From the World War I Centennial News Podcast
Spotlight on the Media: An Interview with
WWrite Blog Curator Dr. Jennifer Orth-Veillon
In June 28th's edition of the World War I Centennial News Podcast, Episode 129, host Theo Mayer interviewed Dr. Jennifer Orth-Veillon. Dr. Orth-Veillon is a writer, researcher, and war literature expert who has curated the Commission's WWrite blog for the past several years. Read on to learn more about how World War I changed writing and literature forever. The following is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity:
Theo Mayer:So much has happened during this WWI centennial period and as the U S WWI Centennial Commission was reaching its stride in organizing the centennial of WWI, we started to explore and question the common perceptions of WWI. We realize that common references like the "forgotten war" or the "great war" were anachronistic. These were no longer fit descriptions. After all, people were beginning to remember WWI all over. And the "great war" was a term that was assigned before an even larger global conflict followed. So as the centennial was shedding a new light on the subject, a new reference was suggested to us by one of our wonderful communication advisors, Robert Glens, an ad industry legend. He suggested that we begin to refer to WWI as "the war that changed the world." Now, words are powerful and as we started to live with this new reference, it acted as a catalyst causing a new perspective and reexamination of how WWI changed the world.
All of that leads us to today's interview with Dr. Jennifer Orth-Vellion, who has masterfully curated a very special section of our website since December of 2016 called the WWrite blog. That's w-w-r-i-t-e. The blog is self-described as exploring WWI's influence on contemporary writing and scholarship and has earned a loyal following of over 30,000 avid readers. Dr Orth-Veillon holds a Ph.D. In comparative literature from Emory University, lives in France, and besides her own contribution, has pulled together thoughtful, interesting and provocative articles from a who's who of thinkers and writers to help us understand how the war that changed the world changed the nature of literature, art and film in the 20th and 21st centuries. Jennifer, it's not only a pleasure to have you on the show, but it's also been my pleasure and privilege to work with you over these past two and a half years. Welcome to the podcast.
J. Orth-Veillon: Thank you very much Theo, and it's also been a pleasure to work with you and with the other members of the commission.
Theo Mayer: Well, let me start with you. How did you personally develop your interest in WWI's influence on contemporary writing and how did you come into the subject?
J. Orth-Veillon: There were several good friends in my college classes that were coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan and there was a push to take care of them. I decided that I would open this veteran group. And the reason I did this is because one of my specialties in my research is war literature and also veteran memoirs. And so in my classes, my students began these classes by studying the literature of WWI because it was one of the major conflicts that happened on foreign soil. Also, I said to my students that WWI marked a break with many traditional war narratives at the time. So before WWI, a lot of the narratives that came out of wars were communicating much more a sense of patriotism, triumph, sacrifice, and the soldiers fought bravely, didn't complain, and were heroic. And the idea was that the weak soldier, who had thoughts that were not as patriotic about the war, was seen automatically as sort of a coward or a criminal. And while all of these things- patriotism, triumph, and heroic sacrifice- are certainly important aspects of the combat experience, they don't paint really a complete portrait of the long lasting effects of war on soldiers, on families and on the community. For example, Hemingway's sparse prose or Wilford Owens grotesque images and irony did something revolutionary in terms of reading about war, learning about war.
I left the U.S., but I knew I couldn't leave my work entirely behind, so I would spend many of my days driving from village to village looking for work and also looking for writer communities and I didn't find either. It was winter. However, each town center in France features a monument to the WWI dead. And what I learned was that even if the monument was small, the places' loss was enormous. I would often get out of my car and count the number of dead and then go to the village municipality to see what the population count was in 1914 to 1918. And one village lost 9% of its population and that's enormous. Another lost almost all of its young men. And also in France, November 11th isn't just Veteran's Day, but it's really just, it's Armistice Day. It's commemorating most notably WWI.
Theo Mayer: WWI shaped the worldview, as you mentioned, of a lot of well known names and writers. A lot of people don't actually necessarily associate those with WWI, but can you list out some of them? I mean you mentioned Hemingway, but there are many others.
J. Orth-Veillon: Well, I think there are a lot of writers for example, that are not as well-known. I mean, Hemingway and Owen and Sassoon are very well known and I think we do actually associate them with WWI. However, there are a lot of writers that no one knows about being in WWI or writers who wrote later on and who referred back to WWI as their influence. I wrote an article about Albert Camus, he's associated with writing about WWII mostly and he always referred back to his father's service in WWI as sort of a pivotal point of his understanding of France as a country that he would always protect as well. Also, we had a post by writer David Gillham, who published a book this year on Anne Frank. I have noticed something in the book when I was reading it, that there was this moment when Anne Frank was arrested. And usually the custom in Amsterdam at the time was to not really give the family much notice and sort of get them out of the door, but because the arresting officer saw that Otto Frank, Anne's father, was a WWI veteran, he gave him extra time to get their things together.
