Whales and Poppies

March 22, 2004

Last night I watched the DVD of Whale Rider and read Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. Both are powerful. Both are about lost generations, one told in terms of magic and hope, the other in reality and despair. Not surprisingly, I could not sleep last night.

What kept me up was thinking about the Great War and about the paper topic I am giving the kids. They have a paper due on Remarque in a couple of weeks and I need to give them the detailed paper topic. My preliminary thought was to ask them

Compare and contrast Germany before and after the Great War, use Remarque for examples. Show how the war changed the people and their society.
but after re-reading Remarque I am not sure that they will be able to write that paper, or at least write it well. Remarque focuses on his themes of the lost generation, the futility of warfare between nation states, and man's inhumanity to man; he only discusses the change between pre-war and postwar understandings within the context of Paul Baumer and the other members of the lost generation of schoolboys.

I thought about adding a little poetry to their assignment, to give them a better picture of the world before the war, and I discovered that I had been thinking about the optimistic side of the Belle Epoch while most of the avante garde, realist, and neonaturalist authors of the era, especially in Germany, had been pessimistic about the merits of industrialization and the new society. I had been thinking about Kipling's "Take up the White Man's Burden" and Teddy Roosevelt's popular persona, while they were closer to Edward Munch's painting The Scream or Nietzsche's nihilistic optimism as he declared that God was dead and that this was a good thing.

I dug around a little and rediscovered the Bartleby Project at Columbia University - the best argument I have seen in a long time for ending or limiting the current practice of long copyright laws. One of the things that they have scanned and archived there is a set of early twentieth century Norton Anthologies of Poetry. So I was able to check a 1920 book on the new poets and compare it to a 1917 book of mostly optimistic war poetry. I found a couple of good thoughts there, and on some of the very good online resources on the Great War.

My current thought is to give them four poems to supplement the novel:

and then ask them what it means to be a lost generation? Or, perhaps, how did the war affect the generation who went to war..

That might be forced, but I like the parallels in the two poems about mortality and poppies and the two very different takes on the lines from Horace. I do not know if the difference between the first two and the second two is one of generation or one of experiences; I suspect both. Neither is a great question

I will not use fiction, although I was tempted to compare Kipling's meditation on the loss of his own son, Kipling, The Gardener, with Owen Machen The Bowmen, a story that millions of English believed was true because they wanted something like it to be true. The problem is that most of the readily available short fiction is mourning fiction or is self-conscious writing wrestling with the problem of the lost generation. I thought about using Hemingway's In Our Time and I do assign bits of that to the US History courses, much of my take on the social impact of the Great War is influenced by Hemingway's painful set of wonderfully crafted short stories, but that is what we have Remarque for and we don't need to read two things that cover the same ground.

I keep coming back to Kipling, perhaps it is the attraction that I have for a poet who focuses on making sense of his era. I could probably have saved the kids a lot of reading if I had just assigned The Widow's Party and White Man's Burden to set the scene and then The Gardener and to close it off London Stone.

And so to have some breakfast and think on this some more.

Posted by Red Ted at March 22, 2004 08:59 AM | TrackBack

I loved Whaler Rider. One of the best coming of age moves I've seen in a long long time.

Posted by: Ursula at March 22, 2004 07:10 AM
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