Over at Legal Lacuna, Mai-Linh has a great write up on a conference at UVA on the role of war and narration. Let me give you this quote:
My interest, as a student of literature, lies in how we conceptualize and narrate war when the traditional elements of a war narrative no longer exist. Where is war set? What is a front line? Who is a combatant and who is a civilian?
This is, in essence, the idea behind the Cass Mastern Material in All the King’s Men. Except the battle is not physical war (at least not yet). Its the moral war of race and status confronting themselves in the soul of a single man (Cass Mastern) and manifesting themselves later in the life of a different man (Jack Burden). The fact is, All the King’s Men only makes sense when read through the lens of the Cass Mastern Material because the story is about the ability of mankind to look back, define, and then redefine itself (and its history) in the context of the self. (This is why the 1949 movie All the King’s Men is pretty good (got the fact that the book is primarily about Jack Burden) and the 2006 movie All the King’s Men is just gawd awful!) (In my best Huey P. Long accent)!
Back to Cass Mastern. It seems that Jack understands that humans, in telling stories, are painfully aware of the impact those stories have on our own perception of not only what we did, but who we are. Jack says: “I have said that Jack Burden could not put down the facts about Cass Mastern’s world because he did not know Cass Mastern. Jack Burden did not say definitely to himself why he did not know Cass Mastern. But I (who am what Jack Burden became) look back now, years later, and try to say why.” And after some conjecture, Jack offers this possibility for his inabilty to write about Cass Mastern: “Or perhaps he laid aside the journal of Cass Mastern not because he could not understand, but because he was afraid to understand for what might be understood there was a reproach to him.”
Hmmm. Perhaps we retell wartime narratives with new places, not because we are afraid of the past, but rather we are trying to validate the present…
I like your observation that “[p]erhaps we retell wartime narratives with new places, not because we are afraid of the past, but rather we are trying to validate the present…” Literature is able to draw parallels between the past and the present probably better than any other mode of representation, and this characteristic of literature makes it susceptible to current social/political imperatives. That susceptibility doesn’t lessen its value (only dinosaurs still think “art” and “politics” should be separate) but places it clearly within the realms of culture and society. Just another reason why interdisciplinary work is so important; reading alone will only get you so far.
Someone recently posted a Twain quote on twitter that I liked very much, something like “History does not repeat itself. But it does rhyme.”