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As the Tide of War Recedes

What do Louisa May Alcott and J. D. Salinger have in common?  Both wrote literary classics.  For nearly one hundred and fifty years Little Women has been in print, introducing girls in particular to the joys of reading.  Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye has been in print just shy of half that time.  It, too, has become a must read for adolescents, a study in the estrangement and alienation of youth across several decades.  Beyond that, the similarities appear to end.  Alcott grew up in the rarified literary environment of Waspish antebellum Concord surrounded by the pantheon of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorn, and Henry David Thoreau.  You can still find them communing together on “authors’ ridge” in the local cemetery.  Salinger grew up on the posh Upper East side of Manhattan and, like Holden attended boarding school, in his case at Valley Forge Military Academy.  Separated by more than a century, these two authors arguably have little in common.

But what I only recently discovered is that they do share a singular, searing experience.  Both took part in war, and both were affected powerfully by those experiences for the rest of their lives.  Inspired by the abolitionist convictions of her reformist family, Alcott volunteered as a nurse at the beginning of the Civil War.  No doubt also wanting to escape the social and gender conventions of the time that she found restricting, she spent several months in a Union military hospital in Washington caring for the horribly wounded and dying.  Her Hospital Sketches, originally published in northern newspapers, tell of post battlefield suffering that is barely imaginable.  Alcott’s time as a nurse was cut short when she contracted typhus and was treated with mercury chloride, the standard remedy of the day.  She returned home with mercury poisoning and would suffer from its effects the rest of her life.  She lost her hair, her teeth, endured daily pain and discomfort, and became addicted to opium based pain killers.  This month I saw a portrait of her in her thirties hanging in the family home in Concord.  She looked at least twenty years older in the painting than in her chronological years.

A fascinating read of a recent literary biography of Salinger revealed that he joined the army soon after Pearl Harbor Day.  After extended stateside duty, he was shipped to Europe and landed with allied forces in France on D Day.  He fought through some of the most intense battles of the war, including the Battle of the Bulge.  Salinger participated in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camps and served as an interrogator near Nuremburg after the war with military intelligence.  Briefly hospitalized with what we would now call post traumatic stress syndrome, Salinger eventually returned to his writing career.  His experiences are captured in several of the stories he wrote for magazines like The New Yorker.  It would be a mistake to reduce his writing to psychological analysis; Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey don’t need the props of the author’s war time trauma.  But it is hard not to sense some connection between that and his increasing and ultimately almost complete reclusiveness in Cornish, New Hampshire beginning in the 1950’s and concluding only with his death last year.

What comes home when we bring them home is a question that ought to be asked before rather than during or after hostilities have ended.  Alcott and Salinger inspired many generations with their art after they came home.  They wrote eloquently in spite of those wartime scars.  Many, if not most of those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will bring home scars of one sort or another as well.  Most will manage well in civilian life; some, like the two literary giants, will contribute classics to future generations.  But none, I suspect, will be completely free of what they endured and the demons will haunt for many years.

Last night the president offered the usual platitudes we expect from political leaders who make life and death decisions with one eye on the fickle electorate.  “Progress is being made”, we are told.  “It’s all been worth it.”  September 11 is once more invoked, the awful day that became the convenient excuse for the former president and his war criminals to deceive us into much of the current debacle.  And of course, God is expected to bless all of it.  “The tide of war is receding.”  For that we should be grateful.  But the broken bodies and haunted souls it reveals among the detritus hidden by the bloody tide is never pretty no matter how hard we try to sweep it away.  We can expect some Alcotts and Salingers to emerge.  But there are many lost forever.  Bringing them home was the question last night.  What comes home is the question we must ask now, and for many tomorrows.

John H. Thomas

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