Theo Mayer: Really interesting. From a broad view, from 10,000 feet up, is it possible to summarize some of the period's biggest influences on literature, film and writing? And I know we've actually talked about some of it and I think you mentioned it early on, perhaps one of the biggest influences is that war is no longer as glorified.
J. Orth-Veillon: Right? That was really the biggest contribution in writing for WWI. The idea that there was a space for writing about war in a way that hadn't been really written or at least written and seen before or published or become something that everyone was reading. And I think all of those works by the iconic writers like Owen and Hemingway and Sassoon. They forced us to look at war in its entirety as something that was great sacrifice and that was full of heroism and things like that, but also a war that was grotesque and, as the French referred to it, the butchery, to sort of be able to see that. Like Ellen Lamott, Mary Borden, two nurses who wrote about them, their writing was even censored post-WWI because it was considered too graphic and not things that people wanted to see women, especially nurses, writing about. Nurses were supposed care for the dead. They were supposed to have a sense of moral duty. They weren't supposed to write about the things that they saw, the horrific things that they encountered at a really gory level of detail.
Theo Mayer: Well, I want to talk a little bit about the contributors to the blog. I have a couple of observations and actually you answered one of my questions, which was you really curated posts from a lot of Gulf War veterans who are now writing. Tell us a little bit about how their war experience caused them to look at WWI's influence and on writers specifically.
J. Orth-Veillon: Well, I think there are several things. First of all, there's kind of a geopolitical element to it, which is how the Middle East was divided up and dealt with after WWI contributed to a lot of the conflicts that led the United States into war in the Middle East today. For example, the way that the Ottoman Empire was divided up, the different mandates, the British mandates, the French mandates kind of all created tensions in that area. And that was because of the way it was carved up after the war. And so I think there's a recognition of the origin of why they were there in the 1990s in 2000's, long after WWI. Even one contributor, Benjamin Bush, wrote about finding a WWI cemetery, a British cemetery, while in Iraq that had kind of been destroyed and he worked on cleaning it up.
Another thing is that the lot of the soldiers coming back who decided to write kind of always start with WWI. It's kind of when you learn to write about war, WWI becomes this reference point. I taught this class on war memoirs, and when my students all asked several veterans, Seth Brady Tucker, Brian Castner, Kayla Williams, what was the greatest influence in their writing? And they all said Wilford Owen, Hemingway. Basically because of this much more open way of writing about war.
Theo Mayer: You also had some women veterans who are part of that group.
J. Orth-Veillon: Yes. Those are really, really exciting for me because it was really thrilling to have not only contributors who wrote about women who played very important roles in WWI, but it was also really interesting to see contemporary women veterans looking back at WWI as a major influence on them. So it wasn't just a male experience, but also that women today who are in war, they are also looking at this experience of the soldier of WWI as their own and not really one of gender, but as a human experience.
Theo Mayer: I'm not sure of the exact count of the post, but I think there are around 150 of them. I want to point out to our listeners that these aren't dashed off little blurbs. You know? Each post is a deeply considered treatment of the subject brought to us by really great writers. Jennifer, were there any surprises for you? Does anything stand out for you in the blog that you didn't expect and maybe hadn't thought of before it showed up?
J. Orth-Veillon: Yes, I was very surprised and very pleased by the response I got from writers who volunteered to write. And I say volunteer because these are paid writers. They get paid to write articles in places like the New York Times or the Atlantic and they wrote this for WWI because they thought it was a good thing to do. And I think that was what floored me the most. And so that just for me shows the importance of commemorating this memory, conserving this memory.
Theo Mayer: Well, one last question for you, Jennifer. What are the top one or two things our listeners should take away and remember about "the war that changed the world" and how it changed contemporary literature and writing?
J. Orth-Veillon: I think the biggest thing is that with WWI, the writing is much deeper than Hemingway and Sassoon and Owen, much, much deeper. And also, one thing that I think listeners should remember is that Hemingway and Owen portrayed one version of the war, but there are a lot of other ways to look at the war. And while they were kind of disillusioned, there are other writers who saw this as fulfilling their cause. And we see less of that. Less of that literature is appreciated. We also have accounts from women. Cynthia Wachtell wrote a post about how Hemingway was probably influenced by this nurse, Ellen Lamott. So the fact is that the work is composed of many, many, many, many different voices from different countries, from different walks of life. And they should all be read to have a more complete understanding of this war.
Theo Mayer: Well, thank you, Jennifer. We're going to encourage people to look at the posts and I know how hard you worked for the last two and a half years doing this. And it really is a worthy effort. Thank you.
J. Orth-Veillon: Thank you.
Theo Mayer: Dr. Jennifer Orth-Veillon is a Franco-American writer, researcher, and translator who works on war literature and memory in her research fiction and nonfiction work. Jennifer developed and curated the WWrite blog for the US Worldwide Centennial Commission from December of 2016 through June of 2019. We thank her and the many contributors to the blog for their important contribution to documenting, exploring, and discovering the effects of WWI on contemporary literature and scholarly writing. This wonderful resource is available at www1cc.org/wwrite. That's all lowercase. Or just follow the link in the podcast notes.