War! Huh Good God y’all
What is it good for?
Finally an answer to Edwin Starr’s sixties anthem- LITERATURE.
It is hard to imagine a more poignant setting or easier access to raw human emotion than a war. Writers are aware of this and have exploited the theme from Homer on. There are already more than 3,500 novels written about the Viet Nam war and I can say with some confidence there is another one being printed as you read this. Minnesota writers are no exception and three books on our list of Minnesota’s 150 greatest cover three different 20th Century conflicts.
Thomas Boyd. Through the Wheat. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1923.
Thomas Heggen. Mister Roberts. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946.
Tim O’Brien. Going After Cacciato: A Novel. New York: Delacorte Press. 1978.
Thomas Boyd, a World War I doughboy, was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his bravery. His first book was a largely autobiographical novel about his experiences in the French trenches. Scott Fitzgerald helped Boyd edit the manuscript, gave it a critical reading, and pronounced it “the best war book since The Red Badge of Courage.” Boyd’s novel was universally praised for its honest depiction of a soldier’s life and after 87 years it is still a good read. It is also still in print and a 1978 edition, published with an afterward by James Dickey, is readily findable. There is also a new audio version of the title.
After the war Boyd and his wife, Peggy (who wrote under the name Woodward Boyd), became an integral part of the literary scene in St. Paul. He managed the Kilmarnock bookstore, lived in the Summit Hill neighborhood, and made a living writing a few more books and dozens of short stories. With his second book Boyd suffered a sophomore slump, familiar to many writers, but his extended into his junior and senior years. He never had another success like Through the Wheat and became what his biographer dubbed, “the lost author of the lost generation.”
An entirely different kind of book came out of the Second World War. Thomas Heggen’s Mister Roberts focused on the daily life and experiences of the more typical enlisted man. The novel follows a cargo ship “from Tedium to Apathy and back again, with an occasional side trip to Monotony”.
After getting his journalism degree from the U of M (where he had written humorous stories alongside fellow 150 Best Minnesota Books author, Max Shulman, at the “Minnesota Daily”) Heggen enlisted in the navy and served on a ship much like his fictional U.S.S. Reluctant. The book was an immediate success and the characters were so extraordinarily well drawn that Heggen was encouraged, possibly by his cousin Wallace Stegner, to adapt the novel into a play. With the help of Joshua Logan the play was awarded “best play” and “best author” Tonys and was made into a 1955 movie staring Henry Fonda, James Cagney, and Jack Lemmon, who won the Oscar for best supporting actor.
While the movie is far better known, the book is simply far better.
Tragically Heggen was found dead in a bathtub in his New York apartment. He had committed suicide at the age of 29! With the play Heggen had achieved monetary fortune and literary fame (“Attractive women formed an orderly queue outside his bedroom door” according to the Grumpy Old Bookman), but he was expected by everyone to write a sequel. He was haunted – no crippled – by writers block. Heggen couldn’t cope with the prospect of failure and like the hero of his novel died a meaningless death.
A stunningly different kind of war novel, and perhaps the best of the three, is Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato. It won the National Book Award for fiction and if that isn’t criteria enough to automatically get a Minnesota book on our list I don’t know what is.
The story is surreal and likely the product of psychological trauma inflicted by the horror that was the war in Viet Nam. Seemingly happy and stable, Private Cacciato decides he has had enough of the war and that he can just walk away from it. He starts walking west and his squad, including the narrator Paul Berlin, sets out to bring him back but they too are walking away from the war by following him across the world until they take up residence in Paris. Along the way, jumping back in forth in time, some of the horrors of the war are described in disturbing detail like picking up a helmet with the soldiers face still in it. Cacciato just may be the great American novel for the 60’s generation with its underlying theme of responsibility and duty verses freedom and individuality.
While we are on the subject of Tim O’Brien, several of his books are must reads but for his best description of Minnesota I recommend Northern Lights. I have been in mortal danger from hypothermia a couple of times in my life and one of them was from just reading this book.