English 2013: Introduction to American Literature
Assignment Fourteen-- Conflict and War

Claude McKay

The thematic focus of the literature that we are examining in assignment fourteen is war and conflict.

This assignment asks you to read nine twentieth-century poems: one by Carl Sandburg, two by Claude McKay, two by E.E. Cummings, two by Randall Jarrell, one by Robert Lowell, one by Ysef Komunyakaa, and one by Louise Erdrich.

Claude McKay was born in Jamaica and was influenced by the British Victorian literature he was exposed to there. McKay emmigrated to the United States. Although he employs a traditional sonnet form in "America" and "The Lynching," he expresses militant opposition to the racism of his adopoted home. His sonnet "If We Must Die" was published by Max Eastman in the Liberator in 1919 as a reaction to the violence of that "Red Summer," and some critics see it as the beginning of the literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. The Claude McKay pages prepared on the Modern American Poetry wesbsite provide biographical information, discussions of McKay's "If We Must Die" and "The Lynching" as well as historical information related to McKay's life and poetry.

Carl Sandburg, who served in the army during the Spanish-American War, was an active socialist from the Midwest who celebrated the workingman and criticized the ruling class. His poem "Grass," which references famous battlefields from four wars, muses on the aftermath of World War I and what the tragic loss of life meant.

E. E. Cummings

E. E. Cummings' poems "next to of course god america i" and "i sing of Olaf glad and big" reflect his own experience of World War I. An early volunteer, who joined the conflict the day after the U.S. entered the war, Cummings's open criticism of the military bureaucracy landed him in a French prison. These poems display Cummings' outrage at empty patriotism and the brutal suppression of dissent that has frequently occurred during times of conflict. The E. E. Cummings site compiled by Michael Benzel for Modern American Poetry offers discussions of both of the assigned poems as well as biographical information.

Randall Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" and "Second Air Force" reflect his experience in World War II as an army pilot. In the first, short poem, Jarrell uses an extended metaphor of the gunner being like a foetus in its mother's womb to emphasize the youthful innocence of the men who fought and too often died. In the second, longer poem, Jarrell sees the boyish pilots through the eyes of one pilot's mother. In the end she is "bewildered" by what see sees and fears, but the "made beasts" of the soldiers are "unquestioning." The Randall Jarrell pages for Modern American Poetry were created by Edward Brummer.

Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell tried to enlist in the navy during World War II, but after refusing to be drafted into the army and speaking out against U.S. war policies, he was imprisoned for a year. "For the Union Dead," does not concern World War II. Instead it draws a comparison between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The poem contrasts the idealism of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw's leadership of an African-American regiment (a story told in the film Glory) with the contemporary apathy toward the ongoing struggle for racial justice. The Robert Lowell website prepared by Michael Thurston for Modern American Poetry offers analysis on "For the Union Dead," biographical information, and a photograph of the bas-relief sculpture that is described in the poem.

Louise Erdrich grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, a Chippewa whose parents taught in a Bureau of Indian Affairs school. Erdrich's novels and poetry center around the culture and history of High Plains Indians. In works such as the poem "Dear John Wayne" Erdrich exoplores the ongoing cultural conflict between native American peoples and the dominant society.

updated: June 15, 2018