Trevor Dodman, Shell Shock, Memory, and the Novel in the Wake of World War I

Trevor Dodman, Shell Shock, Memory, and the Novel in the Wake of World War I (New York: Cambridge University Press 2015) 256pp. Hb, £64.99, PDF $80. ISBN: 978-1107114203

‘There is never a single approach to something remembered’, writes John Berger in About Looking (1980). ‘Numerous approaches or stimuli converge upon and lead to it’ (qtd. 1). Berger’s quotation provides a fitting epigraph to Trevor Dodman’s wide-ranging and stimulating survey of shell shock in the modern novel, which draws on numerous critical approaches – including gender studies, transnationalism, new historicism and queer theory – to represent the diversity of a disorder that ‘chooses all kinds of people in its crippling passage’ (Jay Winters, qtd. 114).

In its emphasis on the ‘narrative traces, subaltern faces, and commemorative spaces of shell shock’ (9), this new study consolidates and expands existing contributions to the field, such as Trudi Tate’s Modernism, History and the First World War (1998), Santanu Das’s Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature (2005) and Wyatt Bonikowski’s Shell Shock and the Modernist Imagination (2013). Dodman adopts a refreshing approach by examining canonical studies of shell shock in relation to more marginal textual representations, positioning novels by Ford Madox Ford, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald alongside ‘“lost” shell shock novels” (5) by writer and activist Mary Augusta Ward, African-American novelist George Washington Lee, Indian author Mulk Raj Anand, and queer writer Christopher Isherwood.

Throughout the study, Dodman juxtaposes literary texts with a range of non-literary sources – medical studies, army reports, propaganda, even battlefield guidebooks – exploring the ways in which shell shock was suppressed by official accounts and contained within official narratives. These attempts at suppression are particularly revealing when juxtaposed with fictional representations of the disorder, with Dodman exploring the ways in which the novelistic depictions of shell shock can provide a more truthful account than their non-fictional counterparts. The first chapter, for instance, focuses on the disparity between Ward’s war propaganda, in which she advocates a narrow and oppressive vision of masculinity, and wartime novels such as Missing (1917) and Harvest (1920), in which she allows for ‘a continuum of masculinities that her propaganda refuses to consider’ (27).

Fascinatingly, Dodman also highlights the ways in which, alongside their ‘efforts to represent radical disruptions to the human subject’ (10), his chosen novelists remain attuned to the need of the shell-shocked subject to contain and give shape to their experiences. In Ford’s tetralogy Parade’s End (1924-28), which provides the focus of the second chapter, Christopher’s Tietjens’s writing of a sonnet functions as a ‘tightly controlled linguistic shell’ in which Tietjens is able to ‘direct his nervous energies and memories in need of containment’ (71). Similarly, although Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929) ‘testifies to the persistence of wounds, both visible and invisible’ (83), the first-person narration of protagonist Frederic Henry ‘enacts a kind of prosthetic thinking’ (84) designed to reunify a self that has been left both physically and mentally disarticulated by war.

The desire for containment is consistent with the attempts of the U. S. War Department to pre-empt and subsequently smooth over instances of shell shock in returning soldiers. In one of the most compelling chapters of the study, Dodman reveals how the experiences of African-American soldiers were systematically elided from medico-military reports and media outlets, their trauma explained away by the erroneous belief that ‘“blackness” leaves one predisposed to madness’ (122). The fourth chapter opens with an incisive close reading of Toni Morrison’s novel Sula (1973), in which a black World War I veteran finds himself in hospital, and glances down at a neatly divided meal tray in front of him: ‘Confined, contained, and balanced’, Dodman notes, ‘the colored foods maintain a segregated distance’ (112). Over the course of the chapter, Dodman demonstrates how Lee’s novel River George (1937) subverts this dynamic of containment by refusing to confine the suffering of its protagonist, Aaron George, to his experiences on the frontline. Instead, Lee highlights the various resonances between shell shock and the pervasive trauma of racialised identity in post-war, Jim Crow America.

Indeed, the most groundbreaking material of the study focuses on the devastating effects of shell shock on ‘the most marginalised of all wounded’ (19). In his chapter on Anand’s Trilogy (1939-42), Dodman examines the plight of shell-shocked sepoys, the term given to Indian soldiers who served under British rule. Dodman argues that the sepoy ‘suffers from a terrible double-bind’ (158) – just as British officers refused to recognise his shell shock, he himself often failed to acknowledge it due to having been instilled with an entrenched, hyper-masculine caste identity. The coda to the study also examines the ways in which shell shock interacted with the perceived malady of homosexuality in the interwar period, exploring the predicament of the queer subject in Isherwood’s The Memorial (1932) of remaining closeted after being broken open by war. The chapter draws to a close with a fascinating account of what E. M. Forster refers to as the ‘opening out’ (qtd. 203) of narrative, raising the possibility that the breaching of borders enacted by the trauma of World War I may have contributed to explosive social change. It is a fitting conclusion to a study that opens up a range of possibilities for future studies of shell shock.

There are, however, a few instances where the explanation of shell shock could have been opened out more effectively. Dodman rightly argues that in being the product of a particular historical moment (7) shell shock must be distinguished from other traumatic disorders such as PTSD; the term itself, however, is not unpacked until halfway through the text, when he explains that it was ‘a much-contested umbrella term that arbitrarily covered a host of competing disorders’ (117). Moreover, despite taking the stance that shell shock affected men alone (15), the chapters on Ward and Hemingway reveal the ways in which the condition impacted all who came into contact with it irrespective of gender. Adorno’s diagnosis of post-war society in Minima Moralia (1951) as suffering from a kind of collective shell shock would perhaps have been useful here. These are minor discrepancies, however, amid a rich and thought-provoking study that is bursting with ideas and insights.

Rachel Murray, University of Bristol