On War and Writing, Samuel Hynes, University of Chicago Press, 215 pages

Samuel Hynes, Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature emeritus at Princeton and a decorated Marine pilot who flew in both World War II and Korea, is author of numerous books, articles, essays, and reviews, all written in easy, natural, and elegant prose. Among his well-received books are The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World and Flights of Passage: Recollections of a World War II Aviator.

In On War and Writing, a collection of pieces written over the years, the common subjectis war—specifically the two world wars fought in the 20th century, as experienced by “young men who fought and civilians who only imagined,” and the men and women who wrote about them. “Those great wars changed the world, and the lives of the men who fought in them, and of those who lived in the aftermath. We in the twenty-first century live differently, and think differently, because those wars were fought.”

As for himself, “I fought as a very young Marine in my generation’s war, and I found, in the long teaching career that followed, that war remained in my mind, an ever-interesting subject that I returned to again and again.” War is important, he writes, because “it’s always present in our world, dozens of wars are being fought, somewhere, right now. Because war stirs young hearts. Because, as the great Eric Partridge wrote, war ‘next to love, has most captured the world’s imagination.’”

But as a former Marine combat pilot—the elite among the service fliers, as we land-bound Marines viewed them—he’s especially aware of the war in the air, from its earliest days in the last century, when in World War I, not long after the Wright Brothers first flew, a whole new concept of warfare was developed. That brand of combat was viewed by many in those early days as mounted cavalry warfare with wings.

“All my working life I’ve had two vocations,” he writes, “flying and professing.” But he adds, “The flying came first.” As a boy growing up in Minnesota in the 1930s he played a game called “dogfight” with his friends. That’s when aviation was still in its infancy, and the fliers were Eddie Rickenbacker and the Red Baron, heroes of the First Great War. Such men, knights of what one writer called “the open cockpit silk scarf era,” were mounted in planes still nearly Kitty Hawk primitive.

During those years, Hynes and his friends had imaginations “full of World War I flying images” that they had gathered from movies like Wings and Dawn Patrol, and from stories they had read about the Lafayette Escadrille, and from pulp magazines like G-8 and his Battle Aces. Those stories and movies may not have added up “to a true account of that war-in-the-air,” but they were “enough to stir these small boys… We were caught up in the romance of flying and planes.”

Later, Hynes and his friends would ride their bikes to the city airport to lie in the grass beyond the perimeter fence and watch the planes approach for landing. The Navy had a reserve squadron on the field, and they came to see and hear the Navy planes land, “sleek and serious.” It didn’t occur to him, he recalls, that he would “ever be inside one of those magnificent machines.”

Then the war came. Hynes, a freshman at the University of Minnesota, enlisted in the Naval Aviation program. He was commissioned in 1944 as a Marine Corps second lieutenant. When he went to draw his flight gear, “I was handed a long white silk scarf, just like [actor] Richard Barthelmess’s. Someone in Procurement must have seen Dawn Patrol and thought he knew what a pilot should wear when he took off on his last, doomed mission.”

Hynes was a success in his “first vocation,” getting a Distinguished Flying Cross. But at war’s end he returned to the university and took up his other vocation, academics. “I became a college teacher,” he recalls, “taught academic subjects, and wrote academic books (though the pilot in me got restless if they were too academic.)” He taught at Swarthmore College until the Korean War, when he was recalled to the Marine Corps and that first vocation of flying. He was not alone. Among many others, baseball legend Ted Williams also was recalled at the height of his athletic prowess.

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Hynes was sent to the Marine Air Station at Cherry Point, North Carolina, to teach new ROTC lieutenants how to fly. At night he returned home to work on his dissertation on the English poet and novelist Thomas Hardy. He also borrowed planes and took to the air to keep up his flight hours—and occasionally to further his scholarly interests. It was on one of those flights in 1953 that he visited Ezra Pound.

Years later, in 2006, he rendered a poignant personal reminiscence of that trip. It was published in The New Yorker, a magazine with which Hynes had an interesting relationship over the years. The 2006 reminiscence, entitled “Meeting E.P.,” described his encounter with Pound when the great poet was confined to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in suburban Virginia—a confinement that stemmed from his propaganda broadcasts and seditious writings from Italy supporting Mussolini and fascism during World War II. Hynes wanted to talk with Pound about writers of the day, particularly T. E. Hulme, a poet Pound had known before his death in World War I.

Pound of course knew the most important literary figures of his age, stretching as far back as Edwardian times and the generation decimated by World War I. Pound had strongly influenced and promoted the work of a new generation of writers, among them William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, and T.S. Eliot. Indeed, Eliot’s The Waste Land benefited from Pound’s editing and guidance. Ernest Hemingway, who later would denounce Pound for his pro-fascist broadcasts, visited Pound in Paris in 1921 and reportedly said of him, “I taught him how to box, he taught me how to write.”

Pound was held at the St. Elizabeth’s mental institution for treason, an offense that could have led to a firing squad. “But,” writes Hynes, “you can’t shoot a great poet. So they declared him mentally unfit to stand trial and put him away.”

In recounting his memorable trip to see Pound, Hynes describes his flight to Anacostia Naval Station in Washington, D.C., the first leg leisurely and scenic, prompting memories of war and flying. Then, approaching Washington, the crowded airspace begins. “And so does a certain nervousness,” he writes. “It’s not just the air traffic. It’s the mission I’m on. Here I am, a Marine captain in his Marine uniform in a Marine airplane, flying in to Washington to visit a man who has been accused of being a traitor to his country—my country.” He wondered what his military superiors would think of his other life as scholar and professor, pursuing this discredited poet.

