Re: literature of witness

Kali Tal (
Sun, 21 Dec 1997 11:54:50 -0700

>I'm rather a fan of the Beidler book tho' haven't read it in years.
>What do you think of the Ringnalda book?

I really like Don Ringnalda's book (_Fighting and Writing the
Vietnam War_, U Mississippi Press, 1994). If I was going to teach a
course on Viet Nam war narrative I'd use it, along with _Worlds_
and Renny Christopher's terrific book, _The Viet Nam War / The
American War_ (U Mass Press, 1995)

What I admire most about Don's work is that he refuses to be cowed
into buying into the "authority" of the veteran writer, and he
really examines the investment of these writers in recreating the
war-as-narrative. Because he doesn't succumb to the usual
tendency to treat vet writers as somehow ennobled by their
experience, he actually manages to make important distinctions
*between* different Viet Nam veteran writers, and to talk about
their work in some complex and interesting ways. Unlike most
of the other Viet Nam war literature critics, he also states up
front that he's concerned with understanding and analyzing
racism in the literary texts of the Viet Nam war era (though,
unfortunately, his interest in gender and class isn't nearly as
strong.) And Don also draws on contemporary cultural studies
texts (James William Gibson's _Warrior Dreams_, Richard
Slotkin's _Gunfighter Nation_, etc.) to construct his
interpretations of the literature under consideration--a
good idea, in my opinion. I wish that I'd had a copy in my
hands early enough to consider it in _Worlds_, since,
along with Susan Jeffords' _The Remasculinization of America_,
I'd have pointed it out as a critical text which gives readers real
insight into the ways in which a literature of trauma can be
read and interpreted.

As to my opinion on Beidler, it's easiest to just quote from
_Worlds_. Renny and Don also take him to task in the books
mentioned above.

excerpted from Kali Tal, _Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures
of Trauma_ (Cambridge U Press, 1996): 73-75.

Beidler's _Re-Writing America_ is a clear sequel to his earlier work.
He still insists on reading the texts he discusses as merely one more
revision of the "American" story, relating each author and text he
examines to a plethora of others in what ultimately becomes a truly
hysterical crescendo. Tim O'Brien's personal narrative, _If I Die
In A Combat Zone..._ is described as a "masterwork of the American
tradition of the contemplative, an odyssey of consciousness in the
lineage of Shepard, Edwards, Woolman, Thoreau, and Henry Adams..."
O'Brien's first novel, _Northern Lights_, invoked Hemingway. His
enterprise in the award winning _Going After Cacciato_ is like
"Melville's own." Caputo--that mediocre pop-trash novelist--is
apparently even more connected to the American tradition, as Beidler
asserts that "the chief American literary progenitor presiding over
much of his writing is Ernest Hemingway.... Other major American
presences include Fenimore Cooper and Stephen Crane. As might be
predicted, as well, his writings often owe much to related moderns
such as Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Joseph Conrad, and
Graham Greene." Caputo's best-selling personal narrative, _A
Rumor of War_ lies "in the distinguished modern memoir tradition
of Robert Graves, Farely Mowat, and William Manchester." Winston
Groom's popular novel _Forrest Gump_ "embraces the distinctive
tradition of southern literature" and reminds Beidler of Mark
Twain, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Roy
Blount, Jr., Dan Jenkins, Lewis Grizzard, Beth Henley, and Barry
Hannah... all in one paragraph. Poet and memoirist John Balaban
is influenced by Eliot, Pound, Roethke, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Kyd,
and John Milton. Robert Stone's _A Flag for Sunrise_ "appropriates
emphatically the whole mythic provenance of the political novel
of Dostoevsky, Conrad, Green, Malraus, Mailer, as well as that of
the novel of ideas from Tolstoi, Stendahl, Melville, Mann,
Faulkner, Joyce; and it accommodates them both in the same moment
to the sharp unfamiliarities of neorealism in the various
postmodernist stryles of Vonnegut, Styron, Mailer, Pynchon,
Heller, Hunter S. Thompson and Michael Herr," moving from
"Dantean horror through Kafkan nightmare," while also bearing
the influence of TS Eliot, Malcolm Lowry, Ernest Hemingway,
Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Francis Scott Key! No doubt,
quite an extraordinary book.

