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Fictions of Rehabilitation

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Fictions of Rehabilitation
By Mark Whalan, PhD


WHALENpic4Cover of Dr. Whalen's recent book, World War One, American Literature, and the Federal State

Fictions of Rehabilitation
Bu Mark Whalan, PhD

My recent  book examines the Homefront in the US in World War One, and specifically how American literature engaged with the fierce debates that roiled US society over the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in wartime, and over what the state was empowered to do in moments of national emergency. As the US state expanded into new areas of American life—through conscription, the nationalization of the railways, and the control of information flow and the mass manufacture of propaganda, for example—authors considered what this meant for the experience of everyday life, and how they could imagine the new communities and identities expanded state power had seemingly brought into being. One of the most interesting arenas this happened in was government-run healthcare, as WWI saw a complete transformation in the ideas and institutions the government deployed to assist wounded veterans. These changes revolutionized customary ideas about disability, and about male citizenship—changes often taken up and contested by authors of the era, some of whom were wounded veterans themselves.

My analysis drew heavily on two recent works of history—Beth Linker’s War’s Waste: Rehabilitation in World War One America and John M. Kinder’s Paying with their Bodies: American War and the Problem of the Wounded Veteran. Linker and Kinder discuss the War Risk Insurance Act, or WRIA, which passed in 1917 and broke decisively with the pension system used to support Civil War veterans, a system which by 1917 was a byword for bloated government spending and political clientelism. It’s hard to believe now, but before WWI the US was infamous for having a lavish, and even bloated, welfare state, a reputation entirely due to its expenditure on Civil War pensions. By 1915, the U.S. had spent more on Civil War pensions than it had on prosecuting the war itself. In consequence, it became a target for Progressive reformers keen to reduce budgetary “waste” and eliminate political cronyism.

WHALENpic5WWI Amputees at a Red Cross Event in 1919. Image source:

In anticipating a new generation of wounded veterans, the WRIA sought to reform this system. It aimed to provide maximalist medical cures to wounded veterans rather than pensioning them off, an ambition hitched to the expectation that disabled veterans should undergo medical rehabilitation treatment and then re-join the workforce. As Kinder observes, rehabilitation was “an integrated program of physical and social reform combining orthopedics, vocational training, psychological counseling, and industrial discipline” that became the cornerstone of how the US government would frame its obligations to the disabled veterans of World War One and in all subsequent wars (117). The government undertook a massive hospital building program in support of this effort, building 58 general and specialized hospitals nationwide controlled by the new VB, and also established an enduring “ethic of rehabilitation,” in Linker’s words, which proposed that “medicine can cure disability and, more important, solve the social problems brought about by a war that fundamentally disrupts the lives of its citizens” (180). Yet this ethic also meant that soldiers were no longer heroic simply by the fact of being wounded. Now, full male citizenship was only achievable through a successful return to the workplace, ideally in work that supported a wife and family who stayed at home. Retirement and subsistence on a pension—being a “home slacker,” in the parlance of the time—was increasingly seen as infantilizing or feminizing. The WRIA had the government pay in full for disabled veterans’ medical care for the first time, but it also made rehabilitation mandatory, refusing honorable discharges for those servicemen who rejected it.

Such sweeping changes necessitated a government media offensive. Consequently, the “ethic of rehabilitation” was loudly and diffusely promoted across the Progressive press, and especially in the kind of public information apparatus of state-funded magazines and publicity bureaus that was such a hallmark of Wilsonian Progressivism. Most interesting to me was Carry On: A Magazine on the Reconstruction of Disabled Soldiers and Sailors, produced by the Office of the Surgeon General and which ran for ten monthly issues, beginning in June 1918. Aimed at veterans, a general public, and medical professionals alike, it presented a mix of essays, speeches, feature articles, photographs of rehabilitated veterans, fiction, cartoons, and even comic sketches. In general it promoted a vision of veterans enacting a smooth transition from war disability to success in the workplace and in the marital home, through the agency of rehabilitative medicine and vocational training. 

Carry On published pieces by Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Samuel Gompers, Charles M. Schwab, and John Galsworthy. From its March 1919 issue onward, the magazine’s frontispiece was the “Creed of the Disabled”: “Once more to be useful--to see pity in the eyes of my friends replaced with commendation--to work, produce, provide, and to feel I have a place in the world--seeking no favors and given none--a MAN among MEN in spite of this physical handicap.”

