World War I and the Origins of Modern American Culture

Date: October 10, 2014,

Time and Location Forthcoming


Nathan Blake (Northeastern U),   “The ‘Crippled Soldier Problem’ and Rationalized Images of Ability”

This presentation analyzes the post–World War I discourses of disability, masculine agency, and human-machine systems primarily through the films and photographs of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. During the war, Frank Gilbreth served as a motion study expert for the US Army, creating films that included bayonet training, techniques of mule grooming, and studies targeting the optical unconscious of disloyalty or malingering. More than 200,000 Americans were disabled in the war, and a large number had lost limbs. Unlike many of the professionals whose rhetoric evoked pity or sentimentality for the “poor veteran,” Frank Gilbreth positioned himself as the veterans’ manly champion, a fellow cripple disdainful of the rehabilitation experts’ feminizing concern. For the husband and wife team, photographic testing, managerial analysis, and ergonomics took precedent over the artificial limb itself, and was essential to the systematic discernment and display of the “one best way” to perform a task, which would require the worker “to act as nearly like machines as possible.” Such rigid and precise optimization contributed to the notion of disability as a difference of degree, and that every individual possesses an underutilized faculty. Along with publicized images of amputees enabled through mechanical prostheses and optimized work stations, these modes of recording and analysis helped to counter the stigma of “the cripple,” to integrate veterans into the workforce, and contributed to the notion that bodies could be systematically quantified and engineered—that the human was not a singular and whole organism, but rather already partial and part of a larger body of labor and mobilized mass. I present these motion studies as a predecessor to the cybernetic approach of Norbert Wiener’s artificial limbs after World War II, and ultimately to the motion capture recording of contemporary veteran amputees at medical centers such as the Walter Reed Gait Lab, where sensors are placed on points of the body and prosthesis alike, and motion is abstracted to a series of data points that can be isolated, tracked, and modified. Such process and images, I argue, are a foundation of the contemporary imperatives to quantify the body not only in the military and medicine, but also within athletics, the workplace, and personal health.


Sue Collins (Michigan Tech), Star Testimonies: Speeches, Tours, and Trailers”

The US Treasury’s recruitment of film stars into the Liberty Loan Bond Drives is retrospectively treated as a foregone organizational decision in some WWI and film histories. I argue that while the film industry’s relation to the state had crystallized by World War II, at the start of the Great War in 1917, Hollywood’s legitimation as a source of political authority had yet to be worked out. This point of fact is supported, first, by the internal dissention within the Wilson Administration over what should be Hollywood’s contribution to the war effort, and second, by the government’s initial reliance on traditional means of persuasion (written press and exhortatory speeches by renowned elites) to win public opinion, and hence its sluggish scheduling of film stars as national speakers. Officials charged with war mobilization understood the rhetorical value of the moving image, but individuals also held private reservations about assigning dominion to Hollywood over the government’s motion picture division, despite the film industry’s ongoing efforts to assert its value as a tool of cultural policy. Moreover, the idea of a star testimonial on behalf of war mobilization (or public policy) was a novel construction because star actors had no prior government sanction in the public sphere. Not only did the biggest film stars (e.g., Pickford, Chaplin, Fairbanks, Hart) speak before massive crowds to sell war bonds on national tours, a multitude of Hollywood’s denizens appeared in over three dozen Liberty Bond “trailers” produced gratis by their studios. This talks argues that the while the

propaganda shorts reinforced perceptions held by some political elites of commercial film as low brow, the aggregate of star capital made available to the government’s war mobilization campaign signaled a new manner of effectively linking popular culture with state policy to promote unified national identity. Patriotic star testimonials signaled a formative shift in Hollywood’s political authority by setting the precedent to use stardom for ideological purposes during wartime.


