Re-writing America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation
With his first book, American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam, Philip Beidler offered a pioneering study of the novels, plays, poetry, and "literature of witness" that sprang from the United States involvement in the Vietnam War. Reviewing the book, the journal American Literature declared, "[It is] more than just an introductory act. It also sets forth what are sure to be lasting types of American literary response to Vietnam, and of the scholarly response to the emerging literature of the war."
In Re-Writing America, Beidler charts the ongoing achievements of the men and women who first gained public notice as Vietnam authors and who are now recognized as major literary interpreters of our national life and culture at large. These writers--among them Tim O'Brien, Philip Caputo, Winston Groom, David Rabe, John Balaban, Robert Stone, Michael Herr, Gloria Emerson, and Frances Fitzgerald--have applied in their later efforts, says Beidler, "many of the hard-won lessons of literary sense-making learned in initial works attempting to come explicitly to terms with Vietnam."
Beidler argues that the Vietnam authors have done much to reenergize American creative writing and to lead it out of the poststructuralist impasse of texts as endless critiques of language, representation, and authority. With their direct experience of a divisive and frustrating war--"a war not of their own making but of the making of politicians and experts, a war of ancient animosities that cost nearly everything for those involved and settled virtually nothing"--these writers in many ways resemble the celebrated generation of poets and novelists who emerged from World War I. Like their forebears of 1914-18, those of the Vietnam generation have undertaken a common project of cultural revision: to "re-write America," to create an art that, even as it continues to acknowledge the war's painful memory, projects that memory into new dimensions of mythic consciousness for other--and better--times.
Beidler fills his book with detailed, illuminating analyses of the writers' works, which, as he notes, have moved across an almost infinite range of subject, genre, and mode. From David Rabe, for example, have come innovative plays in which overt statements on the traumas of Vietnam (The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Streamers) have made way for broader commentaries on sex, power, and violence in American life (In the Boom Boom Room, HurlyBurly). Winstom Groom has moved from Better Times Than These, a rather traditional (even anachronistic) war novel, to further reaches of rambunctious humor in Forrest Gump. And journalist Michael Herr, whose Dispatches memorably defined a Vietnam landscape at once real and hallucinatory, carried his vision into collaborations on the films Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket.
As Beidler notes, the immense price that Vietnam exacted from the American soul continues to draw a plethora of interpretations and depictions. Vietnam authors remind us, in Tim O'Brien's words, of "the things they carried." But as Beidler makes clear, they now command us not only to remember but to imagine new possibilities as well.
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