“Across the Great Divide: Experience, Authority, and the Great War in Britain”
Conference Theme: “Upheaval and Reconstruction”
Tracing the origins of what he calls the “Myth of the [Great] War,” Samuel Hynes has argued that soldier-poets and memoirists gave this narrative of the conflict its “fullest definition” in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and that it “can be reduced to two terse propositions: the old betray the young; the past is remote and useless” (A War Imagined x). “No generation since then has questioned its validity,” Hynes continues; rather, the soldier-poets’ account is “repeated in texts written by authors who did not experience the war, but who inherited its myth.”
To say that later writers did not refute this narrative, however, is not to say that they did not reshape it according to their own understanding of war—after all, warfare did not stop evolving at Versailles. This panel therefore proposes taking Hynes’ experiential divide as its point of departure, and asks how those who participated in Britain’s later twentieth-century wars interpreted the Great War according to their own experience of conflict. As with the Myth, which replaced an earlier, civilian-centric narrative of the war, this panel questions the ways by which accounts of first-hand combat experience differ from civilian narratives, and are often able to supplant them via their perceived authority. Panellists need not confine themselves to writers neatly subscribing to the protest-poet type, but are actively encouraged to consider testimonies by those with non-traditional experience like frontline nurses, bombed-out civilians, and prisoners of war.
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