Dalton Trumbo Ben Ray Redman - Essay

Ben Ray Redman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Johnny Got His Gun"] is one of the most horrifying books ever written….

You have heard of the "basket cases" that are a byproduct of war. Perhaps you have seen one, and if you have you have almost certainly asked yourself, as you looked at the armless, legless object: What is it thinking and feeling? How can it go on living? The obvious answer to the second question is that a basket case has no power of self-destruction. The answer to the first question is the story of "Johnny Got His Gun."…

[As] Dalton Trumbo writes the tale, the poignancy of [the past memories of Joe Bonham] matches and complements the poignancy of [his present condition]….

Joe Bonham awoke to a timeless world, and his first need was to recapture time. "If you can keep track of time you can get a hold on yourself and keep yourself in the world but if you lose it why then you are lost too. The last thing that ties in with other people is gone and you are all alone." The description of how this man carried out his "idea of trapping time and getting himself back into the world" is one of the most moving chapters of his history; no reader can fail to share in the urgency and agony of his quest. But still more moving is the account of his frantic but persistent efforts to establish communication with the outside world….

To say that this book is a terrific indictment of war is to employ a phrase that has been robbed of its proper weight of meaning by careless and promiscuous use. Yet the phrase must serve…. "Johnny Got His Gun" is not merely a powerful anti-war document; it is also a powerful and brilliant work of the imagination. In giving voice to a human experience that has hitherto been, voiceless, Mr. Trumbo has written a book that can never be forgotten by anyone who ever reads it.

Ben Ray Redman, "In the Midst of Death," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1939 by Saturday Review; copyright renewed © 1966 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XX, No. 20, September 9, 1939, p. 5.