Literature and History

Writing a preview of the Cheltenham Literature Festival, I suggested all History students should read literature.  I was remindeddispatchesof this today when I read the (belated – he died in June) obituary of Michael  Herr in The Guardian.  Herr’s book, Dispatches (1977), was one of the most powerful pieces of writing dealing with the war in Vietnam and provided the basis of one of the best Vietnam war films, Apocalypse Now.  Reflecting the “new Journalism” that emerged in the 1960s, Herr was in Vietnam as a reporter for Esquire magazine between 1967 and 1969. He didn’t just give facts but located himself in the narrative, reporting what he saw and conversations he had with the “grunts”, American GIs, and what he experienced, often in a stream of consciousness style of writing. Herr often just lets the men speak for themselves, thus providing voices for the ordinary soldier. But his style and language sums up much of the war and its pointlessness:  looking at a map of Vietnam he remarks “for years now there had been no country here but the war.”   A GI describes America’s role in the conflict:  “Vietnam, man. Bomb’em and feed ‘em, bomb ‘em and feed them.”

Vietnam was the rock n’roll war, a “headset war” – the soldiers went into conflict carrying tapes of Jimi Hendrix, the Animals, Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan  – the most popular song was the Animals “We Gotta Get Out of this Place”  but “Certain rock and roll would come in mixed with rapid fire and men screaming.”  When Herr was overcome by a flashback, his friend says it is nothing to worry about – “Just your nineteenth nervous breakdown.”   In the end Herr “couldn’t tell the Vietnam veterans from the rock and roll veterans. The Sixties had so many casualties, its war and its music had run power off the same circuit for so long they didn’t even have to fuse.” In a conversation with one soldier Herr is told simply “Patrol went up a mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened.”  Herr doesn’t tell us what happened, but what the experience of war felt like. As one reviewer said, “Michael Herr paid the men he encountered a substantial tribute by reporting the details as they would understand them.  Just the truth, no message.”   A must read for the History student.

Black History Month – Again?

You might wonder why Black History month is being celebrated again – assuming you knew! Well, this is the American celebration started initially by the African American historian Carter G. Woodson as Black History Week in 1926. February was chosen to coincide with the birthdays of the black abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln, and it became a month-long celebration in 1976. What is remembered in this month, and how Black History is presented, becomes increasingly problematic. It often seems to be little more than the celebration of great black men (and women) – usually a re-telling of the events leading up to the Montgomery bus boycott or an account of the life of Martin Luther King. Perhaps this is inevitable, but black history is also about the voiceless masses, the many who endured silently, or who resisted in a myriad of different ways – some of them cultural. Not all of this can be covered in a month – and to simply place black history (or women’s history for that matter) into a neatly measured time-span of a month, or week, is in itself absurd. By now black history should be incorporated into mainstream (white) history. Perhaps Black History month has had its day? Journalist Gary Younge has, as usual, something provocative to say on this subject –
Worth reading and thinking about whether in the USA or UK.