Haunting old bookstores and how I discovered a lost classic of WWI literature

BeforetheClangoroftheGun_cover_reduced

From Before the Clangor of the Gun:

“Of the countless times I have drawn a dusty old  book from a dim shelf in a used-bookstore during the past forty years or so, only once can I claim to have discovered an unknown classic of American literature. Not that I recognized it as such at the time. Not even now, on the eve of its re-publication by a university press, can its status as a lost classic be said to be a matter of general perception. But— I rush ahead of myself.  Let me begin at the beginning.

Ten minutes walking distance from our house in Morgantown, West Virginia, in the early 1990s, stood a two-story used-bookstore of the old style: several thousand worthy, out-of-print titles of history, literature, science, travel, art, music and the like, in a 19th-century brick storefront at the periphery of the old downtown, along a high embankment over-looking Decker’s Creek. There were no romances on its shelves, no self-help books, no celebrity autobiographies, no junk. Very few paperbacks. No helpful salespeople or progressive muzak to endure, no Starbucks, free wifi, best-seller displays or any other such irritating “amenities.’  It was still in that golden, Arcadian, pre-digital age, with well-worn overstuffed chairs in out-of-way corners, a foot-stool and ladder for the high shelves and a dozing cat on the window-seat. A few dozen bins of paper ephemera, and shallow drawers of old prints and maps. If you wished to come in for two or three hours of undisturbed browsing, not a single soul would say a word to you. Or if you were in the mood for some wayward, discursive, off-beat conversation about books or any other subject under the sun, the old gent behind the counter was generally good for it— at least until the dawn of the computer age when every bookseller in the country was abruptly faced with the necessity of putting his entire stock online. As soon as that happened, the conversation dried up. The colorful old codger behind the desk was reduced to a sullen automaton jabbing a keyboard and endlessly cursing. Once computers arrived, like an alien invasion, the old havens of dust and suspended time, of relaxed and literate conversation, were facing the sunset.

I describe all this because it was the setting for my discovery. By the early 1990s I had been reading the poets of the First World War seriously for a quarter of a century— poetry, biographies and criticism—and had a personal library of over a hundred volumes just about the poetry of the war. It was part of a much larger library which filled my office (dubbed “the Dugout” by my wife) in which every square inch of wall space from floor to ceiling, and even covering the windows, was hung with equipment from the war: helmets, gas masks, cartridge belts, canteens, and even a Model 1917 McClellan saddle, as well as rusted barbed wire, rifle barrels, shell casings, bayonets, forks, tin cups and other relics dug from French woodlands and fields. But most of all the walls were covered with books on nearly every aspect of the war: Western Front, Eastern Front, Homefront, Mesopotamia, the Balkans, Africa and Italy— books on the ground war, sea war and air war. There were books on movements against the war, and on John Reed and the Russian Revolution. But it was the literature and art of the First World War which fascinated me most of all, especially the poetry.

So I remember very well the afternoon that I pulled a certain thin volume off a high shelf in Wolf’s Head Books. I had been over their WWI section more times than I could count and had looked into each book in that section with some care. Every WWI title that came into my hands was a title I considered buying and, never having sufficient funds for all the books I needed, I took my time looking each one over as a prospective purchase. I knew, or thought I knew, every title in that section. I was doing research for a book about my grandfather’s unit in France in 1918, and was especially eager to add more American titles to my working library. But beyond that particular project, I was still intently focused on the poetry of the war, and on that day I found an American poet of WWI that I had never even heard of.

wyeth1

          It was a thin black book with faded spine and lettering worn off, which is probably why I had passed over it until then. (picture to left shows copy with dust jacket).  From the moment I opened it, I was intrigued. I had never heard of John Allan Wyeth, or his book, This Man’s Army, but that in itself was not too unusual. I had turned up dozens of nondescript volumes of American war poems, published in small runs by obscure publishers, and even more often self-published. It was a time in history when poetry was enormously popular, and when amateur poets from all classes and backgrounds were as numerous as leaves in a forest. The number of books of war poems published during and immediately after the war was immense, and I had never failed to discover one or two new ones with each passing year. So holding another such book in my hands was not especially noteworthy. But my first skim through the book told me I had found something unusual. For one thing, it was a sizeable collection of individual poems, and they were all located in France, during the war, with place-names for titles and in chronological order. No other book of war poetry I could think of employed such a systematic and documentary arrangement. It was laid out like a soldier’s diary. I scanned the list of French towns and place-names, and as soon as I saw Chipilly Ridge I guessed that the poet had been with the American 33rd Division. Later investigation would bear this out.

What caught my attention most of all was that the entire book was a single sonnet sequence. I had been interested in sonnet sequences for a number of years, as it happened, and had only recently completed a sequence of fourteen sonnets describing my grandfather’s experiences at Belleau Wood. Wyeth’s sequence, however, was over fifty sonnets long and, reading through just a few of them at random, indicated that not only were they highly skilled, but unusually innovative as well. What was most exciting was that they were written, not in an elevated, formal tone, but in a cool, concise, dispassionate voice, spiced with slangy soldiers’ dialogue, French villagers’ patois, and filled with as many small particulars of life at the front as any of the finest soldier-diaries I had read.”


BJ Omanson

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