David A. Davis (Mercer University), “The Longest War: Southern Writers and the American Expeditionary Force”

America’s entrance into the Great War instantiated a temporary truce in the residual regional hostilities simmering after the Civil War. A generation of white southerners raised on lost cause animosity joined the American army to fight against a foreign enemy, and the war changed both southerners and the South. White southerners who joined the American Expeditionary Force reconfigured their national identity, those who served in Europe gained cosmopolitan experience, and those who served in combat encountered traumatizing violence. The South these soldiers returned to after the war also changed, becoming more industrial, urban, and modern.

This presentation will examine the way southern writers who served in the American Expeditionary Force negotiated the changes in themselves and their region that resulted from the war. William Alexander Percy, Paul Green, and Donald Davidson enlisted and fought in France, and they wrote about their experiences in the war and their perceptions of the changing South. Percy, son of a U.S. Senator, editor of the Yale Younger Poets series, owner of an enormous Mississippi plantation, and closeted homosexual, wrote about his experience in the war in his autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee. For him, the war seemed to be opportunity to prove his masculinity, but in spite of his commendations for courage, he returned to Mississippi feeling alienated and disillusioned. Paul Green, one of America’s most important playwrights, served with valor in combat, but he became a pacifist after the war, and he wrote the play Johnny Johnson to ridicule modern warfare. Donald Davidson also served with valor, but he identified more as a southerner than as an American, and he detested the processes of urbanization and industrialization that led to the war. After the war, he joined the influential group of poets at Vanderbilt who published The Fugitive, several of whom, including Davidson, later published the agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand, a scathing critique of American modernity. In the long poem The Tall Men, he simultaneously praises the bravery of his forefathers who took up arms and criticizes the government that became involved in a foreign war.

After the war, a number of southern writers rose to prominence by writing books that depicted the South’s ambivalent, often retrograde attitude toward progress. Those attitudes are embedded in the region’s encounters with modernity during the war.  For southern writers who served in the American Expeditionary Force, the war complicated their relationship with the South and left them disillusioned about modernity, establishing the characteristic hallmarks of southern modernism.


Elizabeth Outka (University of Richmond), “Raising the Dead:  The First World War and the Influenza Pandemic”


The influenza pandemic of 1918 erupted right at the end of WWI, killing an astonishing number of people in an extraordinarily short time; the latest figures suggest over 100 million people died worldwide—ten times as many fatalities as in WWI. Yet despite inflicting far more causalities than WWI, the flu was for a time seemingly forgotten.  Literature appears to ignore it, no memorials were built to mark its destruction, and until the last ten years, few historians had told its story; it certainly makes very few appearances in modernist studies today, though this does not mean that the pandemic didn’t matter, or didn’t matter to modernism. This talk examines the reasons for this apparent silence, exploring how the flu becomes a shadow trauma to the war, alternatively blocked out and ignored because of the war, and often invisibly incorporated into the grief and mourning of the postwar era.  When we weave the history and climate of the pandemic back into modernism, however, the intertwined relationship between the war and the flu remerges as a central figure in modernist images of death, mourning, and the corpse, thereby shifting some of our basic assumptions about the home front and the front line. As “Raising the Dead” argues, the pandemic was the second great traumatic event of the early twentieth century, and its repercussions became tangled with—and hidden by– the disruption and mourning surrounding WWI.


The interaction of these twin traumas in fact profoundly marked post-WWI literature and culture in Europe and the United States; never before in history had so many died in so short a time.  By 1920, almost everyone left alive had experienced multiple, sudden losses.  My paper explores how this atmosphere produced a proliferation of—and an obsession with—ideas about resurrection.  In the 1920s, writers, film makers, spiritualists, religious leaders, magicians, and ordinary citizens, faced with an overwhelming flood of corpses, began to imagine—and at times believe in—new ways the body might endure after death.  Burial services were rewritten; magicians were for the first time sawing bodies in half and then restoring them; and poetry, novels, and films were suddenly overrun with zombies and other reanimated corpses. “Raising the Dead” explores these different modes of resurrection through the lens of the war and the pandemic, and examines how their interaction appeared to unsettle the boundaries between fiction and the real world, making the imagined real, and the real only imagined.

Posted in Past Trowbridge Events