WHALENpic1Cover of Magazine, Carry On. Image courtesy of Mark Whalen.

Most of Carry On’s pieces echoed this creed, and rejected what it characterized as the culture of dependency that the Civil War pension system had fostered. It was full of pieces on what disability scholars term “supercrips,” individuals lauded for “triumphing” over disabilities to win extraordinary success. Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps the most famous American to have “overcome” a disability, was the subject of an early, lavish puff piece of this kind. In addition, the more extreme of the magazine’s editorializing suggested that successful re-integration to the workplace was largely a matter of individual willpower. As one editorial writer put it, “the only hopeless cripple is a deliberate shirker.”  Yet just as important to the magazine as this kind of high-handed exhortation to wounded veterans about their ongoing medical obligations were its attempts at “reconstructing the public,” in the words of Assistant Editor Arthur H. Samuels. This broader public campaign aimed to encourage well-meaning wives and mothers not to let their wounded husbands and sons “languish” in the family home under their care, but to engage with the professionalized and institutionalized practices of rehabilitation on offer from the government. It also criticized employers for well-entrenched practices of discriminatory hiring that excluded disabled men from the industrial workplace. Accordingly, the magazine boldly imagined itself as leading a wide-scale social transformation of attitudes toward war disability and male citizenship. Yet I was interested in how, even in the pages of Carry On, not all authors entertained such ambitions. In particular, some fiction writers were loath to abandon sentimental narratives about the potential of feminized, emotional care to restore wounded American men. Edna Ferber’s short story, "Long Distance," is one example.

WHALENpic2Cartoon in Carry On Magazine. Image courtesy of Mark Whalen 

Set in an American rehabilitation hospital in England, it focuses on an incapacitated A.E.F. veteran and brawny Chicagoan who has lost his memory from shell-shock. It pokes fun at what it calls this “he-man” doing the dainty work of making tiny toy chickens in occupational therapy. In the end, what snaps him back to his normal self is not the wonders of modern rehabilitative medicine but a letter from his sweetheart at home.

The story, therefore, endorses well-entrenched ideas about the gendering of disability and therapy that Carry On elsewhere worked hard to overturn. The story mocks occupational therapy as infantilizing and effeminizing. Such condescension was in sharp contrast to the regular featuring of occupational therapy in the magazine, which occupied 1,200 women in American reconstruction hospitals in 1919. Similarly, Carry On took a stern attitude to the place of feminized “sentiment” in the practice of rehabilitation. It often characterized female compassion and sympathy as hindering wounded soldiers’ motivation to return to the workforce, and as repeating the mistakes of the Civil War system, which, they asserted, encouraged pension-dependent men to languish, unproductively, in the family home.

WHALENpic3First page of story,"When a Feller Needs a Friend" in Carry On magazine. Image courtesy of Mark Whalen.

The rehabilitation program actively trained their occupational therapists to avoid sentimental attachments, and it discouraged excessive sympathy among wives and mothers of disabled veterans. Yet writers of popular fiction were less keen to relinquish the idea that women in the home had a unique curative power, an idea which had long been a staple of sentimental fiction. Instead, fiction writers frequently characterized sympathy or emotional connection from sweethearts, mothers, wives, or fiancées as carrying an unparalleled therapeutic value. “Long Distance” is one such example, but there were many others at the time, including several novels by Zane Grey and stories by Sinclair Lewis. American writers, therefore, tasked the new institutions of rehabilitation not to abandon the languages and the spaces of sentimentality, which were so deeply embedded in cultural scripts of how to restore disabled veterans to full vocational and marital achievement.

Veterans’ fiction also forcefully pushed back against the new ethic of rehabilitation. It often countered rehabilitative rhetoric’s optimistic account of willpower and discipline triumphing over embodied damage by forcefully identifying the stubbornness of injuries which refused to heal. And, it spotlighted the most glaring absence in the rhetoric of rehabilitation, namely pain. Pain was a word rarely found within Carry On’s cheerful accounts of rehabilitation—indeed, there were only ten uses of the word across its entire run. And partly in consequence, pain was wielded as a rebuke to such rehabilitative rhetoric in the work of several veterans who wrote about the process of coming home. In work by William March, Ernest Hemingway, and especially Laurence Stallings, pain becomes the center of both everyday experience and the practice of citizenship.

