Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, December 10, 2019


by Lawrence Stallings
University of South Carolina Press, 2006
Bryan Alexander, Reviewer

Author Laurence Stallings
Capt. USMC, Croix de Guerre
Plumes begins as a boisterous account of American troops in France, but that rapidly turns out to be a brief head fake. The rest of this 1924 novel takes place in the United States after the First World War and follows a veteran's subsequent physical and mental trauma. Plumes is a deeply sad and angry book, an important and unfairly neglected contribution to American WWI literature.

The plot follows the life of Richard Plume, a college student who signs up to fight Germans. We're actually first introduced to his ancestors, a long line of Plumes who fought and suffered for every American war back to the revolution. In that tradition Richard finds some success in France but is then badly wounded and invalided home. This shatters his life, altering his hopes and career, while traumatizing his wife. Plumes concerns his struggles to survive and rebuild.

It is an intense novel, never shying away from repeated mental and physical suffering. Richard and his wife Esme struggle with his depression and disability, worsened by growing penury and the stresses of raising a child. Richard repeatedly falls, breaks more bones, and undergoes further surgery in what look like vain attempts to improve his condition. He does find a job, working with another war invalid and for a sympathetic employer. At the same time his bitterness takes on a political dimension, damning the government and taking up a strongly antiwar stance, even fantasizing about electrocuting Congressmen who consider a new war (250).

I grant you that all war is a mistake, brutal and vicious dance directed by ghastly men. It was the tragedy of our lives that we had to be mutilated at the pleasure of dolts and fools. (126)

Indeed, the book's final theme concerns whether Richard and Esme's son will grow up to be a soldier or to hate war. It's a microcosm for interwar despair over WWI's horrendous costs.

This is a daring approach for a WWI novel. It largely shuns the combat experience, except for the opening scene and a dimly glimpsed flashback (240ff). It generally sees the war as simply destructive, if not a civilization-level mistake. Its protagonists are heroic only in their uneven persistence in the face of spiraling agony. Ultimately, Plumes reminds me of Johnny Got His Gun (1938), with its unflinching representation of horror and antiwar argument; I wonder how the former influenced the latter.

Yet the book is not a monologue. Esme represents a different point of view throughout. She admires president Wilson even as the League of Nations is defeated (we see her applauding him in a rare public appearance). While Richard turns against wealthy people, Esme admires their taste. As he rages against the war, she maintains a neutral attitude. Taken together, the Plumes as a couple represent a decent swathe of American attitudes toward WWI in the 1920s.

It's a closely autobiographical novel, the only one written by Lawrence Stallings (1894–1968), who would go on to work in Hollywood for decades. Stallings also suffered a bad leg injury, which ultimately led to its amputation, as well as the loss of the other leg. (While Stallings never wrote more fiction about WWI, later in life he published a nonfiction book,  Doughboys (1963).

Laurence Stallings with Director Raoul Walsh, Who Directed the First Screen Version of Stallings's Play What Price Glory?

The novel is often charming, despite its subject manner. Stallings has a gift for wry descriptions and puckish sentences:

A diffident, unyielding couch, a table that seemed to be a thwarted grand piano and three chairs, distinguished only by their uncompromising rectitude, were part of the Plumes' seventy-five dollars. (173)

[H]ordes of lobbyists and countless rustic statesmen prepar[ed] for the year of wrangling necessary to protect American industry with a tariff which would assure the children of Europe little hope against the child workers of the United States. (182)

This prose skill is what leads to the novel's potent last lines, which take place in Arlington, right after the consecration of the Tomb of the Unknown Solider. Dickie, Richard and Esme's son, is considering fresh graves and war.

"What's a general?" he said finally.
"A man," said Gary, "who makes little boys sleep in graves."
Dickie was frightened. His lip trembled. He looked about to where Richard and Esme sat above him.
"I'll ask Esme," he said, "not to let a general get me."

That's the novel's final hope: that WWI will give rise to an antiwar generation.

Plumes is also emotionally powerful. The titular characters' struggles feel real, compelling, and sympathetic.

The modern reader may find the novel's treatment of race embarrassing or offensive. Richard and Esme are white people who grew up in the Jim Crow South, and it shows. The book's opening vignette finds Richard brawling with black (French colonial) troops; this is lighthearted in tone. A venerated ancestor was named after President Jackson (15). Characters use the N-word (42, 265). Esme argues that the South was right to secede and that life would be better with slavery (195-202). We can understand these attitudes as historically contingent, but they may still rankle in 2019.

This new printing of Plumes is well done. An introduction (by George Garrett) and afterward (Steven Trout) offer useful historical, biographical, and literary contexts. The cover includes a photo of the Arlington Tomb ceremony, appropriately.

Strongly recommended for anyone interested in WWI or American literature.

Bryan Alexander


  1. An extremely informative review of a book I plan to read soon. Thanks so much, Bryan. The Joseph M. Bruccoli Great War Series put out by the University of South Carolina Press is a terrific source of WWI literature!

  2. Love the description of a General. How true. Thanks for the review. I will try Plumes.