Literary Journalism and World War I Book

Title: Literary Journalism and World War I

Edited by: Andrew Griffiths, Sara Prieto, Soenke Zehle

Publisher: Éditions PUN – Université de Lorraine                                              

Publication date: Fall 2015


Due date for final articles: 5 January 2015



For as long as there have been wars, there has been war reporting. The only thing humankind seems to value more than the taking of life is the recording of that death in ink. From Mesolithic to Neolithic cave drawings at Bhimbetka (India) and Jabel Acacus (Libya) to the Attic histories and epics of Herodotus, Thucydides and Homer; from Elizabethan tragedies to cult television series like Generation Kill: no media, ancient or modern, has escaped the theme of man’s inhumanity to man, nor has the public’s thirst for blood abated with time. For better or for worse, war reporting has remained a rich cultural heritage that touches not only those individual cultures or states that have borne the scars of war on its people or its landscapes, but also the collective memory of what it means to be human – or inhuman. To neglect war reporting is in part to forget the war that produced it and to fail to educate our children about how our failures have repeatedly existed coevally with our triumphs.

The arts, in particular literature, have played a significant role in recording wars for posterity. Literature affords audiences an emotive response to human tragedy that is often denuded in histories or sensationalized in the press. Literature lets readers travel where historians and journalists rarely venture: into the human psyche responsible for violence. Histories recount the battles, tally the dead, bestow the laurels and pass sentence on the enemy. The press, which only fully made the distinction between fact and rhetoric within the last century (in most democracies), frequently foments the chauvinism necessary for a state to empty its coffers on transgressing international borders rather than on addressing domestic affairs. As the press matured over time, journalistic reporting, which once occupied the no man’s land along the literature–history continuum, shifted paradigms and followed its own naturalistic instincts down a factographic path that aligned it closer to a historical rather than to a literary discourse. The general perception among democratic states by the 1920s was that journalism ought to be either “objective,” as it would become in the American tradition, or “polemical,” as it has often remained in the European one. In terms of war reporting, if history would satisfy itself with the telling of the how of war, and journalism the when and the who, literature would preoccupy itself with the why.

Whether recorded on papyrus or parchment, in pamphlets or broadsheets, via epics or novels, in photographs or film documentaries, the violence of war remains one of the most horrific experiences to which the human community has been exposed. Yet, modern historical and journalistic discourses have tended to objectify war to a safe, sublimated distance, even reducing it to a cultural logic that promise renewal through destruction. In effect, we have made of war a euphemism, which, as the poet Joseph Brodsky observed, “is, generally, the inertia of terror” we do not wish to acknowledge firsthand but which we agree is a necessary antidote to cultural exhaustion. Literature, on the other hand, provides subjective responses to war that appeal to our emotive needs, but it ultimately cheats us, providing satisfying or disturbing narrative ends to a war, while often ignoring, falsifying or even romanticizing its documented history. Since literature has traditionally instructed humanity through the ages about war more than history has, its effect has been to mythologize war in our collective conscience – often to the detriment of a given war’s truth. Consequently, to understand the motives and the players behind any war in any nation and at any given time, we have had either to choose between dry factography (when such facts were available and uncensored) and demagogic fiction, or to read both.

As an alternative to war literature and traditional war journalism, and to the historical legacies that have emerged from or given rise to both, literary journalism in its several written and visual avatars has sought different ways to perceive and represent the aesthetics of the war experience. Like its sister disciplines – journalism and literature – literary and multimedial journalism has repeatedly defended the necessities and exposed the horrors of war; has accurately chronicled the events and passionately dramatized its players; has rallied the troops and sympathized with the enemy. But, unlike its siblings, literary journalism does all of this at the same time. Its verité aesthetics offer incontestable facts with a critical distance worthy of history; its documentary heuristics capture multiple eye-witness accounts that give journalistic bylines their timely importance; and its transmedial story-telling provides visual images worthy of our greatest war novelists, playwrights, poets and photographers. While not being the definitivesource of war reporting, literary journalism does offer a more complete experience to a historical event by complementing the strengths of each of the other sources of war documentation and correcting their weaknesses or limitations. Literary journalism is, to be sure, more subjective than history, inviting the reader to participate in an event rather than passively observe it from the margins of time; it is longer and more detailed than short, dry journalistic pieces found in our broadsheets that are bound by formulaic structures, house styles, and word counts; and it is more fact-bound and thus less deterministic than war literature.

This book examines various forms of World War I writing that could be considered as early examples of literary journalism that helped shift the paradigm of documentary representation in war reporting. Experimentation is the hallmark of all literary journalism, and one of the aesthetic effects of the Great War was this fostering of journalistic innovation.Famous are the names Albert Londres, Joseph Kessel, Louis Piérard, Louis Tasnier, Egon Erwin Kisch, Joseph Roth, John Reed, Richard Harding Davis, Philip Gibbs and Basil Clarke, all of whom covered the War and its aftermath as journalists but who chose to capture their subjects in literary styles incompatible with the objective protocols that Western journalism was then codifying. To them, this collection adds the more marginal names of John Buchan (at least for his literary journalism), Velona Pilcher, Will Irwin, Gabriel Bounoure and Frans Masereel – British, American, French and Belgian authors whose literary journalism also drew upon the experimental war journalism developed in the 19th century that foregrounded literary aesthetics and placed the soldiers’ and the journalists’ lived experiences at the center of the written or visual narrative. Trench journals, war memoirs, serialized dispatches, graphic narratives – their experimental journalistic forms deliberately exceeded the scope of the jingoistic and censored news reporting of the day. Directly or indirectly, literary journalism influenced each of the texts studied in this book, and was itself subsequently shaped by them. Bringing them to light today, at the time of the War’s centenary commemoration, not only underscores the narrative imperative to capturing the aesthetics of war but also demonstrates how these early journalistic forms interrogate and challenge current practices of depicting – and consuming –  literary war journalism.

The book reproduces extracts from each of the various primary sources under study with the goal of extending the canon of World War I literary journalism. Accompanying these extracts are a brief contextual gloss that situates a given text within its national literary and journalistic traditions and a detailed analysis that interpolates the aesthetics of war reporting on various fronts and at divergent times in history. The book thus hopes not only to provide present and future readers with examples of literary war journalism that have been widely neglected over the past century but also to capture what is particular or unique about the extracts in their day and to consider how they speak to us today. In other words, as a discrete case study, Literary Journalism and World War I will assess the impact literary journalism has had on various nations’ literary reporting emanating from the War years and how those stories might help to reconfigure certain historical legacies, journalistic heuristics and literary representations of the Great War in the twenty-first century. As a philological inquiry, it will widen our knowledge about literary war reporting in general and enable us to look at writing from other wars which has been neglected, marginalized or underappreciated.