Yet what was most interesting to me was that few of these fictions completely rejected the new rehabilitation program. Instead, they tended to urge more complex accounts of how and where care occurred, and sought more embodied, experiential accounts of what it meant to suffer injury and receive medical treatment. As such, we can see these fictions of rehabilitation not just as attempts to understand new state institutions, but also as attempts to shape them.

To watch a CSPAN interview with Dr. Whalen about his book, The Great War and the Culture of the New Negro, click here.

To read further about WWI American literature, the services of African Americans, and the post-war treatment of WWI veterans in American, see Keith Gandal's post on WWrite, "War Isn't the Only Hell: 100 Years Later Telling the Truth About America and Lost Generation Experiences."

Author's bio

WHALENbiophotoMark Whalan is Robert and Eve Horn Professor of English at the University of Oregon. He is author of The Great War and the Culture of the New Negro (2008), American Culture in the 1910s (2010), and most recently, World War One, American Literature, and the Federal State (2018).











Josephine H.: A French-Vietnamese Journalist Traces the Life of an American WWI Nurse

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Josephine H.: A French-Vietnamese Journalist Traces the Life of an American WWI Nurse

By Hélène Lam Trong


In 2017, I was on summer holidays at my parents’ in the South of France, when I received an interesting message via Facebook. It was from a young French woman who suggested making a documentary about something she discovered in the her family’s attic while moving – a bag with the words “Marguerite Horine, American Red Cross, Stanford Unit” written on the side.

As a documentary filmmaker, you can’t imagine how exciting it is to have a great story served to you on a tray. I thought right away that this bag would provide an original way to shed light on the ways World War I, even a century after the Armistice, are still so present in our lives, here in Europe. So I began my research to see if I had enough material to make a film. I quickly found out that Marguerite Horine had been brilliant Stanford student from Palo Alto who volunteered to be a nurse in 1917. I knew it was going to be fascinating to tell her story.

Read more: Josephine H.: A French-Vietnamese Journalist Traces the Life of an American WWI Nurse

 War Without Allegory: WWI, Tolkien, and The Lord of the Rings

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 War Without Allegory: WWI, Tolkien, and The Lord of the Rings

By Rachel Kambury


LRYPREScombine imagesLeft, shot from the film, The Lord of the Rings. Right, photo taken at the Battle of Passchendaele, 1917.


The Lord of the Rings is a war story.

It borrows heavily from that grandest of traditions set forth by works like Beowulf and The Wanderer—Old English warrior poetry, by turns heartbreaking and bloody, meant to be spoken—and its author was steeped in the same fetid waters that brewed the most famous novels to come out of the Great War in which he fought: All Quiet on the Western Front, Parade’s End, A Farewell to Arms

Looking past the Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, kings, and Istari, past the natural and unnatural magic, past the One Ring and its maker, war rests firmly at the heart of The Lord of the Rings.

So why, in all the years since its publication, has J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic never found its way onto any “Best-Of” lists of war literature? Why, in spite of the overwhelming number of parallels, has it never been counted among the greatest novels to emerge from the events of World War I?

How could it not?

Read more:  War Without Allegory: WWI, Tolkien, and The Lord of the Rings

The Faulkner Sequel. "Faulkner Stole My Father's War Wound," Part 2: Centennial Reflections

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The Faulkner Sequel. "Faulkner Stole My Father's War Wound:" Centennial Reflections on William Faulkner and John Reid, PART 2
By Panthea Reid

PREID1John Reid at Rose Polytechnic Institute where he graduated 1915 with a degree in electrical engineering. This was the outfit worn by engineers at this school. Image courtesy of Panthea Reid and the Small Collection at the University of Virginia.

