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My favorite book as a teenager (and in fact the only book I ever read as a teenager) was All Quiet on the Western Front. I liked it mostly for the vivid scenes of trench warfare. Teenage boys love that stuff (or at least I did). But even then I recognized that it was essentially an anti-war book. It was hard to miss: the protagonist, Paul, has a pretty nasty time of it in the trenches, and he gets killed at the end. In the years that followed I somehow got the impression that All Quiet was essentially the first real anti-war book. Before WWI, I thought, everyone who wrote about war glorified it.
As Cynthia Wachtell shows in War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914 (Louisiana State University Press, 2010), I was just dead wrong about this. In American letters anti-war sentiment abounded. Many of the leading lights of American lit wrote anti-war tracts, and some of them were remarkably “modern” (those by Ambrose Bierce are particularly astonishing, and I highly recommend them). Wachtell does a masterful job of uncovering many of these neglected works, putting them in historical context, and establishing that there was, in fact, an American anti-war tradition. This is an excellent, eye-opening book.
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