Without World War I, what would literature look like today?

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tags: books, World War I



As we begin to commemorate the outbreak of World War I in earnest, just how central the “Great” war is to Britain’s conception of its history is ever more obvious. And this is also very true in terms of culture.

The war poets are routinely taught in schools. And the memoirs, novels, paintings, films and pieces of music produced in that period haven’t just produced our cultural memory of the war. They’ve made our culture virtually unimaginable without it. But it isn’t just these direct cultural products that I’m talking about. What might literature have looked like if it hadn’t been shaken by war?

It’s easy to point to the works we would not have had: the biting protests, satires, and traumas in the poetry of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, or Ivor Gurney; the equally disturbing, if more detatched and cynical, memoirs, such as Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That or Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer.

But what we can’t say is what might have been written instead – though perhaps the one thing we can be sure of is that we wouldn’t have just had more of the same. If Owen hadn’t been killed in action exactly a week before the Armistice, doubtless he would have continued to write war poetry. But what would a man with his undeniable poetic genius have written without the war as a subject to goad him into brutal realism? How might he, and other talented writers killed in their youth, have developed if they’d had the chance to reach middle or old age? Would they have developed?




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