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Contemporary Approaches to the Literature of the First World War: A Critical Survey

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Abstract

Contemporary studies of First World War literature share a sense of common ancestry in Paul Fussell’s 1975 study The Great War and Modern Memory, in which the author proclaims irony as the defining mode of war writing, and identifies the archetypal writer as a young, upper-class English infantry officer. Post-Fussellian critics worked first to expand this narrow canon, primarily through the rediscovery and evaluation of neglected writing by women. Critics also began to question the war canon’s assumed separation from mainstream modernism, and argued that these two strands of postwar literary production were in fact fundamentally entwined. In the 1990s, cultural studies approaches generated productive readings of the war literature in its wider context, alongside non-fiction and ephemeral writings, non-literary artistic productions, and public memorial efforts. This interdisciplinary approach was complemented by a new internationalism: comparative historiography, championed by Jay Winter, aimed to correct the mistaken assumptions that arose from a conventional focus on the political and cultural affairs of any single country. Taken together, these trends are evidence that the current priority in this ever-expanding field is to acknowledge and explore the diversity of the war experience.

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