"Lest we forget": Canadian combatant narratives of the Great War
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Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) has long been the dominant cultural study of Great War Literature. Because Canadian literary critics, such as Evelyn Cobley and Dagmar Novak, rely on Fussell’s text as a model when they write about Great War texts, they either eliminate a variety of interesting texts, or severely distort and misread a narrow range of texts to make them fit Fussell’s ironic, anti-war ideology. This study aims to recuperate and reevaluate a number of Canadian Great War texts by examining a wider ideological range of texts than Fussell or his followers allow. In Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War (1997), cultural historian Jonathan Vance offers a viable antithesis to Fussell in his method and conclusions. This present study, focused on eight Canadian combatant narratives written between 1917-1939, develops and expands Vance’s argument from the vantage point of literary criticism. The first chapter examines four canonical European anti-war texts, delineating their characteristic features and ideological positions. Chapter 2 shows how the extreme ends of the spectrum of literary responses to the war in Canadian combatant writing distort the truth and are equally unsatisfying. Chapter 3 examines three Canadian narratives located in the middle ground between jingoistic romances and cynical anti-war texts, focusing on their social inclusivity and balance—features which allow for a more multifaceted representation of the Great War. Chapters 4 and 5 offer close readings of two of the best Canadian combatant narratives, Will Bird’s memoir And We Go On, and Philip Child’s novel God’s Sparrows, showing not only how both texts confirm and illustrate the characteristics of more inclusive, balanced war texts, but also how they evoke and affirm the fact of historical and social continuity.