Reading and Writing Communities in the Trenches 1914-1918 (France and Italy)

In 1916, Emilio Lussu was fighting with the Sassari brigade on Italy's Austrian front. In his memoirs, written much later, he recalled his war- time reading: Orlando Furioso, Les F/eurs du Mal and a book on birds. In 1916 Lussu was a young man of 25 and not yet the celebrated author he was later to become; but he was an officer and an educated man with a law degree and erudite tastes. He felt the cultural distance between himself and the ordinary soldiers of his brigade, made up largely of Sardinian peasants. He was the only one reading and the only one drinking cognac (Lussu 124-25). From the officers' perspective, the First World War was indeed a literary war, but what of the reading and writing of other ranks? Paul Fussell's well-known study The Great War and Modern Memory (1977) had the merit of focusing on the cultural dimensions of the war, but its discussion of literary material was largely confined to the educated officer elite, obscuring the literacy practices of ordinary soldiers. This preference for upper-class source material has not significantly changed. Nicolas Mariot ('Avec qui on ecrit') has shown that French historians turn again and again to a restricted group of published war memoirs, notebooks or novels, and that lower-class authors enjoy minority status within this small repertoire. What clearly emerges is the narrowness and elitist nature of the witnesses privileged by historians.

Since Fussell's classic contribution, the cultural history of the First World War has produced a rich and substantial body of work, and this remains true even if we set aside the flood of works on memory and mourning, which seemed to have at last exhausted itself until the centenary of 1914 saw a new surge. Eric Leed's influential work drew on anthropology and psychoanalysis to examine the soldier's mental alienation.

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Published 1 October 2014 in Reading Communities and the Circulation of Print. Subjects: French Literature and writers, Italian Literature and writers, Reading, War, World War I.

Cite as: Lyons, Martyn. ‘Reading and Writing Communities in the Trenches 1914-1918 (France and Italy).’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 29, no. 3, 2014.