Published: 1 October 2023
By Anne Garwig
via ASSAY: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies
Hervey Allen’s memoir Toward the Flame holds an important place in the legacy of the First World War and the book’s transformation to commemorative object with the release of the 1934 illustrated edition offers an even more nuanced discussion of its impact. The memoir, now rarely even mentioned in brief author bios of Allen, was first published in 1926 and reprinted during the interwar period in the illustrated edition on the coattails of the success of Allen’s novel Anthony Adverse; it became the standard edition for reprinting again in 1968 and 2003. The neglected nature of Toward the Flame academically and popularly is somewhat surprising given Allen’s success and fame in his own lifetime, winning a Yale Younger Poet’s Prize in 1921 and gaining fame with Anthony Adverse, adapted in 1936 to a Hollywood film of the same title. Allen’s 1927 biography of Poe, Israfel: the Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe, influenced the American establishment of psychoanalytic studies of Poe, helping to situate Poe’s legacy more firmly in the American literary canon beyond his recognition at the time, primarily in Europe. And yet, this memoir remains in the shadows. Allen died early, in 1949, but it seems likely that the relative neglect and decline in popularity of Toward the Flame in the latter half of the 20th century is related to the declining interest in and changing collective memory of the war. Still, fiction from noncombatant writers like John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway persisted in popularity, despite their noncombatant status.
Toward the Flame’s tone and perspective, conscientiously straightforward with limited commentary either jingoistic or condemnatory and without a traditional narrative arc, leaves the first edition of the book a psychological artifact of the author rather than a commemorative object designed to reach out with a distinct position for readers or an exploitation of the horrors of war. The addition of Lyle Justis’s illustrations gives the book more appeal to readers beyond those who served in the conflict and transforms the book into a commemorative object of the war like those discussed in Steven Trout’s On the Battlefield of Memory: The First World War and American Remembrance, 1919-1941. The transformation is artistically similar to that which has become extraordinarily popular today in the graphic memoir; the personal narrative is transformed into something widely relatable via visual reference points.
As Steven Trout explains in the introduction to On the Battlefield of Memory: The First World War and American Remembrance, there is less currency in the contemporary collective memory of the first world war than in others, like Vietnam, World War II, and the American Civil War (1). The collective memory of all of these conflicts inspires continuous publishing, commemorative events and objects, and tourism both domestically and abroad, leaving questions about why the First World War is seemingly neglected in current collective memory, regardless of its being (by the numbers) the most memorialized war in American history (19-20). The war’s distinctly foreign locale, America’s first foreign war, may effect this neglect. And while also fought abroad, World War II has overshadowed the memory of World War I. The interwar period was one where commemorations to the First World War were still fervently, frequently taking place, as they arguably still do to this day. The understanding and memory of the First World War was then used as a scaffolding for understanding the project of the Second World War, a link so close perhaps as to overshadow the first conflict as mere precursor. World War I involved the mobilization of far fewer American men into a later stage of the conflict than World War II. Technological advances in the interwar period made World War II a vastly different experience in the dissemination of information both to the public and among the enlisted; a similar, if amplified, experience is associated with the media access of Vietnam as well. The battlefields of the American Civil War are obviously domestic and the conflict is directly linked to continuing contemporary civil rights struggles, making the conflict’s legacy difficult to ignore and maintaining its prominence in America’s everyday collective memory.
In the production of the illustrated war memoir, like Allen’s, the author’s personal memory and a new level of collective memory of war appealed most to those who had been part of the conflict and preferred to read about things just as they happened. Lyle Justis’s illustrations of Allen’s World War I scenes add a unique visual layer to the book as both interpreter of the text and first-hand witness of the conflict, a veteran of the conflict himself. Justis’s work elevates the existing memoir to commemorative object, appealing to a broader audience than only those who would have experienced the conflict close up.
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