*This title references the pilot episode of the HBO series “Girls.”
The piano music finally reaches crescendo as the long-lost lovers reunite in a field of wildflowers. The image of their embrace fades to black and the credits start to roll. The names of the director, an actor playing “person sitting in café #3” and the assistant to the production assistant fly past the tear-streaked faces of adolescents and their mothers. Sniffling themselves back into recovery, the movie finally ends with a phrase and a photo: “Based on a True Story” accompanied by a sepia-filtered photo of a couple who does not seemed to be as toned or wrinkle-free as their re-enactors. Struck by the added layer of authenticity, the audience bursts into tears again.
This scene is not surprising, and it is most likely relatable: movies are often more dramatic than and take many liberties with the original storyline. The multibillion dollar film industry transforms everyday people and occurrences into poreless heroes on grandiose odysseys, sure to be action-packed with romance, betrayal and explosions. Hollywood seems to have no thoughts of stopping: In 2015, it was reported that 29 of the movies to come out in this year alone were “based on a true story”, illustrating the tendency to distort history from the truth. This is not limited to the scope of films or the art of expression: the past often becomes defined by those who interact with it, despite the truth. In retrospect, entire cultures, time periods and movements become defined by singular examples culminating in a hyperpolarized impression of the past; often times these examples are curated by a fraction of society: the educated white male (e.g. Nicholas Sparks, see above.) This essay will primarily explore this institutionalized phenomena through the lens of the literature, art and analysis of World War I.
Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory and Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning comment on the literature of WWI in relation to society. The authors base the Western reaction World War I on a generous number of sources, including European poetry, newspaper articles, textbooks and letters. However, despite the different types of media and writing style, the authors of all of these texts were all white men. Additionally, many of them were educated at university level: two of the most famous World War I poets, Sassoon and Seegers, were educated at the prestigious universities Cambridge and Harvard, respectively.
Once these traits are highlighted, it is clear to see the juxtaposition between these authors and Western society at the time: the diversity of Western society at the time is not represented in the selection of texts that Fussell and Winter chose to include in their dissertations. When declaring the changes in not only the entirety of Western culture, but its method of memory and mourning, it is flawed to derive that opinion from fraction of society, especially one that does not recognize other dominant perspectives.
Instead, a more accurate description of “the cultural consequences of the Great War” would be to analyze the audience of these poems and their reactions to them. There were numerous soldier-poets who used literature as an outlet to comprehend their experiences on the front, but what fraction of the population was reading these poems and empathizing? Do the diction choices and old-fashioned themes of honor and glory reflect the female population of Europe that made up half of the “culture” that Fussell and Winter describe? What fraction of Western society was reading poetry and was that audience more financially well-off than the rest of the population?
To better understand the culture of World War I, it is key to analyze the reactions of other writers, other people, other women, and other countries (not exclusively England) to the literature that defines it– without public opinion, the portrait of pre- and post- World War I culture and any analysis that is based off of it, is incomplete. By making generalities about the modern memory (the ability to remember is shared by all humans), Fussell and Winter define the pre and post-WWI mindset as the authors they chose, and exclude everyone else.
When we, as students without much other WWI knowledge, read these critiques, the literature of WWI is defined by these same white, male and likely well-educated men because it is all of that we have read. When we read about Dadaism, the art movement inspired by World War I, it was suggested that the Dadaism was ironically, not an art movement at all– instead, it was the anti-art that abandoned the canvas portraits, fruit paintings and battle scenes for geometric shapes, toilets, and graffiti: a seemingly disregard for the defining characteristics of art. At that time, the Dadas rejected the proposition that they were creating art, but rather that it had no meaning at all–– futile, just like the war that was ongoing. However, when we visited the Philadelphia Art Museum’s Dada Exhibit, it did not seem like the focus was on the correlation between Dada and its symbolism towards World War I. Instead, the majority of the exhibit focused on one of its leaders, Marcel Duchamp. An entire room was dedicated to his Dada artwork, multiple earlier impressionist paintings and even a detailed description of the thought process and organization that went into creating “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors”. Another part of the Dada exhibit, “New York Dada”, was tucked away in the rear of the building and in a small room without as much description as Duchamp’s. So even though the Dada movement involved other movements and even other motives, the museum treats the anti-art movement just like any other art movement. Instead of the original protest of World War I that inspired their art, the modern impression of Dadaism is dominated by one man, Duchamp. For those who were not living through World War I and are learning about it through museums and schools, such as us students, the event becomes defined by what is curated by these institutions.
