The Vietnam War in Literature Overview

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Philip K. Jason (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: An introduction to Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature, edited by Philip K. Jason, University of Iowa Press, 1991, pp. ix-xix.

[In the essay below, Jason outlines the major issues and trends in Vietnam War literature and its criticism.]

There has always been a literature of war. The classical epics are among its early prototypes. In American literature, Whitman's Drum-Taps, Melville's Battle-Pieces, and Crane's The Red Badge of Courage form the nucleus of a significant literature of the Civil War—yet Whitman was the only major writer who put himself in some proximity to the horrors of battle. Melville was only a casual visitor, and Crane was born years after the war's close. From this beginning (though we could go back further), the war literature of American writers has been a mixture of testimony, commentary, and imaginative reconstruction. Though many more creative works about the Civil War were written, only these nineteenth-century visions of that war are read today—and Melville's just barely. The distant reconstructions of that past include Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize novel of 1974, The Killer Angels, which treats the battle of Gettysburg, and Stephen Vincent Benét's verse narrative, John Brown's Body, winner of a Pulitzer in 1928.

America's best-known literary treatment of World War I is A Farewell to Arms, though Hemingway's service was primarily as a volunteer Red Cross ambulance driver. Somewhat less celebrated are John Dos Passos's Three Soldiers and E. E. Cummings's The Enormous Room. James Jones's From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line are among our classics of World War II, as are John Hersey's A Bell for Adano, Hiroshima, and The Wall. Alongside of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions, Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, and Joseph Heller's Catch-22 are the retrospective epic treatments by Herman Wouk (The Winds of War and War and Remembrance) as well as The Caine Mutiny Court Martial drama based on his earlier novel. Of more recent vintage is Marge Piercy's highly acclaimed Gone to Soldiers (1987). M∗A∗S∗H is our major imaginative rendering of the Korean "conflict," though it is often imagined by the viewers of the television series as a work about Vietnam.

This short checklist of well-known literary responses to our earlier wars reminds us by its very brevity that the winnowing processes of popular and critical acclaim canonize only a small percentage of the imaginative works written on any subject. The rest are left to special-interest readers and scholars. How will the writings on the Vietnam War be filtered? Which will survive—and why? The critical enterprise now underway, to which the present volume is an addition, has begun to engage these questions.

Why is there such a rich literature about the Vietnam War, a war that for so many years no one wanted to hear about at all? How did that experience stir the nation and discover so many interpreters? There are no conclusive answers to such questions, though some suggestions may be offered.

In the two decades between the end of World War II and our military buildup in Vietnam, the American educational system reached out to embrace greater numbers. The proportion of young men and women who achieved a higher literacy (at the expense of a smaller elite no longer attaining the highest literacy) may account for the great number of significant literary responses to the Vietnam War.

Though we read much about the demography of the armed services during the war that describes the disproportionate sacrifice of the disadvantaged and the dropouts, the number of enlistees (and even draftees) who had some college education was not insignificant, and the educational attainment of the young officer corps was high. Which is to say that many of those who went to Vietnam had the equipment to turn their experiences into literary documents. And many others would, upon return, gain the skills needed...

(The entire section is 3,890 words.)