After meeting with Pound and his wife, listening to the poet’s views of the world, getting advice and references, Hynes summed up his thoughts. “Pound,” he writes, “was a man who believed in himself too much, I thought, a man who had too many ideas and gripped them too tightly in his mind. But not crazy. He shouldn’t be there.”

Hynes later moved with his family to England for a Fulbright fellowship. There he met with numerous literary figures who had been recommended by Pound as figures to pursue. During a second Fulbright year he met Pound again in Italy, where they discussed literature and other topics. The Hynes reminiscence ends with a strangely touching scene in which Hynes introduces his two daughters to Pound, who responds with decorous Edwardian courtesy.

In this collection Hynes writes sparingly of his World War II and Korean flying experiences. And after Korea he took up once again his second vocation, returning to Swarthmore and doing “all the appropriate things: taught academic subjects, wrote academic books, and went to academic meetings where I read academic papers.” But flying remained in his blood, and occasionally he would rent a Cessna and “just fly around.”

And that was his life for the next two decades—teaching, writing, and hiring light planes just to keep his hand in. Also, he began “another first-vocation project,” writing in a notebook the things he remembered from World War II: “anecdotes, dialogues, Marine things… a whole page of Marine obscenities, the lyrics to several dirty songs, and an account of being in an electrical thunderstorm at night over the China Sea… details of what it was like in my flying war.”

He put his notes together, “not into a history of the war, but rather a personal account that would make my war as real as I could make it.” By the 1970s he had a draft, which he sent to his agent, who circulated it. Then came the rejection slips. “I remember especially the one from William Maxwell, an editor at the New Yorker,” recalls Hynes. “He liked the book, he said, but he couldn’t possibly publish a piece of a pro-war book at a time like this (it was 1973, the end of US troops in Vietnam).” So he put the manuscript away and returned to his “other vocation.”

Fifteen years later, he writes, “the national mood had changed; I pulled the manuscript out, rewrote it, and this time found a publisher. It appeared in 1988 as Flights of Passage.” The reviews were overwhelmingly positive, including the New Yorker review. There was also an endorsement from Ted Williams, his fellow Marine pilot.

When Professor Hynes does discuss his personal World War II experiences, he’s necessarily writing about the war in the Pacific, largely an American war waged largely by the Navy and the Marine Corps. Historian Paul Fussell, who also served in the war and whose anthology The Norton Book of War is highly recommended by Hynes, once generated considerable controversy when he wrote, “For most Americans, the war was about revenge against the Japanese and the reason the European part had to be finished first was so the maximum attention could be devoted to the real business, the absolute torment and destruction of the Japanese. The slogan was conspicuously Remember Pearl Harbor. No one ever shouted or sang Remember Poland.”

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Hynes takes a more rounded view, though he arrives at something approaching the same premise. In a chapter entitled “War Stories: Myths of World War II,” he writes of the memories of war that become myth, “the story of the war that we have composed over the years—out of recollection, and other people’s narratives, and various memorable images.” With World War I, he writes, the story came together through novels, poems, and movies; “and since we have all read the same war-books and seen the same films about that war, the story is much the same for all of us. And we all believe that story to be the truth about what happened from 1914 to 1918.”

He sees the myth of World War II, however, as less focused. It was a huge, sprawling war in which Americans fought “for a combination of patriotic and humane motives—more patriotic in the Pacific, more humane in Europe—and we came out of it nearly four years later still feeling good about ourselves, still calling it a ‘Good War,’ though….sixty million human beings had died in it.”

Nor, he believes, did it produce the kind of literature that came out of the first war—All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, Goodbye to All That, Wilfred Owen’s poems, Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, to name a few. True, the second war produced The Naked and the Dead, From Here to Eternity, and The Last Enemy, among a few others. But, writes Hynes, “the Myth exists only as a bare moral fable: Good confronted Evil, and Good won. It has not found canonical form, and we are still more deeply moved by the writing of the other, earlier war.”

Why? During the last century, writes Hynes, in many countries of the world, national histories reached a point of violent change, “a fracturing crisis of faith in the values that had until that point propelled and unified the nation.” In England, the fracture came during World War I, when the people, “especially the fighting troops, lost confidence in their cause and their leaders, and became disillusioned and bitter.”

Writes Hynes, “English writing about the war fed on that disillusionment; it is the great theme of that literature, which is the most brilliant and the most moving of any writing about war in our time.” Neither war produced much American literature that fed on any similar sense of national disillusion, however. “No, we Americans had to wait until Vietnam for our national disillusionment. In terms of social shock and imaginative response, WWII wasn’t a shock to the national system: nothing changed, nobody lost faith, we simply went, and then we came back.”

Hynes’s scholarship has produced several important works of literary criticism, with special emphasis on the Edwardian period. Thus it isn’t surprising that his book also includes discussions of the war writings of major authors, among them Thomas Hardy, E.E. Cummings, C. Day Lewis, Vera Brittain, Rebecca West, and William Butler Yeats. He also describes his experiences as an adviser on Ken Burns’s World War II documentary, The War, and concludes with a striking description of a flight he made over the battlefields of World War I.

But the subject here is not so much historical war as what war actually feels like. All war is unimaginable, he writes. “The closest we can come is reading the personal records of men who were there, ordinary young guys, most of them… or old guys looking back… keeping alive a sense of what war is really like, when you’re in it.”  

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement.