Friday, May 17, 2013

Be a Man and Fight

I wrote the following for my American Studies final, a reflection on what I've reappraised as a result of taking the course, and thought it'd be of some interest to those who read my posts:

What struck me most as a result of taking the course was how seminal the inexperience of actively fighting in World War I was for Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Anne Porter, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among other writers. Intuitively, I knew not actually fighting in WWI would be a disappointment, though, for some, a relief. However, I failed to take into account the zeitgeist of the War period, which implored all men to fight and prove their bravery and loyalty to their nation, leaving women and men who could not fight ashamed and resentful.
Hemingway famously drove an ambulance in Italy during WWI but did not fight, wounded not long before the War would end. As a result, Hemingway, like others who could not fight, felt emasculated, which is perhaps why later in life he seems to overcompensate: hunting, fishing, wooing women, fighting, and so on. His later lies, that he had actually fought on the battlefield, are, also, evidence of his insecurity of and regret in not having done so.
In The Sun Also Rises (1926), we see this emotional disposition with Jake, who, given his war wound, though more severe, is a stand-in for the author in this roman à clef. Jake’s wound prevents him from fighting, but in a direct metaphor for his emasculation, it, also, prevents him from engaging in sexual intercourse. He desires Brett but is unable to consummate their relationship. This is why the homosexuals who dance with Brett anger him; they, as attractive, charismatic, and outgoing men, with fully working penises, presumably, can have sex with women such as Brett but don’t want to.
Porter, as a woman, could not fight in the War if she had wanted to, and, given the nationalistic fervor of the time, when men who could not or would not fight were humiliatingly planted with white chicken feathers, she likely would have wanted to. During the time, women, also, could not vote, and in 1918 Porter caught influenza and nearly died, which inspired her story “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” (1939). Added to the killing and chaos of WWI, Porter’s not being able to fight for her country must have underscored her own sense of feminine helplessness.
In “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” all of the men who are not fighting in the War are on the defensive; the bond salesmen use excessive nationalism as a defense and belittle those who haven’t bought bonds, such as Miranda, which was a nickname of Porter’s, to make themselves appear more patriotic. Chuck, too, with his defective lung, is emasculated and constantly on the defensive. He tries to prove his masculinity, for instance, and goes overboard by threatening to push the bothersome patriot at the theater down the stairs, Porter alluding to her abusive first husband. Because all of this is used to underscore Miranda’s sense of being overwhelmed with life and her losing battle with it, it demonstrates just how much being a woman and not being able to fight, in war and in life because of lower status, must have troubled Porter.
Fitzgerald, despite joining the Army in 1917, was never deployed, the War ending a year later. His dropping out of Princeton to join the War, despite having already shown an interest in becoming a writer, suggests his great desire to be on the battlefield. And despite being commissioned as a second lieutenant, he never made it to the rank of captain, which would perturb his mind, as well.
In The Great Gatsby (1925), Gatsby serves in WWI, actually fighting, and is immediately promoted to captain and then becomes a major. Gatsby, because he is a creation of James Gatz, who wanted to escape his past, which did not allow him to keep his relationship with Daisy, is a device for wish fulfillment for Fitzgerald. In fact, Gatsby, like Fitzgerald, meets the object of his obsession, in 1917. Therefore, Gatsby expresses Fitzgerald’s regret by being and doing what he himself could not be and do.
All of these stories reveal the authors’ insecurities and regrets about them not being able to fight in WWI; Hemingway and Fitzgerald were emasculated because it was expected of them as men to be brave and fight; for Porter, as a woman, her feminine helplessness in society was exacerbated by the War and not being able to fight. Before reading these novels or taking the course, I had not realized how impactful the experience of not fighting in WWI was to Hemmingway, Porter, and Fitzgerald, among others.

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