Toward Democracy:
The Trend Of War-Time Literature

By Joyce Kilmer

[The Independent; November 1, 1915]

It is fortunate that the brilliant young English novelist who bears the astonishing name of Oliver Onions wrote his book Grey Youth when he did. Coming from the presses in the year 1914, it was an accurate piece of realism; it was contemporary, a sort of inspired reporting. But the life which Mr. Onions effectively pictured has utterly vanished. The young Bohemians of London, whose strangely unyouthful youth Mr. Onions described in what was in some respects the most significant, book of the year, are now hard to find. The boys who tried to prove that their Vorticism could produce art more extraordinary and less comprehensible than did Marinetti's Futurism, the girls ho lived on lemonade and walnut steak and wished to regenerate the world by folk-dancing—where are they now? Well, some of the girls may be found with red crosses on their sleeves, washing the mud and blood from battered bodies to make them ready for the surgeon. And the boys—some of them are very busy behind piled sandbags in deep trenches somewhere in France, and others are no longer busy, and are in trenches where there are no sandbags.

It would be absurd to comment upon this appalling waste of youth and talent. But the destruction is not absolute. There will be young men come home from the fight, to take up their old tasks of making books or pictures, but they will not make the sort of books and pictures that they made before. They will not be so terribly in earnest about trifles; they will have seen a thing so tremendous as to shock them into the possession of a sense of perspective. The most serious of things will have given them a saving frivolity; the greatest of tragedies will have given them humor. Their youth can no longer be gray; it has been baptized in blood and fire.

This is a conclusion which cannot be avoided by anyone who observes what is going on in literature. Not only in England but in all the countries at war and even in the United States it is evident that literature is in a state of Transition. And the trend of this transition is toward democracy.

There can be no doubt that literature is becoming less literary. Poets and prose writers are no longer concerned with cults and catchwords and minutiae, of their art never of interest except to their colleagues. Writers are now human beings endeavoring to convey their ideas to other human beings by means of the printed page. And this was by no means the case a little more than a year ago.

Of course, there are the propagandists. They remain, but they have taken up new and more human propagandas. But when we find Mr. Blatchford, Mrs. Pankhurst and Mr. Hillaire Belloc animated by the generally shared emotion of patriotism and writing with the purpose of furthering the cause which is nearest the hearts of all their countrymen, we find them more human and democratic than they have ever been before. And it is a particularly surprizing thing to find a Socialist becoming democratic, for; especially in England, socialism has been the most exclusive and, as the word is used, aristocratic; of all literary cults.l

The war has put the blood of life into the work of many men whose writings had been highly artificial, mere verbal decorations. Rupert Brooke was a typical example. He had been an eager seeker after novelties, a poet who wasted his splendid energies in the foolish task of shocking the burgesses. He had been cynical and affected. But in the months that passed between his enlistment in the Royal Naval Division and his death in the Aegean he wrote five sonnets which most people will agree with Lascelles Abercrombie in calling "incomparably the finest utterance of English poetry concerning the great war." Here is one of these sonnets—in it Rupert Brooke speaks not only for himself but for all the literary youth of England.

Now, God be thanked Who has matched
us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened
us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and
sharpened power.
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness
Glad from a world grown old and cold
and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honor
could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs
and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

Oh, we, who have known shame, we
have found release there,
Where there's no ill, no grief, but
sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body,
lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart's
long peace, there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is
but Death.

There are many things which might be said about this passionately felt and finely wrought sonnet. But its conspicuous virtue is, the virtue of democracy. The poet is not analyzing his own private emotions. He is not cynical, he is not precious; a few months before he had been both.

The writers have become more democratic and yet more individual. They are writing what they themselves feel passionately, instead, of merely what is believed by the members of some social, economic or ethical cult, therefore they are more individual. And the thing which they feel most strongly is the thing which everyone feels, and therefore they have become more democratic. They have actually discovered the brotherhood of man. Even the people who used to write about the brotherhood of man have discovered it.

Gilbert K. Chesterton is less paradoxical, Bernard Shaw is less fantastic, Arnold Bennett is less scrupulously attentive to the minor details of provincial life, H. G. Wells is less dogmatic. Literature is gaining in sincerity, directness and potential popularity.

What will be the effect of all this upon the literature of our/ own country? Shall we accept the cynicism and artificiality which an angel with a flaming sword has driven out of Europe? Shall we hospitably give shelter to Imagisme, Vorticism, Futurism and all the other disreputable literary refugees?

It is not likely that we shall do so. Our writers are being vicariously disciplined; they are seeing that certain arts and artifices which, they have been accustomed to regard with considerable respect prove worthless in the time of triaL They will profit as the European men of letters are profiting, but without the pain of their lesson.

The art to which we are returning in the novel, the short story and the poem, is an art that is simple, human and democratic. Not for many a year will people speak seriously of so utterly ridiculous a thing as art for art's sake. The schools, and cults and mutual admiration societies have disappeared. The great insanity has made our literature sane, the great illness has made our literature whole. The new era in letters will be an era of democracy. When this ravening monster, the war, is dead, this is the honeycomb which we shall find in his carcass.

New York City

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —


A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury