Viet Nam Generation
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Philip Beidler, like John Hellmann and others, explores the American literature of the Viet Nam war in terms of American myth and myth making. In his first, pioneering book, American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam, he writes that American literature of the war
even as it projects itself forward into new forms of imaginative invention that seem to challenge traditional modes of mythic understanding, proves often in retrospect to have shaped itself greatly in their prophetic image as well (26).
Thus, by Beidler's analysis, American literary renderings of the war fulfill American mythology although he does not see what he's described as entrapment. If this is true, then American literature of the war is doomed to endlessly repeat its history of ethnocentrism, immaturity, and apolitical reliance on "experience."
Beidler is concerned with literary quality--he attempts to find the "important" writers on the war, claiming that the novelists he includes have produced "more than twenty-five works of major importance" (4). His judgements are based largely on whether an author gets the war "right," and his criteria for getting it right seem to be based mainly in whether the veteran--or journalist--authors' versions of their experience match Beidler's conception of the "Vietnam experience." His conception lies in a "mixup" of "American mythic consciousness and realized experiential fact" that are tangled together and can't be sorted out (31). He does not define what "experiential fact" consists of; it seems that for him memory and the recreation of experience in narrative are relatively unproblematic.
He judges novels on the truth-value. He calls William Eastlake's surreal novel, The Bamboo Bed, "art-truth." Beidler is himself a veteran of the war, and in his first book, especially in the opening chapters, seems to be an oblique working-out of his own experience through literary criticism, rather than personal narrative. His first chapter is called "Situation Report." In a later chapter he writes, "It is a line, like some others...that in its way can crystallize the whole experience of the war for anyone who carries its memory" (97-8). Despite the lack of first-person pronoun in that sentence, it is clearly Beidler's own memory which is "crystallized."
There is, of course, nothing intrinsically wrong with Beidler's choice of literary criticism for his own textual working-out of the war. However, the analytic criteria that he chooses for his study have many problems. He judges all works in terms of experience. Anti-war poets are good, for him, only when they "bring the experience home." Nothing that's abstract, philosophical, or polemical has value for him. He praises Frances Fitzgerald's study of history and politics, Fire in the Lake, but he can only bring it into his framework by seeing it as being essentially about "experience." All of this leads Beidler's analysis to focus on and valorize an extremely narrow selection of works about the war. Because it is only American experience in which he is interested, and because it is only experience in which he is interested, works by non-Americans are excluded, as are works by non-participants (he does include work by journalists who were there--he is especially fond of Michael Herr's Dispatches). Thus, the works Beidler deals with, and the analytic framework in which he discusses them, are necessarily ethnocentric, and are almost exclusively either personal narratives or autobiographical novels. Further, they are limited to the points of view of very young men. The limitations of Beidler's definitions of American literature of the war become clearer in his second, more ambitious, book, Rewriting America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation. (The title is slightly misleading--he does not compare "Vietnam Authors" to other writers of their generation; rather, he compares them to one another). In this work, Beidler participates enthusiastically in the process of canon-formation. He addresses the works of 22 writers, 20 of whom are men, 21 of whom are white. Sixteen of his writers are veterans, at least eight of whom were college graduates before going to the war; 5 of them were officers. While all of these writers represent important and interesting points of view, there are many other, unrepresented viewpoints, equally valid and important. The emerging canon of American Viet Nam War literature, however, has formed itself around precisely the points of view Beidler focuses on, and he does not challenge these points of view in any fundamental way.
Beidler's selection process has been even more exact: he has chosen writers who have produced second and third works which, in some way, address the "experience" of the war; Beidler examines each author's oeuvre of Viet Nam War-related works. This gives depth and substance to his discussions of each of these authors.
He works very hard to place Viet Nam War authors within American literary tradition, and to find their forebears--for O'Brien it's Hemingway and Melville, for Caputo, Hemingway, Cooper, and Crane, for Winston Groom, James Jones. He looks at the ways in which his authors take American literary traditions and re-fit them to their experiences of the Viet Nam War, "that past reinscribing itself as mythic present" (45). He makes a convincing argument about this. But, once again, his argument pre-selects his sample: he has chosen works which do fit within these traditions, and simply avoided any other works. (That he has read more widely in the literature of the war than either of his two books indicate is clearly shown by his article in the January, 1992 edition of College English).
Nonetheless, he does work across a wide generic range. He deals with the novelists O'Brien, Caputo, Olen Butler, Webb, Groom, and Heinemann in one chapter, with the playwright David Rabe, with the poets Balaban, Ehrhart, Huddle, Komunyakaa, McDonald, and Weigl, and, in a final chapter on "The Literature of Witness," with the journalists Emerson, Fitzgerald, Stone, and Herr. His discussions of the playwright and the poets are perhaps his best and most coherent, and contribute the most to criticism of the war literature, since most of the previous book-length studies have leaned heavily toward prose representations.
