Summary and book reviews of Soldier's Heart by Elizabeth Samet

Soldier's Heart

Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point

by Elizabeth D. Samet

Soldier's Heart
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2007, 272 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2008, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Vy Armour

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About this Book

Book Summary

What does literature - particularly the literature of war - mean to a student who is likely to encounter its reality? What is the best way to stir uninhibited classroom discussions in a setting that is designed to train students to follow orders, respect authority, and survive grueling physical and mental experiences? This is the terrain Samet traverses each semester, a challenge beautifully captured in Soldier's Heart. The excerpt ends with an extensive list of recommended books and films.

Elizabeth D. Samet and her students learned to romanticize the army "from the stories of their fathers and from the movies." For Samet, it was the old World War II movies she used to watch on TV, while her students grew up on Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan. Unlike their teacher, however, these students, cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point, have decided to turn make-believe into real life.

West Point is a world away from Yale, where Samet attended graduate school and where nothing sufficiently prepared her for teaching literature to young men and women who were training to fight a war. Intimate and poignant, Soldier's Heart chronicles the various tensions inherent in that life as well as the ways in which war has transformed Samet's relationship to literature. Fighting in Iraq, Samet's former students share what books and movies mean to them—the poetry of Wallace Stevens, the fiction of Virginia Woolf and J. M. Coetzee, the epics of Homer, or the films of James Cagney. Their letters in turn prompt Samet to wonder exactly what she owes to cadets in the classroom.

Samet arrived at West Point before September 11, 2001, and has seen the academy change dramatically. In Soldier's Heart, she reads this transformation through her own experiences and those of her students. Forcefully examining what it means to be a civilian teaching literature at a military academy, Samet also considers the role of women in the army, the dangerous tides of religious and political zeal roiling the country, the uses of the call to patriotism, and the cult of sacrifice she believes is currently paralyzing national debate. Ultimately, Samet offers an honest and original reflection on the relationship between art and life.

An extensive list of books and films recommended by Elizabeth Samet can be found at the end of this excerpt.

Chapter One

SHAKESPEARE 3, THIS IS SHAKESPEARE 6—OVER

I had forgotten all about the radio in my hand. I was so startled when it crackled to life I nearly dropped it:

SHAKESPEARE 3, THIS IS SHAKESPEARE 6—OVER
SHAKESPEARE 6, THIS IS SHAKESPEARE 3—OVER
SHAKESPEARE 3, GIVE ME A SITREP WHEN YOU HAVE THE ENEMY IN SIGHT—OVER
WILCO—OUT

I have said "out" when I should have said "over." I have taken far too long to figure out that "SITREP" means situation report. Somewhere this might be fatal. Here the amused voice on the other end, that of my colleague Dan, grumbles that I'm not allowed to end a transmission I didn't start:

YOU CAN'T SAY OUT, SHAKESPEARE 3, ONLY I CAN SAY OUT
OOPS

I had volunteered for this mission: standing guard at the doors of the United States Military Academy's Department of...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Guide

The questions and discussion topics that follow are designed to enhance your reading of Soldier's Heart. We hope they will enrich your experience as you explore Elizabeth D. Samet's inspiring reflections on literature and the education of America's future warriors.

About This Book


A decade ago, Elizabeth D. Samet began teaching English at the United States Military Academy at West Point after completing her doctorate at Yale University.  She encountered stark contrasts and surprising similarities between the two campuses, but nothing fully prepared her for the experience of watching her students and colleagues deploy to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other turbulent corners of the ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

This is a powerful and introspective book that will appeal to many people in many different ways.

If you've always wondered what goes on behind the hallowed halls of a military academy, you'll like getting a glimpse into what the life of a cadet is.

If you have a loved one serving in the military, you'll read this with renewed interest and perhaps find yourself packing something extra in the boxes from home. You'll like the chapter "Books are Weapons".

