Thursday, July 11, 2019

'Stunning the Viewer with Impossible Youth'

A reader in New York City responded to my July 4 post about Willa Cather and the death of her cousin during World War I by reminding me that the world is a remarkably small place and that a century is not all that long:

“I’m always interested in Cather, and then when I saw the paragraph about her cousin who died in World War I, I stopped at the name ‘Cantigny.’ My mother’s first cousin, James Palache, was killed at Cantigny on May 18, 1918. We have a first-hand account of his death. His friend who wrote it felt it was in a sense suicidal – he had given up and no longer wanted to live.”

My paternal grandfather and my mother’s stepfather both fought in World War I. I never knew the former but knew the latter well. His name was James Aloysius Kelly and he told a few war-related memories. In France, he and other doughboys, to relieve the monotony, tore up a farmer’s field and had a beet fight. He pronounced Ypres YIP-pers. And while still stationed at an Army camp in the U.S., he remembered a sign on a restaurant in the nearby town: “No dogs or Irish.” My reader has not read Cather’s One of Ours (1922), her novel in which the main character is based in part on her cousin, Lt. Grosvenor “G.P.” Cather. She writes:

“I found [Cather’s] phrase ‘that glorious title “killed in action”’ upsetting. However, the Wikipedia account shows that in her cousin’s particular case it may not have been misplaced.”

The youth and naïveté of the doughboys is appalling. In his poem “Doughboys: Photograph c. 1917” (“--found among my grandfather’s papers”), R.L. Barth writes:

“Around a folded blanket seven doughboys
Intently watch the dice turn six the hard way.
Like pre-noir tough guys, three or four clutch sawbucks
Half curled, ready to shell out or increase
A conscript private's base pay. One, raffish,
Tilts his campaign hat like an old salt.
All seven would shame Bogart with the angle
Of dangling cigarettes and arched eyebrows.
But they're not tough guys, just heartbreakers all,
Stunning the viewer with impossible youth.”

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