict where I’m going to go here — if not, maybe the ambulance story tipped you off! While there are many great novels to pick from in this decade (more Steinbeck, more Faulkner, etc), I get the chance here to choose one of may all-time favorite novels, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. In fact, I consider this to be one of the finest novels of the century, certainly Hemingway’s best work. Even though it takes place in the framework of the Spanish Civil War, before the “main” action of WW II really began, it still represents the romantic mythos of the superior American Warrior as the Savior of Europe, via the figure of Robert Jordan. The characters here are far more complex and multidimensional than many others; Pilar, the cagy Basque matriarch, and Maria, the semi-androgynous, only partially innocent ingenue, are not exactly the most intricate characters ever conceived — but I would argue that they are among Hemingway’s most intricate characters. What really stands out, however, is the brilliant and evocative imagery of Pilar’s flashback, when she describes the horrors visited upon her village when it was “liberated” by communist forces. No matter how many times I read that section, I am awestruck; it is, in my opinion, Hemingway’s best writing, hands-down.
My other pick would be Richard Wright’s Native Son, a novel that incorporates a critique of race relations with a larger commentary on class consciousness and the popularity of communism among the American social and intellectual elite. Moreover, the novel does not shy away from exposing undertones of sexual tension and frustration in black – white relations in 1930s and 1940s America. Bigger Thomas stands as an existentialist hero of sorts, a man who wants nothing more than to enjoy the plush life of the affluent Daltons, while simultaneously despising them (and, I would argue, himself as well). By earning the hatred of blacks and whites alike, Bigger leads us to the realization that his first crime was having ambition at all. If he had been content to stay in his rat-infested apartment and not try to better his family’s position in the world, then Bigger may have actually lived — although, Wright bitterly suggests, such an existence may not be worth living.
My first choice is Native Son. It’s a must-teach for me in any 20th c. American course for reasons of race relations, class issues, and urbanization. That and how difficult it is to get a handle on how one feels about Bigger. Beyond that and FWtBT, I had a very hard time of thinking of anything else that would come close (it is a sparse decade for obvious reasons).
The one other book I’d throw out as a possible is Hershey’s Hiroshima. Not a novel, but one of the most important books of the era and something everyone should read.
Josh M said:
I haven’t read Hiroshima…another one to add to the list!
While I’m contemplating may I just say: “Pilar, the cagy Basque matriarch, and Maria, the semi-androgynous, only partially innocent ingenue, are not exactly the most intricate characters ever conceived — but I would argue that they are among Hemingway’s most intricate characters.” Zing!
Josh M said:
Achievement Unlocked: Pretentiously Literary Backhanded Compliment!
The ’40s would be awesome if you could pick Continental (French, Russian) or British/Irish writing. On the American side, I pick Gertrude Stein’s ‘Wars I Have Seen.’ Again, not a novel but has Stein’s novelistic self-creation thing going on plus it’s a very interesting memoir of living through WWII in France as a civilian. Beyond that, maybe McCuller’s ‘The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,’ ‘Steinbeck’s ‘Cannery Row,’ or embrace the love for “For Whom the Bell Tolls’ (already chose one Hem tho).
Guilty secret confession: I’ve never read ‘Native Son.’
I find I’m wanting to go back to the same authors over and over (Cather, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Wright, Hurston).