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 28, 2021

Recommended: World War I in American Popular Culture

Street Fighting by Harvey Dunn

By Professor Jennifer D. Keene, Chapman University

World War I has occupied an uneasy place in the American public and political consciousness. In the 1920s and 1930s, controversies over the war permeated the nation’s cultural and political life, influencing memorial culture and governmental policy. Interest in the war, however, waned considerably after World War II, a much larger and longer war for the United States. Despite a plethora of scholarly works examining nearly every aspect of the war, interest in the war remains limited even among academic historians. In many respects, World War I became the “forgotten war” because Americans never developed a unifying collective memory about its meaning or the political lessons it offered.. . . 

Throughout the 20th century, Americans’ most sustained encounter with the war came through literature. Veteran novelists, including Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, wrote enduring classics that embraced themes of disillusionment, cynicism, absurdity, and sexual dysfunction.  These novels portrayed the war as a rite of passage for young men and women who lost their adolescent naiveté within the crucible of war. 

Classic American films also reinforced the prevailing portrait of senseless slaughter along the Western Front. All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory condensed the war into the horror of trench warfare, corrupt officers, and disillusioned youth.  This emphasis on human carnage permeated the larger culture, setting a paradigm for understanding the war even among those who never actually read these books or watched these films. Novels and films that valorized the war’s idealism and sacrifice, such as Willa Cather’s One of Ours, Edith Wharton’s A Son at the Front, and the Howard Hawks–directed Sergeant York had no lasting impact on popular memory 

Over time, Lost Generation novels and films served less as indictments of World War I and more as universal statements on the shock of confronting the reality of war. The themes of disillusionment highlighted in these artistic works struck a nerve during the Vietnam War era when Americans began once again to question the efficacy of using war to spread democratic values. Stanley Cooperman’s World War I and the American Novel drew parallels between the sentiments expressed in antiwar fiction of the 1920s and street protests against the Vietnam War.

In The Gun and the Pen: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and the Fiction of Mobilization, Keith Gandal rejects the antiwar label attached to Lost Generation fiction.  Gandal instead argues that the root of postwar disillusionment came not from having experienced fighting firsthand but rather from Hemingway and Fitzgerald having failed to reach the Western Front as officers. In a subsequent book, War Isn’t the Only Hell: A New Reading of World War I American Literature, Gandal reinterprets a broader range of veteran-authored fiction, viewing these works as uneasy meditations on how military mobilization challenged existing hierarchies of class, ethnicity, and gender. 

In the immediate aftermath of the war, official committees mobilized to commemorate a war that they believed Americans would long regard as a seminal event in the nation’s history. Veterans’ organizations and local communities mobilized to erect monuments throughout the nation.

The American Battle Monuments Commission undertook the massive task of compiling a comprehensive battlefield guidebook. The commission expected tourists and pilgrims to retrace the steps of American soldiers as they paid their respects to the dead. Originally published in 1938, the guide instead became obsolete almost immediately, collecting dust on library shelves. Similarly, by the time the fundraising and construction of monuments had concluded in the late 1920s and early 1930s, public interest in the war had waned. More recently, the World War I Centennial Commission and American Battlefield Monuments Commission tried to renew interest in the war by opening visitor centers and organizing official commemorative events to mark key battles, including simultaneous ceremonies at all official World War I overseas cemeteries on 11 November 2018.

Few Americans bought or read the slew of participant memoirs that appeared in the interwar period. Some were poorly written, while others appeared after the reading public had tired of rehashing the war. Many memoir writers also found that their accounts differed too dramatically with the now-accepted paradigm established by the Lost Generation novelists.

Steven Trout notes, for instance, that the combat memoir of John Lewis Barkley, a highly decorated U.S. soldier, “did not line up with accepted wisdom (at least among artists and intellectuals) about how soldiers of the Great War were supposed to remember their experiences.” Barkley championed camaraderie and individual resilience. Something of a “war lover,” he relished the excitement of battle and killing enemy soldiers. Out of step with the times, Barkley’s memoir failed to find an audience.

Unlike the Somme for the British or Verdun for the French, the 1918 Meuse-Argonne campaign (the culminating U.S. battle in World War I) found no lasting place in American memory. The high death toll did not result in an indictment of American military leadership (as it did in Vietnam), nor did the victory cause subsequent generations of Americans to relish their role in defeating Germany (as in World War II). Other wars, historian Edward Lengel contends, simply offer Americans better stories—ones with a clear beginning and end, with easily identifiable heroes and villains who serve as mirrors that allow Americans to see their values, their strengths, and their flaws more clearly.  The memory of World War I, by contrast, focuses nearly exclusively on the universal horrors of war, and therefore offers no such prism for championing American exceptionalism.

Steven Trout offers a different argument for the indifference and ignorance that pervades American society about World War I.  Rather than willfully purging the war from the national consciousness, Trout believes that Americans remembered the war in too many diverse ways. What exactly should the nation recall about the war? The failure of neutrality? The bravery of the combat soldier? The futility of trench warfare? .  .  . The domestic attacks on German Americans? The botched peace processes? These competing memories reflected existing political and social divisions within American society during the twenties and thirties, preventing Americans from forming a sustainable, collective memory about the war.

Nonetheless, from 1918 through 1945, the war was anything but forgotten, suggesting that “forgetting” is a more recent phenomenon. America grappled with the loss of 120,000 soldiers (half of these in combat, the rest mostly as a result of the influenza epidemic), and the reintegration of nearly 200,000 wounded men. Historian G. Kurt Piehler has traced the physical presence of World War I in towns and cities where Americans drove their cars on Pershing Drives, attended meetings in Memorial Halls, and watched football games on Soldiers’ Fields. Critical of the plethora of mass-produced statues erected after the Civil War that lionized leaders and footsoldiers, memorialization in the 1920s took a utilitarian turn, honoring servicemen through the creation of community structures that improved civic life. In 1921, the remains of an unidentified soldier were buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery, a noteworthy alteration of the nation’s commemorative landscape. 

Excerpted from:  "Finding a Place for World War I in American History, 1914–2018," Jennifer D. Keene; (Downloadable HERE from the Chapman University Digital Commons)


  1. Very good reflection on the various reasons for the First World War being sidelined.
    Interesting to compare with the Great Influenza, which was deeply forgotten.

  2. In followup to Bryan Alexander's observation of largely "forgetting" The Great Influenza of 1918 during WW I, here is an excellent presentation at the WW I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City by Nancy Bristow, PhD, Professor of History at the University of Puget Sound entitled: "Forgetting Catastrophe: Influenza and the War in 1919" (see:

    How could we forget? Dr. Bristow grapples with this question as to why we were caught unprepared 100 years later with the COVID-19 pandemic.

    That is a phenomenon historians, sociologists and psychologists need to have deeper conversations about, of how we edit out things we just do not want to deal with in our historical narratives to remember for posterity and from which to learn lessons of history.

  3. Thank you for that link, David. Listening now.