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On War and Writing

     “In our imaginations, war is the name we give to the extremes of violence in our lives, the dark dividing opposite of the connecting myth, which we call love. War enacts the great antagonisms of history, the agonies of nations; but it also offers metaphors for those other antagonisms, the private battles of our private lives, our conflicts with one another and with the world, and with ourselves.”
Samuel Hynes knows war personally: he served as a Marine Corps pilot in the Pacific Theater during World War II, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross. He has spent his life balancing two careers: pilot and professor of literature. Hynes has written a number of major works of literary criticism, as well as a war-memoir, Flights of Passage, and several books about the World Wars. His writing is sharp, lucid, and has provided some of the most expert, detailed, and empathetic accounts of a disappearing generation of fighters and writers.
            On War and Writing offers for the first time a selection of Hynes’s essays and introductions that explore the traditions of war writing from the twentieth century to the present. Hynes takes as a given that war itself—the battlefield uproar of actual combat—is unimaginable for those who weren’t there, yet we have never been able to turn away from it. We want to know what war is really like: for a soldier on the Somme; a submariner in the Pacific; a bomber pilot over Germany; a tank commander in the Libyan desert. To learn, we turn again and again to the memories of those who were there, and to the imaginations of those who weren’t, but are poets, or filmmakers, or painters, who give us a sense of these experiences that we can’t possibly know.
           The essays in this book range from the personal (Hynes’s experience working with documentary master Ken Burns, his recollections of his own days as a combat pilot) to the critical (explorations of the works of writers and artists such as Thomas Hardy, E. E. Cummings, and Cecil Day-Lewis). What we ultimately see in On War and Writing is not military history, not the plans of generals, but the feelings of war, as young men expressed them in journals and poems, and old men remembered them in later years—men like Samuel Hynes.

224 pages | 4 halftones | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2018

Biography and Letters

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory


"Perhaps no American scholar is better equipped to bridge the divide between martial life and literary culture than Samuel Hynes. . . . Mr. Hynes’s prose is crisp and edifying without crossing into the didactic or academic. His ability to explicate how war culture can absorb antiwar pronouncements is particularly striking. . . . Every year, Memorial Day tempts us into believing that the best way to honor the fallen is to exalt their triumphs while whitewashing everything that led to their sacrifice. A superb writer and thinker like Mr. Hynes reminds us why we must resist that hollow pursuit, now more than ever.”

Wall Street Journal

"Hynes is fascinated with how the artist, in turn, shapes the ways we feel about and interpret war. . . .From renowned figures of literature to the less celebrated, the author offers powerful perspectives on the drama of destruction, exploring the character of wars 'good' and 'bad.' But the analysis is his own. He acknowledges, gloomily, that even the greatest art bears little power as a preventative instrument. Hynes studies what our literature and art tell us, or fail to tell us, about war, and there is much wisdom in his critique. He believes we have come to the end of 'the Big Words and brave gestures and the tall stone monuments.' A penetrating collection of pieces on war and how art responds to it."

Kirkus Reviews

"The excellent Samuel Hynes has gathered some entertaining and provocative reflections, rooted in his long life and wide experience of both literature and war.”

New York Review of Books

"Hynes is a brilliant critic, both of the literature of war and its myths. In this, the writer he most resembles is Paul Fussell. . . .Beneath Hynes’s many local insights there is a constant story, of the peculiar and shifting shape of modern wars, for war has become increasingly metaphorical: we speak of the ‘war on terror’ and ‘culture wars’. So when Hynes is discussing poetry, he’s also—and most interestingly—describing the quality of modern war. . . .Perhaps all modern warfare is a style of psychological warfare—war conducted in the head, in the stories and the fears of civilians—and this is also, perhaps, precisely why the guides we need are professors as well as pilots, or those who know both war and its many myths.”

The Spectator

"The author persuasively observes that the portrayal of glorious war, propelled by jingoistic propaganda, lured men into battle and was finally repudiated by the meaningless slaughter on the Western front. . . . Hynes, still going strong at the age of 93, has a clear, engaging style—and a mind that is intelligent, perceptive and humane.”

Times Higher Education

“Though the essays are all discrete, certain themes emerge: the disconnect between rhetoric and reality, the difference between immediate and retrospective accounts (or, as he says 'the need to report and the need to remember'). Famous writers get their due—among them, Vera Brittain, Thomas Hardy, Rebecca West, William Butler Yeats—as well as lesser-known names, such as posthumously published WWI memoirist Graeme West. Most of all, Hynes is interested in how language shapes people’s ideas about combat, and he is an instructive interpreter of 'words about war, and the narrative they compose.' He also brings himself to the table: he marvelously recounts his participation as a commentator and adviser for Ken Burns’s The War documentary, and elegiacally chronicles a flight he made in later life over the battlefields of WWI, concluding the book by demonstrating how images can say as much as words. His work is suffused with both academic credibility and personal commitment. . . a thoughtful and thought-provoking collection."

Publishers Weekly

"Hynes is a rare veteran of both war and writing, and his rich and thought-provoking new collection of essays contains a wealth of ideas about the relationship between the two. . . .This book sounds a bugle call encouraging us to step back and reflect on war and words. It makes an eloquent case for re-reading the classics of war literature, recalling the power of language produced out of past conflicts, including the distortions of propaganda, and reminding that, while war is the darkest expression of our humanity, there are other expressions as well.”

Times Literary Supplement

"Samuel Hynes makes no claim to being a military historian, yet his grasp of the complexities and horrors of war offers values seldom available in conventional accounts of tactics, strategies and pivotal battles. . . . Hynes' subject is what our literature tells us, and fails to tell us, about war, and there is considerable wisdom in his critique.”

Charleston Post and Courier

"A fine reconsideration of war and its literary remembrance."

Australian Book Review

Table of Contents

Introduction: Two Vocations
At War with Ken Burns
In the Whirl and Muddle of War
War Stories: Myths of World War II
A Critic Looks at War
Hardy and the Battle God
Yeats’s Wars
Ignorantly into War: Vera Brittain
Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier
An Introduction to Graeme West
The Odds on Edward Thomas
E. E. Cummings’s The Enormous Room
Cecil Lewis’s Sagittarius Rising
The Death of Landscape
Verdun and Back: A Pilot’s Log
Index of Names and Titles

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