NEW YORK — In the summer of 1914, with the war in Europe just two weeks old, Henry James knew that something had been lost forever.
“Black and hideous to me is the tragedy that gathers, and I’m sick beyond cure to have lived on to see it,” the American author, an expatriate in London at the time, wrote to a friend. “You and I, the ornaments of our generation, should have been spared this wreck of our belief that through the long years we had seen civilization grow and the worst become impossible. ... It seems to me to undo everything, everything that was ours, in the most horrible retroactive way.”
James died in 1916, two years before the armistice was declared between the allies and the Germans, and the wreckage of World War I was beyond even his imagination. Millions were dead, empires dissolved, centuries-old beliefs upended. Many survivors wondered how the world had been caught up in a war fought not for any identifiable cause, but because no one knew how to stop it.
Prolonged conflicts destroy the worlds they were born in, and few did so as thoroughly and as terribly as World War I, which began 100 years ago this month. Among writers, World War I changed both the stories they told and how they told them. Artists in general left behind an extraordinary legacy of painting, music, literature and film and many of the defining achievements of a movement, Modernism, that challenged our very identities and raised questions still being asked today.
“If you look at the 19th century, you have this whole notion of progress through technology — the notion of science, the increasing organization of society,” said Jan Schall, an art historian and curator of modern and contemporary art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo.
“What the war did was turn this ideal upside down. You had mass death through mass technological warfare — the use of chemicals, the use of machinery. And you see the impact on the kind of art that is being turned out, a sense of discontinuity and fragmenting.”
World War I was unique for the art it inspired, and for the art’s disillusion with war itself; winners and losers both despaired. In an essay written for an ongoing World War I exhibit at the New York Society Library, the literary critic Adam Kirsch notes that poetry had a history dating back to ancient Greece of treating war as a tragic, but essential rite of passage and proving ground. World War I broke the spell.
“Wars keep being fought, of course, but now they are justified on the grounds of necessity, self-defense, even human rights — never on the grounds that war itself is a splendid achievement or the true calling of men,” Kirsch wrote.
Poets and writers on both sides of the Atlantic at first cheered on the battle. Carl Sandburg’s “Four Brothers” hailed the “Ballplayers, lumberjacks, ironworkers, ready in khaki/A million, ten million, singing, ‘I am ready.’”