Course on War in Modern Literature to be Offered for Summer Session

Although General William T. Sherman famously remarked, “War is all hell,” the subject, nonetheless, has been fertile ground for some of the world’s greatest literature. To that end, the depiction of armed conflict in modern literature will be the topic of a 2012 summer session course at CMC.

War in Modern Literature, a course to be taught by CMC professor of literature Nick Warner, will emphasize the tension between idealism and disillusionment that, according to Warner, marks most modern writing on war.

“We we will also explore other themes, including leadership, ethical behavior in war, the meanings of courage and cowardice, loyalty and the causes and consequences of war,” he says.

The course will begin with short fiction by Leo Tolstoy, based on his own wartime experience. We will also read literature of the American Civil War, examining works by Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Stephen Crane, and by lesser-known authors from both the North and South. The syllabus will then turn to a selection of works dealing with World War I, World War II, and Vietnam, with some attention during the final week to depictions of the conflict in Iraq.

Professor Warner received his bachelor’s degree from Stanford and his M.A and Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. He is also a five-time recipient of the Glenn R. Huntoon Teaching Award, and two-time recipient of the G. David Huntoon Senior Teaching Award.

We caught Professor Warner during some rare downtime between classes, and fired some point-blank questions about his War in Modern Literature class.

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CMC: What can students learn from the genre of war in literature?
Warner: Three great 20th century writersErnest Hemingway, Isaak Babel and Vassily Grossmanwere war correspondents who knew how to write about war in objective, factual terms. But all of them wrote fiction as a way of expressing more fully their sense of the lived reality of war, of the physical, emotional and psychological dimensions of war.

Literature can make us more aware of these dimensions, even if we have never experienced war ourselves, and can never hope to understand it in the way that those who have experienced it do. Moreover, many observers have noted that war evokes extremes of compassion and cruelty; in the literature of war we find writers depicting these extremes, and exploring some of the noblest and some of the most degraded instances of human behavior. In this way, literature raises profound questions not only about the nature of war but also about what it means to be humanand what it means to be inhuman. These are some of the things that students can learn from the literature of war.

CMC: One would think that male students might be more attracted to the genre than female students. Do you find that to be true?
Warner: Not really. I have taught versions of this course three timesonce with equal enrollments of men and women, and twice where male students only slightly outnumbered female students (11 men to 8 women and 9 men to 8 women).

CMC: What is your personal favorite war-related work of literature?

Warner: For me, The Iliad remains unsurpassed. Beyond that my admiration extends to many works of fiction, drama, poetry, and film that deal with war. If I had to name favorites, I would begin with Tolstoy’s short stories and, of course, War and Peace; Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage; and the absolutely amazing, disturbingly beautiful stories in Babel’s Red Cavalry.

CMC: What is your favorite war film based on a novel or non-fiction work?
Warner: I don’t have a favorite film based on a novel, but I do have a favorite war film: Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion. I admire the way that this profoundly moving, artistically compelling work weaves together so many different themes in relation to war: duty, social class, nationality and nationalism, self-sacrifice, comradeship, death. It’s a powerful and timeless film.

CMC: In your opinion, what does it take to be a “superior” teacher?
Warner: There are many different ways of being successful in the classroom. A lot depends on the training and personality of the instructor, the material, and the mix of students. But in general I believe that good teaching entails mastery of the subject; enthusiasm; fairness; clarity of communication; and a blend of intellectual rigor and compassion. Those are the qualities that I have seen in the teachers I admire most.

For more information about courses offered through CMC’s Summer Session (May 21-June 29) visit the official Summer Session website.