As I began to ponder the year soon coming to a close, it seemed necessary and fitting that I end the longest hiatus of my blog-writing career with a brief narration of the project–now complete–that has consumed my life for the last four years. During that time, I have focused much of my attention on the effort to commemorate, both personally and professionally, the centenary of World War I. Not coincidentally, I last posted here on November 11, one hundred years after the Armistice ending the ghastly war that gave us the map, the context, and even the vocabulary by which we still understand the ensuing century. As that project came to its logical conclusion during those frenzied days of early November, I realized that I could take the time to breathe, to collect my energies, and to move onto as-yet undetermined paths. So today, I am taking the opportunity to review this project as it came to fruition in 2018–focusing primarily on the last few events that provided me with a sense of fulfillment like no other.
It’s hard to say how and whence this passion arose. I am unaware of any near relatives who fought in the Great War. So far as I know, the closest any of them came was the service of Remo Bozzola, my Italian grandfather, who fought under John J. Pershing in the Pancho Villa Expedition, but that was before the American Expeditionary forces. Moreover (and despite the staunch patriotism of my father and two of his brothers as veterans of World War II), having come of age during the Vietnam War gave me little propensity either to study military history or even to watch films inspired by war. One of my students even guessed that I was drawn to the war (“obsessed” was her word) when I learned that nitrogen mustard chemotherapy was developed from the use of that same chemical in the trenches of World War I. My brief response about the origins of this passion can be set down in two words: Wilfred Owen. My longer and more accurate answer would be that my growing understanding of its cultural, social, historical, and–especially–literary influences made me want to know more and read more and feel more about that watershed period in Western history.
I began thinking of my project as early as 2015. And by early 2016, I made the connection that has informed my academic life for the last three years and decided to use World War I as the theme for my freshman composition classes in writing across the curriculum. Specifically, I developed a course in which the students learned to read and write in the various academic disciplines with the goals of producing a social-sciences literature review focused on the topic of shell shock and/or PTSD. a popular-science paper on chemical warfare past or present, and a literary analysis of a fictional work about World War I–a novel for my 16-week classes or a movie for my 8-week classes. The beginnings of my preparation were perhaps the highlight of my career in academia as I began to research the materials for those papers; that is, it was my job to read novels (and poetry), watch films, and do endless research on topics both fascinating and profound.
Rather than repeating what I have already written, I will begin by providing links to my previous posts about this labor of love:
- September 26, 2016 Finding World War I: Fact, Fiction, and Truth in Pat Barker’s “Regeneration Trilogy”
- June 3, 2017 Reading, Watching–and Smelling–World War I
- July 5, 2017 Truth, Lies, and Postmodern Possibilities: “Frantz” in Context
- September 13, 2017 Something Old
- November 25, 2017 The Armistice: A Remembrance
- April 14, 2018 The Mother of Beauty: War in Words and Music
- June 30, 2018 Bearing Witness: Reading and Telling the Great War
- July 25, 2018 The English Major and Ford Madox Ford: A Tale of Passion
- September 16, 2018 Nothing’s Fair
- September 17, 2018 My Brief Encounter with Erney Krongard
- November 11, 2018 The M0ther of Beauty: World War I in Word, Image, and Song
Each these posts details one or more of the steps that brought me to this year’s commemoration of November 11, 2018–literature and movies so vivid as to be lived through rather than read or watched; memorabilia collected at random and with no other criterion than love; concerts attended, students moved, lives examined.
In the spring of 2018, I began spreading the word about my plans. Before the beginning of the fall semester, I invited colleagues from across the College of Arts and Humanities to met with me and begin planning our centennial celebration. Two history instructors joined me, along with the choral director and the drama coach, and together we set our plans in motion. Our collaboration culminated with the observances detailed on the flyer that begins this post. Here are some highlights:
On Tuesday, November 6, Daniel Stewart of the history department presented “The Technological Legacy of World War I.” First, he spoke briefly about the innovations in the machinery and the weapons of war that that resulted in the images we still have of World War I–machine guns, chemical weapons, tanks, airplanes, radio. And then he traced in detail how these developments have determined the history warfare over the last hundred years.
The following day Jessie Kiker, another historian, spoke on “Reparations, Depression, and the Rise of Fascism: The 1919 Treaty of Versailles and Its Influence on the 20th Century.” This animated talk focused primarily on the many ways in which World War I served as a precursor of the next world war, as well as many of the cultural changes of the ensuing century.
Then came my own turn to share the fruits of my labors. Unfortunately, the anniversary of the Armistice was on a Sunday, so I scheduled my talk for the following day, November 12. I entitled my presentation “The Mother of Beauty: World War I in Word, Image, and Song.” The text of the talk is linked above; I have also included as a comment below the bibliography I prepared for those in attendance. In this work of my lifetime, I chronicled my years spent in the trenches of the Western Front as I examined the cultural products and influence of the war to end all wars. I spent a lot of time reading from my favorite works of World War I literature, showed some moving paintings, and then sang with the college chorus a setting of Siegfried Sassoon’s “Everyone Sang.”
Scheduling conflicts with the high school that provided the honor guard prevented the college from hosting its annual Veterans Day observance until Tuesday, November 13, and I was honored to play a small part in that commemoration as well. Specifically, I provided three students to participate in the special recognition of the World War I centennial.
The final event in our Word War I commemoration occurred on the afternoon of the same day when drama students Mark Davio and Mark Adair presented as readers’ theater Stephen MacDonald’s “Not about Heroes.” This play dramatizes the friendship between Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, which began when both were under the care of W. H. R. Rivers at Criaglockhart War Hospital in 1917 and ended with Owen’s death in battle on November 4, 1918, one week almost to the hour before the armistice.
It may (or may not) come as a surprise, but I still have a couple more stories to tell about my time spent in the trenches, but this will be for another time. I will now close by returning to my title, “Fruition.” Always careful to make sure I am using the precise word for the circumstance, I looked up this title both in the American Heritage and the Etymology Online dictionaries. In the former, I found as the first definition “realization of something desired or worked for; accomplishment.” That denotation certainly fits with the intent of my post as this project is in many ways the most significant of my life. However, the second definition sent me scurrying for the etymology and made my choice of title even more fitting:
Enjoyment derived from use or possession.
Early 15th c., “act of enjoying,” from Old French fruition and directly from Late Latin fruitionem “enjoyment,” noun of action from fruit “to use, enjoy.”
Yes. In the deepest sense, this effort to commemorate the World War I centennial has represented the fulfillment of a process from which I have gained a great deal of deep and heartfelt enjoyment. I hope the hundreds of others with whom I have shared the fruits of my labors have derived some of the same.