Monday, June 3, 2013

World War I books (mostly Canadian)

'Paths of Glory' by C. R. W. Nevinson (1917)

The First World War centenary will soon be upon us. I've been looking for some good books about the Great War. As noted in a previous post, I've plunged into Edmund Blunden's Undertones of War. Other classic books about the War are Robert Graves' Good-Bye to All That and Siegfried Sassoon's books, and, of course, there's Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. I've already read Ernst Junger's Storm of Steel.

With the help of the University of South Carolina Press' site for The Joseph M. Bruccoli Great War Series (and this list of WWI fiction), I've been able to find some good books by British, German, Australian, American, and French authors, but it's proven difficult to find Canadian books about the War. Of course, there's Timothy Findley's The Wars, which was mandatory reading in my high school and which won the 1977 Governor General's Fiction Award, but I'm looking for novels or autobiographical works by people who served in the War.

One frustrating matter in my search is that some apparent Canadians turn out to have been Yankees. For instance, I was excited to find a well-reviewed book by a veteran of the Canadian Expeditionary Force named Charles Yale Harrison, but he was born in Philly and spent most of his life in NY. (His book, Generals Die in Bed is online.) Another American who signed up in the Canadian army was Humphrey Cobb, whose Paths of Glory (review) was the basis of a movie by Stanley Kubrick.

It looks like many of the Canadian books were superficial exercises in 'rah, rah' patriotism. There are two books by Canadians, though, that look to be more realistic and rewarding.

First, there's Peregrine Acland's All Else is Folly. Published in 1929, it has long been out of print, and the only used copies that I can find cost more than $100. Thankfully, it looks like a new edition is being prepared by Dundurn. The novel includes many literary allusions (inc. some to Nietzsche). Ford Madox Ford wrote the preface. The book received warm praise in a letter to Acland from Bertrand Russell. Here's the favourable review that ran in the New York Times.

Acland, a Torontonian, worked in advertising and, in 1942, began six years of employment in the 'secretariat of the Prime Minister of Canada' (according to a note in the NY Times [Jan. 28, 1949]). After that, he returned to advertising and was selected to head the Toronto office of Day, Duke, & Tarleton, Inc. (says the same NY Times note), a New York agency that was created in 1946 'by veterans of J. Walter Thompson Co., Foote, Cone & Belding, Lennen & Mitchell and William Esty & Co. in New York' (sounds Mad Men-ish).

The other Canadian novel is God's Sparrows (1937) by Philip Child, who was an artillery officer from Hamilton, Ontario. He became an English professor at the University of Toronto. Unlike Acland, Child wrote several other novels. He won a Governor General's Literary Award in 1949 for Mr. Ames Against Time.

Why are there so few good WWI books by Canadian veterans of the War? George Simmers conjectures that 'the reaction in the Dominions against the disillusioned war books of the late twenties and early thirties went further than that in Britain.' Perhaps the hostile climate discouraged other disillusioned veterans with literary talent from writing publicly about their experience.

For more information about the Canadian literature on the Great War, see this entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia and this site at Library and Archives Canada. Also, there are many relevant posts on Brian Busby's blog and at a blog that is devoted to Canadian war literature. There's also this pdf by Eric Thompson, 'Canadian Fiction and the Great War'.

'Canadian Gun Pit' by Wyndham Lewis (1918)
Update: There are two Canadian autobiographical works about WWI that have received generally good reviews. First, there's Ghosts Have Warm Hands (1968) by William R. Bird, who was in the Canadian Black Watch. This title is an updated version of Bird's And We Go On (1930). Next, there's The Great War as I Saw It (1922) by Canon Frederick George Scott, an Anglican chaplain. From the table of contents, it looks like this is an account of several of the main battles in which Canadians fought. Here's a 1991 article about this book; and here's Monique Dumontet's doctoral dissertation at the University of Manitoba as a pdf: 'Lest we Forget': Canadian Combatant Narratives of the Great War (2010).


ombhurbhuva said...

A general account by Philip Gibbs 'Now it can be told' is good. Available on Gutenberg.

praymont said...

Thanks, ombh. I'll look up that one.