If you are a teacher of English, or any subject for that matter, you'll appreciate the challenge Samat faces in making her content relevant.

If you are a history buff, you'll enjoy the references to our country's leaders in connection with West Point—Adams, Jefferson, George Washington, Sherman and Grant, to name a few.

If you are philosophical, you'll be given much to ponder with specific references to the works of Shakespeare, Aristotle, William Golding and Plutarch. As did one cadet, who was skeptical of the value of literature for a soldier until he came across the words "hope springs eternal" in Pope's "Essay on Man". From these three words he deduced that "perhaps hoping for the best even in the face of eternity is what sets humanity apart."   (Reviewed by Vy Armour).

Full Review Members Only (550 words).

Media Reviews

Boston Globe - Barbara Fisher

I finished the book with gratitude, because here was an original, unique and humane point of view I had seldom encountered.

Chicago Tribune

Strong, deeply articulate . . . Samet has been an English professor at the officers' academy for a decade, and her worldview is steeped in literature, a single paragraph touching on the works of Sigmund Freud, Heinrich von Kleist, Toni Morrison, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Wilfred Owen -- and filmmaker Michael Cimino. But here she also acts as an anthropologist, doing field work in the heart of an exotic society largely unknown to so many of us . . . I hope her work finds its way to more than a few Capitol Hill nightstands.

The New York Times - Robert Pinsky

To her great credit, Samet does not draw easy conclusions in Soldier's Heart. By writing a thoughtful, attentive, stereotype-breaking book about her 10 years as a civilian teacher of literature at the Military Academy, she offers a significant perspective on the crucial social and political force of honor: a principle of behavior at the intersection of duty and imagination.

The Washington Post - John Beckman

Soldier's Heart is an exhilarating read. It seats you in the classroom of a feisty professor who commands several fronts with easy expertise: classic film, ancient Greece, Shakespearean tragedy, modern poetry. And it seats you elbow-to-elbow with an elite crop of students whose intelligence and imagination match their courage.

Publishers Weekly

Samet is prone to digressions that break the flow of great stories, like an account of her West Point job interview. But this meditation on war, teaching and literature is sympathetic, shrewd and sometimes profound.

Library Journal - Shedrick Pittman-Hassett

In a time when words like patriotism and sacrifice are tossed about with alarming casualness, Samet offers an illuminating exploration of what these terms mean to the modern soldier.

Reader Reviews

Nona

Elizabeth Samet, Soldier's Heart
When Elizabeth Samet’s mother tells friends that her daughter teaches English at West Point, it is not unusual for them to reply, “You mean they read?” Though not as naïve or cynical as that about education at West Point, I found that I knew ...   Read More

Joe

Well Written and Thoughtful.
I'm not sure what I expected when I started reading this book but was pleasantly surprised at what I found. This is not just a book about teaching poetry but about how the study of literature helps young military officers to become thoughtful, ...   Read More

Carol

Literature, soldiers and war
As a retired Army officer, who did not attend West Point, this book made me proud to be an Army officer. Dr. Samet allows the reader a glimpse into the rigors and variety of academic life at West Point. I wish I had had the opportunity to experience ...   Read More

Nona

Elizabeth Samet, Soldier's Heart
When Elizabeth Samet’s mother tells friends that her daughter teaches English at West Point, it is not unusual for them to reply, “You mean they read?” Though not as naïve or cynical as that about education at West Point, I found that I knew ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Taking Books Into Battle

  • Many great leaders have found solace in literature. Alexander the Great kept the Iliad under his pillow. James Wolfe, commander of British troops in the French and Indian War, carried Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" with him to Quebec.

  • The two men who authorized the founding of the United States Military Academy, Adams and Jefferson, were keen on instilling a sense of civic responsibility as well a technical precision in its graduates. Jefferson saw an avenue to liberty and virtue through the study of science while Adams tended to look to history.

  • The American Civil War was the first in which literacy was widespread throughout the force. During World War I, ...

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