Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #7)

Greetings from Chicago!  If you’ve followed the news, you know that it is not a great time for higher education in Illinois.  Hopefully the situation is less chaotic in your state.  These are challenging years for scholars in literature and language and we need to organize more than ever to advocate for the importance of what we do.  I hope this year’s conference in Hartford, Connecticut will help energize NEMLA members to keep up the good fight.

Last month I promised to provide my readers an sketch of my current research.  If you’ve perused my blog or (hopefully) read my book, then you know my current interest in the lives of soldiers after war.  In an essay I just completed for a collection on gender, war, and the U.S. military I highlight the semantic distinction between calling someone a “soldier” and calling someone a “veteran.”  The former suggests a person still in uniform while the later leads us to assume that military service is a part of their past.  Although it is hard to parse the difference sometimes between these words in scholarly discourse let alone in the general public, noticing and maintaining this distinction is an important part of my work.  These words serve as a reminder that the legacy of war is not simply measured in treaties and deaths.  The legacy of war walks all around us.  Calling someone a veteran implies an open-ended commitment to creating meaning.  Calling them a soldier places them within a clearly defined frame of reference and distances them and their service from society.

I’m not totally clear on how these insights might apply to naval personnel.  One of my students, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, pointed out to me that my work emphasizes ground troops more than sailors.  He also reminded me that two of our nation’s longest wars don’t have many recognized battles at sea, the Cold War and the current War on Terror.  His observation is a reminder to me that when a scholar is paying attention to one set of connotations it is possible to miss another.  It’s also an excellent example of why the term veteran makes a society so uneasy.  The story is still be written through conversations between those who served, liked my student, and those who did not, like myself.  Guilt sometimes makes us long for myth.  It requires less introspection.

My interest in veterans began with a much larger interest in the metaphors we use that take on a mythic status through repeated use.  It wasn’t until I was pretty far advanced into my research that I realized what I was doing was classic American Studies work along the lines of Henry Nash Smith and Leo Marx.  Veterans became my metaphor turned myth, a blank slate upon which society could project its hopes and fears.  The next phase of my research will involve examining a myth closely associated with that of the veteran in United States culture, at least up to the Second World War–the Yeoman Farmer.

At this point in the conception of my latest project, I’m focused on analyzing two images. The first is the Winslow Homer painting, The Veteran In a New Field, that graces the cover of my book New Men and also appears in chapter two.  Homer’s painting serves as the bridge between my previous research and this new area I’m exploring.  In that image we see the soldier casting his uniform jacket down on the earth, rolling up his sleeves, and preparing to reap a seemingly endless field of wheat.  The problem with this image, as I mention in my analysis of the painting in New Men, is that the solitary labor imagined in Homer’s image was not the reality for men in the nineteenth-century United States.  Machinery had already begun to take on much of the harvesting work once undertaken by human power.  Furthermore, in those communities that still relied solely on human labor for harvesting, more than one man would be needed to cut and bundle the grain.  Homer’s painting thus evokes for viewers a myth that they know is a myth but still feels powerful.  Solitary labor in the earth as part of a simple chain of production, distribution, and consumption.  This pre-capitalist world was all but dead in 1865.  However, the viewers wanted to believe not simply for the sake of their national values, which depended on the Yeoman Farmer and all he represented, but also because it represented an image of war smoothly turned to peace.  The sword changed to plowshare (Isaiah) and the warrior come home to toil in the earth (Cincinnatus).

I wondered looking at that image why so many veterans returned from the war would choose a life of toil on small homesteads, especially those who had no prior connection to the land.  My answer seemed to be that it was a healing myth.  A way home from the battlefield and a visual assurance to civilians that the war was over.

The second image comes from J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur’s Letters From An American Farmer. (Note:  Here I am citing the Penguin Edition, 1981.) Imagined as a series of letters explaining America to those in Europe, his third letter, “What is An American?,” provides a powerful verbal metaphor.  That of people as plants moved from one soil to another:

“In this great American asylum, the poor of Europe have by some means met together…Urged by a variety of motives, here they came.  Everything has tended to regenerate them: new laws, a new mode of living, a new social system; here they are become men:  in Europe they were as so many useless plants, wanting vegetative mould and refreshing showers; they withered, and were mowed down by want, hunger and war; but now, by the power of transplantation, like all other plants they have taken root and flourished!” (Crevecoeur, 68-69).

Farming provides a healing myth for the returning veteran.  It also provides in this instance a way to imagine the connection of immigrants to their new home.  “Ubi panis ibi patria” (69).  Where your bread is there is your country, Crevecoeur proclaims.  How much better that bread when it is made from wheat grown on your own land.  Suddenly you feel “rooted” to your surroundings and begin to flourish.

Soldiers toiling for the state.  Immigrants tilling the soil.  The two are cut from the same cloth.  Both are attempts to answer the question that has puzzled decades of U.S. citizens, What is an American?  Each of the images (verbal and visual) that I have cited above lay claim to the same answer.  Till the soil and then you will understand.  Then you will be rooted to the land and will be one of us.

Obviously there are limitations to this metaphor.  But I’ve gone on long enough.

That’s all for this post.  In my next entry I will give a recap of this year’s NEMLA convention.  Hopefully I will see some of you in Hartford.

Until Next Time…

John Casey

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