Month: December 2015

Mary Roberts Rinehart and War

On Pitt’s Special Collections blog a few weeks ago they featured translations of novels by Mary Roberts Rinehart. I would say that almost no one currently knows who Mary Roberts Rinehart is, but in the early to mid-twentieth century she was a well-known popular novelist. Her most widely read works were mystery novels, but she wrote in a variety of genres. Legend even has it that Batman was inspired by one of her plays.  There is a really great literary biography of her written by Jan Cohn in the 1980s but that is pretty much the only scholarship out there on her. Therefore, I was glad to see her being covered by the Special Collections blog.

One of the fascinating aspects of Rinehart’s career is the fact that she traveled overseas during World War I to write about the war. She was not trained as a journalist, but she was a popular enough writer that she put pressure on the editor of the Saturday Evening Post and convinced him to send her oversees to report about the war. This was unusual because of her gender, age, and place and position in society. In the literary biography, Cohn writes that the idea that Rinehart would go visit the front was “extraordinary, preposterous” (78).  When the war broke out Rinehart was “thirty-eight years old, married, the mother of three children” (78).  Rinehart, however, was determined and wrote that she did not “‘intend to let the biggest thing in [her] life go by without having been a part of it'”(78). So she did go to the front and wrote dispatches from the front lines which eventually were collected into a nonfiction book, and then later she used her experience to write a novel, The Amazing Interlude,  about a young American who feels called to the Belgian front.

I wrote about Rinehart’s trip to Europe in a paper I wrote for the SSAWW conference in November. The panel was about women writing war a subject I also wrote a little bit about with Shelli Homer for United States Studies Online. Find parts one and two of the posts here and here.

Even though women have written extensively about war and even though more women are writing about direct combat experience, when we talk about war writing we almost exclusively frame the experience in terms of men. An example I used in my paper that Shelli found for the article was a 2014 essay by George Packer for the New Yorker. Packer was specifically interested in the writing of soldiers who had directly experienced war. What a trained eye might quickly notice about this piece is that Packer mentions no women. He does not write about women who served in war, such as Iraqi veteran Kayla Williams, and he does not mention American women writers who couldn’t serve in war but experienced it as war correspondents or volunteers on the front lines.

Rinehart is one of many writers neglected in such formulations.

One of the most intriguing parts of Rinehart’s nonfiction work is when she disrupts her narrative to introduce texts from German soldiers into her writing. For example, she writes of a postcard that she saw from a dead German soldier. It was a card that he had received from his wife, and it had been found on his body after he died. Rinehart quotes the note in full in her text. And then she sums up her feeling about the card and all of the soldiers that left their families to go to war. She writes that she found it all “very tragic and sad and disheartening.” Rinehart spends a fair portion of her narrative trying to report on what she sees rather than commenting on it at length. However, it is after these narrative interruptions where she sums up her general despair about the state of war. She also writes of a German soldier whose journal she read. The soldier died from a shelling in the middle of writing in his journal. Rinehart quotes the section of the journal right before he died. He wrote “The situation here is still all confusion; we cannot think of advancing—.” According to Rinehart that is the last thing that was written in the journal. She quotes these German men not to give a sense of the “other side” or try to remain neutral. Rather the texts from the soldiers disrupt her narrative in a way that echoes her experience of trying to understand the situation and finding no clear narrative in what is happening. She writes that one of her big takeaways from the experience is that “war is a series of incidents with no beginning and no end.” Her narrative without a straight trajectory from start to finish emphasizes her inability to impose an arc on what she is finding and responding to.

In her fiction derived from these same experiences, she creates a much clearer arc from start to finish but still leaves the reader with many gaps and silences that work in a similar way as her nonfiction. For example, she refuses to tell the reader the last name of the main male character because he is a spy who regularly crosses into German territory. It would be too dangerous to reveal such information even though, of course, these details are all made up. The entire novel has a very impressionistic quality. She sketches details and scenes, but leaves the reader to fill in many details that aren’t about the female protagonist, Sara Lee, or the work she is doing feeding soldiers.

Part of the reason for the impressionistic aspects of other parts of the novel is Rinehart’s desire to make Sara Lee her focus. Rinehart writes that the story of Sara Lee is not “a tale of the wounding of men” (63). The novel, in fact, is a lot about wounded men, but what she is suggesting is that the voices that are elevated in her work are ones that are not always heard from in war narratives. The importance of this for Rinehart is not only to represent women’s voices but to also represent how women are shaped by and are shaping experiences of war.

Lee Rumbarger writes about women writing from the home front during war that these tales “insist on women as participants in their time” (4). Rinehart uses her nonfiction and fiction to write both expansively and intimately about war and tells of the expanding spaces that women were presented with because of the war. Rinehart does this in her own narrative and also to an even greater extent in the novel. When the character, Sara Lee, returns back from her trip abroad she finds that she is stifled by the experiences in her hometown, especially the relationship that she has with her fiancé, Harvey. When Sara Lee comes home she has a “terrible feeling of being fastened in” by her life (105). Before she started her journey to the front she had “resigned [herself] to being tucked away in a corner and to having no particular outlook” (4). Sara Lee thrives more when she is at the front serving soup to the Belgian soldiers than she ever did, or ever could have even imagined when she was at home. Sara Lee, in fact, ends the novel by breaking her engagement and returning to Belgium.

As just this bit of evidence shows Rinehart wrote intriguingly about war and her experiences overseas. An exploration and emphasis on Rinehart and this kind of work in war literature will, hopefully, shift the paradigm away from views of war writing which rely on outdated understandings of what it means to write about war.