The outbreak of war in 1939, as in 1914, brought to an end an era of great intellectual and creative exuberance. Writers on the subject of World War II created a body of work unsurpassed in quality by the literature of any other war our planet had witnessed. Novels, autobiographies, and poetry explored the effects of war on individuals.
World War II literature was neither pessimistic nor antiwar. Instead, it presents war in its complexity as a tragic but perhaps inevitable part of the human condition. Reflecting the views of their generation, authors writing about World War II generally accepted the justness of that war and the necessity of ridding the world of Nazi totalitarianism and Japanese militarism. World War II literature helped to make that war, later called the “good war,” a defining moment in affirming a nation’s democratic values and the nation’s identity as moral people. Later in the century, the literature of the Vietnam War would take war literature down a starkly different path.
Writers have long drawn on the experiences of war to examine themes such as race, power, democracy, and human behavior under conditions of stress. Partly through addressing these and similar issues with unprecedented candor and realism, literature matured during and after World War II. Hundreds of war novels eventually appeared, some of the outstanding craftsmanship. Many poets did impressive work, and wartime journalism and post-war memoirs often exhibited a new subtlety and clarity.
It was a poet of an earlier generation, T.S. Eliot, who produced in his Four Quartets (1935–42; published as a whole, 1943) the masterpiece of the war. Reflecting upon language, time, and history, he searched, in the three quartets written during the war, for moral and religious significance amid destruction and strove to counter the spirit of nationalism inevitably present in a nation at war.
John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano (1944) suggests that the integrity of most Americans abroad will ultimately outweigh the arrogance and cruelty of a few. Hersey also wrote Into the Valley (1943) and Hiroshima (1946), both reportorial classics, as well as the novels The Wall (1950), about the Warsaw Ghetto, and The War Lover (1959), a Freudian tale of bomber pilots in England.
A bestseller when it was published, Smith’s semi-autobiographical chronicle of a girl growing up in Williamsburg has remained a touchstone for readers young and old. Like The Great Gatsby, it was one of the novels chosen to reprint in paperback and send over to the American troops in WWII. “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was perhaps the most popular ASE of them all,” Molly Manning writes in her book about the program When Books Went to War.
It was hardly a time for new beginnings, although the poets of the New Apocalypse movement produced three anthologies (1940–45) inspired by Neoromantic anarchism. No important new novelists or playwrights appeared. The best fiction about wartime—Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags (1942), Henry Green’s Caught (1943), James Hanley’s No Directions (1943) was produced by established writers.
Americans were so enthralled by the events in Europe during the 1940s that even one of America’s greatest writers, Ernest Hemingway, set one of his most famous novels in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” was published in 1940 and tells the story of American Robert Jordan, a who participates as a guerrilla against the fascist forces of Francisco Franco’s to plan to blow up a bridge outside the city of Segovia.
“The Glass Menagerie” is an autobiographical memory play by Tennessee Williams, featuring Williams as himself (Tom). Other characters include his demanding mother (Amanda), and his fragile sister Rose. Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man (1944) ends disturbingly before its draftee protagonist goes overseas.
Finding satire in literature can be just as easy, especially if George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” is in the curriculum. Written during August 1945, “Animal Farm” is an allegorical story about the rise of Stalin after the Russian Revolution. Orwell was critical of Stalin’s brutal dictatorship, one that was built on a cult of personality.
Amid all the terror and despair of World War II, came the tender story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella The Little Prince. De Saint-Exupéry was an aristocrat, writer, poet, and pioneering aviator who drew on his experiences in the Sahara Desert to write a fairy tale that featured a pilot who encounters a young prince visiting Earth. The story’s themes of loneliness, friendship, love, and loss make the book universally admired and appropriate for all ages.