Thomas Wolfe: Santimony and cant of war

Thomas Wolfe
From Look Homeward, Angel (1929)

As the war developed, and the literature of war-enchantment began to appear, Margaret Leonard gave him book after book to read. They were the books of the young men – the young men who fought to blot out the evil of the world with their blood. In her trembling voice she read to him Rupert Brooke’s sonnet – “If I should die, think only this of me” – and she put a copy of Donald Hankey’s A Student in Arms into his hand, saying:

“Read this, boy. It will stir you as you’ve never been stirred before. Those boys have seen the vision!”

He read it. He read many others. He saw the vision. He became a member of this legion of chivalry – young Galahad-Eugene – a spearhead of righteousness. He had gone a-Grailing. He composed dozens of personal memoirs, into which quietly, humorously, with fine-tempered English restraint, he poured the full measure of his pure crusading heart. Sometimes, he came through to the piping times of peace minus an arm, a leg, or an eye, diminished but ennobled; sometimes his last radiant words were penned on the eve of the attack that took his life. With glistening eyes, he read his own epilogue, enjoyed his post-mortem glory, as his last words were recorded and explained by his editor. Then, witness of his own martyrdom, he dropped two smoking tears upon his young slain body. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

The town and the nation boiled with patriotic frenzy – violent, in a chaotic sprawl, to little purpose. The spawn of Attila must be crushed (“exterminated,” said the Reverend Mr. Smallwood) by the sons of freedom. There were loans, bond issues, speech-making, a talk of drafts, and a thin trickle of Yankees into France. Pershing arrived in Paris, and said, “Lafayette, we are here!”, but the French were still looking…

Summer died upon the hills. There was a hue, barely guessed, upon the foliage, of red rust. The streets at night were filled with sad lispings: all through the night, upon his porch, as in a coma, he heard the strange noise of autumn. And all the people who had given the town its light thronging gaiety were vanished strangely overnight. They had gone back into the vast South again. The solemn tension of the war gathered about the nation. A twilight of grim effort hovered around him, above him. He felt the death of joy; but the groping within him of wonder, of glory. Out of the huge sprawl of its first delirium, the nation was beginning to articulate the engines of war – engines to mill and print out hatred and falsehood, engines to pump up glory, engines to manacle and crush opposition, engines to drill and regiment men.

[T]he flares and rockets of the battle-fields cast their light across the plains as well. Young men from Kansas were going to die in Picardy. In some foreign earth lay the iron, as yet unmoulded, that was to slay them…

When he returned to the university for his second year, he found the place adjusted soberly to war. It seemed quieter, sadder – the number of students was smaller and they were younger. The older ones had gone to war. The others were in a state of wild, but subdued, restlessness. They were careless of colleges, careers, successes – the war had thrilled them with its triumphing Now. Of what use To-morrow! Of what use all labor for To-morrow! The big guns had blown all spun schemes to fragments: they hailed the end of all planned work with a fierce, a secret joy. The business of education went on half-heartedly, with an abstracted look: in the classroom, their eyes were vague upon the book, but their ears cocked attentively for alarums and excursions without.

The Spring advanced with a mounting hum of war. The older students fell out quietly and drifted away to enlistments. The younger strained tensely, waiting. The war brought them no sorrow: it was a pageant which might, they felt, pluck them instantly into glory. The country flowed with milk and honey. There were strange rumors of a land of Eldorado to the north, amid the war industry of the Virginia coast. Some of the students had been there, the year before: they brought back stories of princely wages. One could earn twelve dollars a day, with no experience. One could assume the duties of a carpenter, with only a hammer, a saw, and a square. No questions were asked.

…The war seemed to unearth pockets of ore that had never been known in the nation: there was a vast unfolding and exposure of wealth and power. And somehow – this imperial wealth, this display of power in men and money, was blended into a lyrical music.

Twice a week the troops went through. They stood densely in brown and weary thousands on the pier while a council of officers, tabled at the gangways, went through their clearance papers. Then, each below the sweating torture of his pack, they were filed from the hot furnace of the pier into the hotter prison of the ship. The great ships, with their motley jagged patches of deception, waited in the stream: they slid in and out in unending squadrons.

Eugene returned to Pulpit Hill in a fever of war excitement. The university had been turned into an armed camp. Young men who were eighteen years old were being admitted into the officers’ training corps. But he was not yet eighteen. His birthday was two weeks off…

By Christmas, with fair luck, he might be eligible for service in khaki: by Spring, if God was good, all the proud privileges of trench-lice, mustard gas, spattered brains, punctured lungs, ripped guts, asphyxiation, mud and gangrene, might be his. Over the rim of the earth he heard the glorious stamp of the feet, the fierce sweet song of the horns. With a tender smile of love for his dear self, he saw himself wearing the eagles of a colonel on his gallant young shoulders. He saw himself as Ace Gant, the falcon of the skies, with 63 Huns to his credit by his nineteenth year. He saw himself walking up the Champs-Elysées, with a handsome powdering of gray hair above his temples, left forearm of the finest cork, and the luscious young widow of a French marshal at his side. For the first time he saw the romantic charm of mutilation. The perfect and unblemished heroes of his childhood now seemed cheap to him – it only to illustrate advertisements for collars and toothpaste. He longed for that subtle distinction, that air of having lived and suffered that could only be attained by a wooden leg, a rebuilt nose, or the seared scar of a bullet across his temple.

Meanwhile, he fed voraciously, and drank gallons of water in an effort to increase his poundage. He weighed himself a half-dozen times a day. He even made some effort at systematic exercise: swinging his arms, bending from his hips, and so on.

And he talked about his problem with the professors. Gravely, earnestly, he wrestled with his soul, mouthing with gusto the inspiring jargon of the crusade. For the present, said the professors, was his Place not Here? Did his Conscience tell him that he Had to go? If it did, they said gravely, they would say nothing more. But had he considered the Larger Issues?

“Is not,” said the Acting Dean persuasively, “is not this your Sector? Is your own Front Line not here on the campus? Is it not here that you must Go Over The Top? Oh, I know,” he went on with a smile of quiet pain, “I know it would be easier to go. I have had to fight that battle myself. But we are all part of the Army now; we are all enlisted in the Service of Liberty. We are all Mobilized for Truth. And each must Do His Bit where it will count for most.”

“Yes,” said Eugene, with a pale tortured face, “I know. I know it’s wrong. But oh, sir, – when I think of those murderous beasts, when I think of how they have menaced All that we Hold Dear, when I think of Little Belgium, and then of My Own Mother, My Own Sister – ” He turned away, clenching his hands, madly in love with himself.

“Yes, yes,” said the Acting Dean gently, “for boys with a spirit like yours it’s not easy.”

“Oh, sir, it’s hard!” cried Eugene passionately. “I tell you it’s hard.”

“We must endure,” said the Dean quietly. “We must be tempered in the fire. The Future of Mankind hangs in the balance.”

Deeply stirred they stood together for a moment, drenched in the radiant beauty of their heroic souls.


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