We are not alone–– the works that we are reading and analyzing are likely the same things that the general public uses to learn about World War I. Fussell and Winter were prominent university professors and scholars, and they cited popular newspapers, poems and people; Winter analyzed a poem by Rudyard Kipling, England’s first nobel laureate (who is so famous that people are still writing about him in magazines today.) The Philadelphia Art Museums is a landmark of the city and each exhibit attracts thousands of visitors. Whether a popular author or a popular museum, their counterparts will also attract similar amounts of attention. Apart from those who were not living during or around the same time as WWI, knowledge about any event is usually based on what is most popular, whether it be in the past or in the present.
One of the most popular books to be written about World War I and its after-effects is Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”. At the time of publication, it sold 5,000 copies in its first edition and was favorably reviewed by the popular newspaper, The New York Times, which wrote “this novel is unquestionably one of the events of an unusually rich year in literature.” Many years later, the novel retained prevalence in popular culture through movie adaptations in 1956 and 1984 and an opera in 2000. Its historical legacy continues to be preserved through the AP United States history exam, which is currently offered by high schools across the nation. Speaking from personal experience, with the rampant cramming for exams that is common amongst students, I am left with little doubt that for many, “The Sun Also Rises” is the only book they know written about World War I. Not only is this another example of a few characters representing an entire generation, but it is also any example of the dominance of the white, educated man (Barnes, the narrator and protagonist), despite a storyline involving characters who do not fit this archetype (Lady Brett Ashley, a woman and Pedro Romero, a young Spanish bullfighter.) Touted as the “the quintessential story of the Lost Generation” on the book jacket of a 2014 edition, the modern era, “The Sun Also Rises” defines those who grew up during World War I (even taking their moniker from Hemingway.) As time goes on, the most popular things eventually come to encompass more than their jurisdiction because most people do not have the time or the desire to learn any more than that.
This leads to the question: “who chooses what is to be remembered?” In the case of Fussell and Winter, they chose the works they wanted to comment upon– is it so surprising that they themselves are white men who were educated at Harvard and Cambridge? The description of Duchamp’s exhibit acknowledges that Duchamp was friendly with wealthy benefactors who brought attention to his art. Later on in life, Duchamp, who studied art from an early age, became a curator in New York exhibitions. Ernest Hemingway had no further than a high school education, but was known to write about the masculine characters that mirrored his own persona as a war veteran and an athlete. There are known to have been many other drafts of “The Sun Also Rises”, including one that had a female narrator, but it did not survive the editing process (one notable editor was F. Scott Fitzgerald). The majority curators of popular culture are white, educated and male and it seems that they are usually the subject of their works as well.
It is clear that this facet of society has played an integral part in shaping our understanding of history and pop culture. But it also must be acknowledged that these men, are considered to be the the most privileged of society, and that privilege includes the opportunity to be artists, scholars and writers. Fussell and Winter may not have analyzed works written by women during World War I because there were not many women writing at the time. It should be the case that all of the people who are writing at the time were educated because writing is not a skill that everyone has, especially at lower socioeconomic levels. Those perspectives of women, minorities, the poor, etc. are often excluded because those groups did not have the resources to write about their experiences. However, as history has progressed, with advancements such as the printing press and word processors, writing and art have become much more accessible. But this does not mean that educated white men will not continue to dominate popular culture and our interpretation of the past.
It is easy to say that this excuse can no longer be tolerated when it comes to more recent events, such as the LGBT movement, the war on terror and climate change. But from everyday experience and current events, I know that gender inequality is still a battle yet to be won. A well-known truism is “history is written by the victors.” If the educated, white man is winning, does that mean that the rest of society is losing? Does that mean my opinion is completely insignificant? I can look to influential figures such as Frida Kahlo, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe as examples of minorities who have made their mark in the history books. But how can I be sure that they are examples of a trend and not anomalies? It is a troubling prospect to consider.
As I have written this paper, I have realized that I have forgotten about the importance of truth when it comes to history. That is because writing history based on the resources available means that there is always something missing. It is impossible to recount every detail of the past and every perspective. And that means that there is always a better truth.
The difficulty of writing about the past brings me to a particularly apt quote from a novel I read for my 12th grade English class: “Writing turns you into somebody who’s always wrong. The illusion that you may get it right someday is the perversity that draws you on.” It bothers me that out of the numerous modern “Great Books” that we read for this class, most of the authors were white, educated men (including Philip Roth, William Faulkner, and Vladimir Nabokov). But I cannot deny that this quote is one that rings true. So I will accept that most of my understanding of this world has been “mono-colored” with bias, but I can only look to the future to minimize such tendencies. Right now, that’s the best truth I’ve got.