His "Rewriting America" entails the reinscription of American cultural mythology into post-modern, "post-Vietnam" literature. He claims that the most important achievement of the writers he examines is their desire to "reconstitute [American] mythology as a medium both of historical self- reconsideration and, in the same moment, or historical self- renewal and even self-reinvention." (5). What it turns out that he means by this rather opaque prose is that the Viet Nam War authors he writes about are finding ways in which to re-integrate their previously marginalized experience back into the mainstream of American literary and cultural tradition. Although he is constantly saying things like this: "a rewriting of major archetypal forms of American consciousness into new dimensions of imaginative possibility" (38), he fails ever to explain what it is that's new.
He adopts Michael Herr's conceit that "there was no country here but the war," and refers repeatedly to "the country that was the war," and "a place that was the war," making clear that the experience and the memory that his American authors, and he himself, are addressing is the American mythic memory of a war which it considers to be its own, rather than a war fought in a country called Viet Nam, a war shared by Americans and Vietnamese of various political positions. He insists that the "best" narratives take place in "the country called the war." In other words, for Beidler, "best" means most exclusively, Americanly, ethnocentric. An example of this is his description of the 1968 Tet offensive, as portrayed in Hasford's The Short-Timers: "a Disneyland of megadeth called Vietnam" (280).
As in his first book, he is still focused on "experience." He writes of his authors
Their sense of profound experiential authority in the same moment allows them to make their largest meanings through the bold embrace of new strategies of imaginative invention; and thus, precisely, in the inscription of memory into art, they become in the fullest sense the creators of cultural myth for new times and other (2).
In the same paragraph he writes of the Viet Nam generation, "the belief in acts of imagination, often conceived in some new, unmediated relationship with experience itself, that could do nothing less than change the world" (2). Beidler seems to share this belief in the possibility of art in an "unmediated" relationship with experience and its possibility to change the world. Yet, oddly, he claims that the war in Viet Nam "settled virtually nothing" (3), despite the clear victory by the NLF and PAVN that put in place the contemporary government of the Social Republic of Viet Nam. What he clearly means is that it didn't settle anything for Americans--but his own ethnocentrism disallows him from phrasing it in that way. Indeed, Beidler's stress on "experience" is an affirmation of a major American mythopoeic metaphor.
Beidler's framework causes him to make contradictory arguments. He contends that the conservative James Webb, in Fields of Fire and his subsequent novels, is writing propaganda, that Webb is writing revisionist history, "reshaping the terms of Vietnam" (74), while Caputo and other more liberal writers are re-inscribing older cultural myths in post-modern, "post-Vietnam" terms, and thus are doing a good thing. He doesn't recognize that all these writers are engaged in revisionist history, the liberals as well as the conservative, that the act of narratizing memory is itself revision. Rather than openly saying that he is sympathetic to Caputo's politics, and not to Webb's, he makes a contradictory and insupportable argument about their nature of their narratives. Worse, he makes untenable aesthetic judgements to support his covert political judgement: he calls Webb's writing "popular stereotype and cliche... unintentionally parodic" (72) and condemns his portrayals of women. Yet he calls Caputo's novels "post-Vietnam mythic fictions" (52), and fails to note Caputo's dismal portrait of June, the main female character of Indian Country, a novel Beidler unreservedly admires.
What Beidler praises is new, postmodern styles, as opposed to traditional "epic" war novels. Winston Groom, he writes, is "exemplary of the new and imaginatively inventive sense making, often resulting in new levels of insight and acceptance, achieved in second and third novels" (86) and of Larry Heinemann's two novels that they are a "paradigm to date of the Vietnam author in his generation and of his continued rewriting of the literary memory of the war into an ongoing revisionary encounter with the sundry mythologies of the national culture..." (90). However, although second and third novels by these authors may indeed display more "acceptance" of the experience, few of them move out into larger political or philosophical musing. In other words, although the writers gain distance and perspective, they don't seem to gain maturity. Rather, the genre they are working in requires them to re-present and rearticulate the understandings of the very young men they were when they were at war, and Beidler's work affirms this practice. As mature writers, these authors, including Beidler himself, simply re- work those understandings.
Further, from his first book to his second, Beidler has gone from being a rather unsophisticated critic of personal experience to a hypersophisticated one sounding the syntax of postmodernism. This is not an improvement: some of his sentences are hard to fathom. Ultimately, Beidler wants to have it both ways. He wants "postmodern" writing to be simultaneously about experience, and about nothing but writing itself. Of course, he can't have it both ways, and the only thing in his argument that allows him to try is that he fails to define what he means by "experience."
Overall, Beidler is to be praised for his pioneering and continuing insistence that American literature of the war is to be taken seriously, but serious problems in his arguments make it impossible to recommend Rewriting America.