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Keith Gandal
Keith Gandal

The Gun and The Pen

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News Release

Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

Soldier wannabes

Book by NIU English professor opens
new chapter on Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald

DeKalb, Ill. — Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald—we already know all there is to know about the trio of American literary giants, right?

Not so, says Northern Illinois University English Professor Keith Gandal. In his new book, “The Gun and the Pen: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and the Fiction of Mobilization,” newly released from Oxford University Press, Gandal identifies something all three authors had in common—a failed military career. And he offers up this shared background, as men frustrated not by the horrors of war but by their trivialized roles, as a motivating force behind some of their masterpieces.

“I didn't discover the biographies of these guys—they're all well known,” Gandal says. “But nobody has examined their works together in light of these shared military experiences. And nobody has examined their military frustrations in the context of a revolution in the Army's personnel policies during World War I. This dramatic transformation in the military is little known.”

In “The Gun and the Pen,” Gandal brings to light previously unexamined archival Army records, chronicling the unprecedented procedural changes that occurred in the military as the United States mobilized for World War I. During this time, the U.S. military instituted a system that, for everyone except African Americans, based rank and promotions on merit instead of class and privilege—a shift that helped destroy the hopes of Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald.

Hemingway and Faulkner—who both would later inflate their war records and even acquire bogus uniforms to pass themselves off as veterans—couldn't get commissions in the air corps because of physical disqualifications. Hemingway ended up joining a Red Cross ambulance unit and was famously wounded, albeit while delivering cigarettes and chocolate to troops. Faulkner joined the Canadian Royal Air Force but never saw combat.

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald did pass an officers' exam, but his military career stalled because of poor performance.

In light of these military experiences—or lack thereof—Gandal explores the central characters in Hemingway's “The Sun Also Rises,” Faulkner's “The Sound and the Fury” and Fitzgerald's “The Great Gatsby.” The postwar novels have strange similarities.

“It's almost like they have the same plot,” says Gandal, who has taught the books in English courses for many years at NIU.

“They feature similar love triangles. You have a central promiscuous Anglo female, an Anglo narrator who doesn't get the girl and a social outsider or ethnic American who does get the girl. I always felt that if I could look behind these books and see the historical context, then I would know why they had similar story lines.”

The military history of the authors helps to fill in the blanks, he says.

“The mournful tinge of these books is not about the loss of life during war, but about the loss of class privilege in light of the rise of meritocracy in the military,” Gandal says. “In some ways, the American military was very progressive in its treatment of ethnic minorities, the exception being its continued appalling discrimination against African Americans.”

In the past, critics have dismissed anti-Semitic and anti-ethnic comments and sequences in the works of these authors as a reflection of the prevailing attitudes of a xenophobic era. But Gandal argues that the passages were motivated by the authors' own prejudices against minorities who were able to achieve success in military ranks.

“They scapegoated ethnic Americans, and to a lesser degree demonized promiscuous Anglo women who slept with class outsiders who had military experience,” he says.

“These guys all felt emasculated,” Gandal adds. “Their disillusionment comes not from the horrors of war but from not experiencing the horrors of war.”

Professor Gandal lives in Chicago and has been teaching at NIU since 2000. He is also the author of “The Virtues of the Vicious: Jacob Riis, Stephen Crane and the Spectacle of the Slum” and “Class Representation in Modern Fiction and Film,” as well as a novel, “Cleveland Anonymous.”

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