This past week we showed to a class the first cut of our World War One film. For homework the students are now reading a series of excerpts from the Library of America’s World War I and America: Told by the Americans who Lived It. Historian A. Scott Berg, the author of a 2013 biography of Woodrow Wilson, edited the work. For Thursday the students read Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home,” which appeared originally in Hemingway’s 1925 collection In Our Time. While preparing for the class I came across an essay by Philip Caputo that appeared this month in the online journal Literary Hub. Caputo was a marine who in 1965 landed at Da Nang during Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of American involvement in Vietnam. In 1977 he published his seminal memoir A Rumor of War. That book secured Caputo’s reputation as a writer. Now in his seventies he has written many more works since the publication of Rumor forty years ago. He published a new novel just this year.
The reason I say all this is because Caputo makes an interesting point in his essay: many of the best war writers actually spent only a small amount of time in combat. The reason these are the writers who write most eloquently about the combat experience, Caputo speculates, is because warfare is just that intense. Endure it too long and it becomes too much a part of you. Caputo uses Ernest Hemingway as the most striking example. For all we associate him with war, Hemingway spent just two weeks on the front lines during the Great War. He graduated high school in June 1917, wrote for the Kansas City Star from that October to April 1918, quit the paper and volunteered for ambulance duty that spring, sailed in May, worked in war torn Paris for much of June, was wounded in Italy on July 8, coalesced in a Milanese hospital for six months, and was home in Oak Park, Illinois by January 1919.
Chronologically the time may have been short, but the intensity of it led to his incredible output over the next decade. A husband and father by the early 1920s, he paid the bills as a foreign correspondent in Europe for the Toronto Star, where among other things he covered the Genoa Conference in 1922; met leaders such as David Lloyd George, Benito Mussolini, and Georges Clemenceau among others; covered the rise of Fascism and Bolshevism; and witnessed the general anomie of European society in the wake of the Great War. In this same decade he published In Our Time (1925), The Sun Also Rises (1926), and A Farewell to Arms (1929), all of which draw to greater or lesser extent on what he witnessed and experienced during his short time in the war zone.
(image/Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, JFK Library)