*Last week, WWrite published the first part of this riveting story by Panthea Reid about her startling discovery while writing her book on William Faulkner. Faulkner, who received the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature, had claimed that he was wounded while serving in the British Royal Flying Corps during WWI. Not only did Professor Reid debunk these claims with archival research; she also learned that Faulkner had confiscated the record of her own father's WWI wound and claimed the story for himself. Special thanks to Peter Molin, veteran, writer, and blogger for bringing this article to WWrite. Be sure to read Peter's blog, Time Now, about Iraq and Afghanistan here  and his two WWrite pieces on Aline Kilmer and James Joyce.

Now, here's where we left off:

...Faulkner continued to parade about Oxford in a uniform, his limp and overseas insignia inspiring salutes from returning soldiers. He was photographed in at least six different combinations of military garb, looking jaunty, dapper, and self-assured.

REIDWilliam Faulkner in his RAF UniformWilliam Faulkner in his RAF Uniform. Source: wikipedia

Before she married Will Parks in 1922, a number of suitors pursued Carolyn Smythe. In probably early 1919, a soldier stationed at a nearby army camp arranged to meet her in the lobby of the old Peabody Hotel. When they met, William Faulkner also appeared “in uniform and bandaged.” His arm was in a sling and he walked with a cane. Faulkner told Carolyn’s beau, who later told Carvel Collins, that, when Faulkner’s plane had been hit, the British Major with him had been killed. Faulkner had also said he had “fallen through trees so that he was only injured, not killed.” Carolyn’s soldier friend found her an “extremely attractive and energetic spicy girl.” She thought Faulkner rather humorous. Her beau thought she led Faulkner on.

Read more: The Faulkner Sequel. "Faulkner Stole My Father's War Wound," Part 2: Centennial Reflections

Faulkner Stole My Father's War Wound: Centennial Reflections on William Faulkner and John Reid, Part I

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War Wounds: Centennial Reflections on William Faulkner and John Reid - PART 1
By Panthea Reid

*The first version of this essay was first published in the Virginia Quarterly Review in 1998. WWrite requested permission from Panthea Reid and VQR to reprint it on the blog for the Centennial. Both graciously agreed, and Panthea Reid edited it for WWrite to include additional information about her family and her research since its original publication. This is the first part. The second part of this incredible story will be published here next week. Stay tuned!

REIDWilliam Faulkner in his RAF UniformWilliam Faulkner in his RAF Uniform. Source: wikipedia

In 1998, Staige Blackford, then editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, adjusted his publication schedule so that the autumn issue, eighty years after the Armistice that ended World War I, could include my essay, “William Faulkner’s ‘War Wound’: Reflections on Writing and Doing, Knowing and Remembering.” Though the essay was about Faulkner’s confiscating the record of my father’s World War I wound and claiming the story for himself, my title did not mention my father. Thus, even as I made a case for Faulkner’s unacknowledged debt to my father, I failed to acknowledge my own debt. On the Centennial of the 1918 Armistice, I have revised that 1998 essay to confront my debts to John Reid and to my late husband John Fischer, as well as to William Faulkner.

Read more: Faulkner Stole My Father's War Wound: Centennial Reflections on William Faulkner and John Reid,...

"Blessed are they that have the home longing": St. Mihiel, Pershing, Spiritualism and Capt. Walker Beale.

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“Blessed are they that have the home longing”:
St. Mihiel, Pershing, Spiritualism, and Capt. Walker Beale

By Mark Facknitz, PhD

Facknitz9American engineers returning from the St. Mihiel front. Source:wikiphotos

This essay has its origins nearly thirty years ago in my first visit to the St. Mihiel American Cemetery near Thiaucourt.  Astonished by the sheer number of crosses, aware of the vast openness of the landscape in this part of the Woevre plain, perplexed by the chapel’s mosaics of fasces, or the bundles of sticks and ax that became the primary icon of Mussolini, I was close to leaving when I looked west and saw the statue blandly named Soldiers Monument.  Frankly, it was a relief.  It seemed real.  I was moved by it.   I knew I was looking at something unlike the rest of the memorials and ornaments, but I despaired of knowing any more about it.  I was wrong.  Instead, at the edge of a lonely cemetery, I had a key to a way to understand the disparity between private grief and public rhetoric in the aftermath of the Great War.

Read more: "Blessed are they that have the home longing": St. Mihiel, Pershing, Spiritualism and Capt. Walker...


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