Beidler's project seems to be to prove that the pieces of Vietnam
War literature he chooses to examine fit into the American literary
tradition, and thus to force other critics to take them seriously.
He never seems to have problems reading these texts, never
criticizes or questions them, never has unanswered questions.
Everything he reads fits into his theoretical model: Vietnam War
novelists rewrite the Vietnam War by using a vocabulary of myth
passed down to them by their literary forebearers. This can be done
in a "basically conservative and revisionary" manner (by, for
example, James Webb) or in a style of "complex experimentalism"
(by, for example, Larry Heinemann).

It is only in his last chapter, "The Literature of Witness," which
appears to be more of an addendum than an integral part of the book,
that Beidler attempts anything new. In this final section, he
compares the work of Gloria Emerson, Frances Fitzgerald, Robert
Stone, and Michael Herr, claiming that they partake in the "great
literary project of the postmodern... *writing itself*," and that
somehow this is a project with a "new character." He posits
Emerson's and Fitzgerald's books as "exemplary feminist texts...
which attempt to re-write our vision of that experience from within
a specific critique of the essentially male structures of
consciusness that shape it." But Beidler revises the term
"feminist" by stating that he means to use it "in a context of
general definition that goes beyond any localized politics of
sexuality toward issues of language, authority and power in their
largest sense: feminist, then, in that as texts by women they
elect not to center themselves within various established value
and meaning systems of a dominant culture." The appropriative
ploy in which Beidler is engaged here is pathetically obvious as
he admits that Emerson voices "an early and quick disavowal of
interest in particular concerns of the domestic women's liberation
movement," and there is nothing explicitly feminist about
Fitzgerald's text at all. Neither does Beidler feel moved to
refer to feminist theoretical works which might support his claims:
his understanding of "feminism" is autodidactic and idiosyncratic.
Since he has barely given gender a passing nod in his discussions
of Vietnam veteran authors, it is significant that he has chosen
to tack it on as a coda, like late-breaking news or some sort of
errata. Furthermore, Beidler declines to link either of these
women's texts to the American literary tradition he so appreciates,
or to a tradition of feminist literature. Emerson and
Fitzgerald are apparently *not* like Vonnegut, Styron, Mailer,
Pynchon, Heller, Didion or Hunter S. Thompson. Instead,
Fitzgerald's text is related to Shakespeare's _The Tempest_

the fullest achievement of her _Fire in the Lake_ as
text is its measuring of the human depths of the tragedy
of Vietnam against the backdrop of one of the most
inhuman spectacles of language ever mounted, an orgy of
American techno-macho-malewrite and malespeak sublimely
unaware of its hidden dialectics of cultural arrogance
and insistently fostering the hideous politics of its
own cruel self-destruction.

Given the body of Beidler's work, this is a sentence anomalous
enough to defy belief. It seems to have fallen from the moon. His
discussions of the work of Stone and Herr, however, fall back into
a more predictable pattern. Stone is "the novelistic laureate of
of the post-Vietnam American soul," and Herr "stands in this
largest double-implication of 'witness' as participant and mythic
interpreter and does so to the degree that the act of writing so
defined becomes in fact as much a 'subject' of the text as any
other it can claim." Beidler's confusion in the midst of, and
unfamiliarity with the terminology of a truly "postmodern"
critical project is painfully apparent in this all but incoherent
chapter, where he attempts to describe a "literature of witness"
distinguished by "its dominant, even obsessive... identification
of the true locus of the war and its cultural legacy as at once
the landscape of historical experience and of collective national
imagining." If we take this chapter seriously, it seems to
undermine the entire course of his previous project, which is to
prove the existence of an "American" literary tradition into
which the literature of the Vietnam War can be comfortably
integrated, without the tensions (or "double implications") of the

Kali Tal
Lecturer, University of Arizona
new WORD order
PO Box 13746, Tucson AZ 85732-3746
520-790-9218 (phone & fax) "Web Design For Smart People"

Sixties Project