Excerpt from Soldier's Heart by Elizabeth D. Samet, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Soldier's Heart

Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point

by Elizabeth D. Samet

Soldier's Heart by Elizabeth D. Samet
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2007, 272 pages
    Sep 2008, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Vy Armour

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Print Excerpt

"You teach at West Point? I know someone who went to West Point! Maybe you taught him. Honey, what was Margie's son's name? William, Willard, Wilbur? Don't you remember?"

"I don't know. I thought it was Mark."

"Well, anyway, his last name is Johnson, and he graduated about two years ago."

"Seems to me it was longer than that. More like five, I'd say."

"Oh, maybe five then. Did you know him?"

Recommended Books & Films

Prince Andrey lying wounded on the field, unable to move after the Battle of Austerlitz, and staring up at the sky’s “blue infinity,” is one of the most enduring images of War and Peace. In a less celebrated but equally revealing scene that takes place before the battle, Andrey visits a Vienna bookshop, where he goes “to lay in a stock of  books for the campaign.” I like to speculate about what titles he chose to take with him: Were they novels or histories? Old books or new? Were they French, German, or Russian? Was their subject peace or war?

Joey took a copy of Anthony Briggs’s new translation of Tolstoy’s epic novel (Penguin Classics) with him on his most recent deployment.  Many readers still enjoy older translations of War and Peace by Constance Garnett (Modern Library) and by Louise and Aylmer Maude (Everyman’s Library Classics). My former student Nick sends a copy of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 to every friend who returns from Iraq or Afghanistan. I like to see graduating seniors off with a copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy (Everyman’s Library); paperbacks of Waugh’s three novels Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, The End of the Battle are also available individually (Back Bay Books).

Books I know to have sustained Joey and other former students and colleagues both at home and abroad include Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment; Charles Dickens’s Bleak House; Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth; Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms; James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity; Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon; Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and A Room of One’s Own; J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians; Zadie Smith’s White Teeth; Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections; David Hinton’s translation of Li Po’s Selected Poems (New Directions); the poetry of Andrew Marvell (a complete edition of which is available in Penguin Classics); Wallace Stevens’s The Collected Poems (Vintage); Horace’s Odes, translated by David Ferry (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); the plays of Shakespeare, especially Macbeth, Othello, Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V; Sophocles’ Antigone; Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience; the essays of Michel de Montaigne (which are available in complete and selected editions in Penguin Classics). Francis Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, introduced into the West Point curriculum by Lucius Holt, has been reissued and edited by John Press (Oxford).

Among the books my father remembers reading in Armed Services Editions during World War II are Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim; James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice; A. J. Cronin’s The Citadel; Ben Ames Williams’s Leave Her to Heaven; Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, Of Human Bondage, and The Razor’s Edge; and C. S. Forester’s The African Queen and Commodore Hornblower. Armed Services Editions have become collectors’ items, but all or most of these titles are easy to find in modern editions. A full list of ASEs is available online from the Library of Congress Center for the Book: www.loc.gov/catdir/toc/becites/cfb/84600198.html#appendix. Anyone interested in what literature can tell us about war and war about literature would do well to start with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, in translations by Robert Fagles or Richmond Lattimore; and Virgil’s Aeneid, in the Fagles translation or that of Robert Fitzgerald. The Civil War stories of Ambrose Bierce are available in multiple editions, while the work of World War I’s soldier-poets can be found individually and in collections. Recommended editions include The Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by Jon Stallworthy (Norton); Collected Poems, 1908–1956, by Siegfried Sassoon (Faber and Faber); The Poems of Edward Thomas, edited by Peter Sacks (Handsel Books); and Isaac Rosenberg: Selected Poems and Letters, edited by Jean Liddiard (Enitharmon Press). Useful anthologies of poetry from World War I and other conflicts include The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, edited by Jon Silkin; The Oxford Book of War Poetry, edited by Jon Stallworthy; and the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets volume War Poems, edited by John Hollander. The poetry of World War II has been largely neglected. Poets of World War II, edited by Harvey Shapiro, collects the work of several soldier-poets of that war (Library of America).  “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” and other war poetry by Randall Jarrell can be found in The Complete Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). 

Excerpted from Soldier's Heart by Elizabeth D. Samet. Copyright © 2007 by Elizabeth D. Samet. Published in October 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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