Women Writers of World War I. Interview with Margaret R. Higonnet

We are very pleased to host here below an interview with Margaret R. Higonnet, professor of English and Comparative Literature at University of Connecticut, Storrs. Our starting point is Lines of Fire. Women Writers of World War I, a very rich book she published in 1999.

Q: What was your main purpose when you started writing Lines of Fire. Women Writers of World War I?
A (MRH): When I decided to edit a collection of women’s texts about World War I, I was motivated in good part by my desire to write about some of these works and share their power. In order to reach my audience, I needed to make a group of those texts available. While certain major authors such as Virginia Woolf and Vera Brittain in England, or Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and  Katherine Anne Porter in America were readily available, even famous authors such as Colette or Anna Akhmatova were harder for an Anglophone audience to track down. At the time, little work had been done to reprint women’s writings about the Great War. Among feminist critics, Jane Marcus, Claire Tylee, and Nosheen Khan had focused on English and American writers. As a comparatist, I was eager to bring to light those who wrote in other languages. While I wanted to include better known writers, I also was eager to include new names. Luckily, I could use the old card catalogue at Harvard’s Widener library, and call up books from the deposit library that had not been read for decades--not since they were first bought by librarians or donated by Harvard alumni in the years following the war. One of my favorite finds was a small selection of wartime issues from Anna Kuliscioff’s La difesa delle lavoratrici, which was lying on metal shelving in Harvard’s Littauer library. It was the only copy mentioned in the Library of Congress World Cat bibliography. Articles had been snipped out, perhaps even before the paper was acquired by Harvard. There I found the typical mix of material published in a women’s journal: political articles and poems, as well as advertisements.
Part of my interest in the project arose from the question, “What is a war text?” When Jean Norton Cru wrote his famous overview, Témoins (1929), which weighed the veracity of war memoirs and fiction, it never occurred to him that women might have anything to say about the matter. “War” meant “combat.” The underlying issue was whether a civilian population (whether female or male, adult or child) encountering war right on their doorstep might have “authentic” (and significant) experiences to recount. Should the record of a “total” war include the dramatic changes in women’s labor that had been precipitated, whether on farms, in factories, or in medical units on hospital trains? As it happens, the Great War was marked by the institutionalization of women soldiers on the Eastern Front, but their record had been largely forgotten, since the Russian Revolution and postwar political upheavals had refocused attention on other historical events.
At the same time, I belong to a generation of critics for whom the lines between “literary” texts and other kinds of discourse had been redrawn. Autobiographies were being reconsidered from aesthetic rather than historical perspectives. Critics reached back to a broader definition of “literature” that predated Immanuel Kant. Students of oral history had begun to interview women as well as men—and I was able to profit from the generosity of the historian Melvin E. Page, who sent me copies of interviews he had done in Malawi in 1973, but never used. Thus when I cast my net, I found myself reaching into territory that was largely unknown to me. Without the help of scholars like Page or translators like Ellen Elias-Bursac, I could never have put together this anthology. 

Katherine Anne Porter
Q: Could you briefly illustrate the structure of this book?
A (MRH): One historian recommended that I organize the selections by the proximity of their authors to the battlefront, a principle that would have reinforced the conventional focus on combat as the defining feature of war. Instead I followed a map of different kinds of public and private discourse to which women turned, at a time when their voices might have been repressed by traditional attitudes or censorship. My coeditors for Behind the Lines, Sonya Michel and Jane Jensen, urged me to include important political and historical texts. Political examples would be Klara Zetkin’s August 5, 1914, call for a mass protest by German workers against the war; the invitation by Dr. Aletta Jacobs to women to attend the International Congress of Women held at The Hague in April 1915, to urge the warring nations to use continuous negotiation in order to achieve peace; and the testimony of Hélène Brion at her trial for pacifist activities, considered to be treasonous. My first criterion of selection was a combination of historical significance and rhetorical power; I read one hundred pages for each page I included—and my editor at Penguin forced a further reduction, completely eliminating the genre of women’s drama and many of the images. By serendipity, I discovered that my five groupings of political texts, journalism, testimony (including diaries, memoirs, letters and interviews), short fiction, and elegiac poems corresponded roughly to five groups of women’s images, which range from political posters, to children’s literature, photographic documents, artistic lithographs and engravings, and memorial sculpture. 

Amy Lowell
Q: Different types of writing, this is the leitmotiv of your book. So not only poetry, but diaries, medical accounts, journalism etc. Is there a genre where the contribution of women writing is more meaningful according to your standpoint? If so, why?
A (MRH): You are quite right that the volume offers a broad spectrum of texts that address different kinds of audiences, in different voices, often hortatory, and sometimes in favor of war but most often opposed to it. One kind of meaning exposed is the gap between the responses by men and women; thus Zetkinand her female socialist colleagues opposed the war, while the German socialists in the Reichstag voted for the war credits. Another is the significance of the female body in wartime, both as a physical object of rape and as a political symbol. Women’s testimony brings their neglected experiences to the foreground. But from my own standpoint, the texts to which I keep returning are remarkable artistic responses to the impact of war, many of them written by women who had actually served in medical units. Some of my favorites are Mary Borden’s “Moonlight,” which explicitly describes the night-time dynamo of a hospital where sexual identities have been erased by cruel wounds; Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu’s “The Man Whose Heart They Could See,” which confronts a beating heart exposed by the slice of a shell across a man’s chest; or Gertrud Kolmar’s “November 9, ‘Eighteen,” which points toward the nostalgia for war that would erupt in the 1930s. A succinctly intense poetic form distinguishes the brilliance of Anna Akhmatova’s “Prayer” to God, to accept her sacrifice of all she holds dear, in order to halt the war. A two-line imagist description by Amy Lowell of a butterfly on a cannon projects the possibility of a peacefire, foreshadowing the conclusion of the movie, All Quiet on the Western Front. And the Malawi lament sung by Olivia Tambala poses the most important question we can ask: Why? 

Q: Finally, could you kindly share the titles of other studies on the topic? Thank you.
A (MRH): Probably my best known text about World War I is an essay I co-authored with my historian husband, Patrice Higonnet, entitled “The Double Helix,” in Behind the Lines. There we argued that in spite of women’s entry into new economic, social, and even military roles during the war, often replacing men who had previously held those positions, gender hierarchies tend to be reproduced. Recent work includes Margaret Hall’s Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country, 1918 – 1919 (2014), where I juxtapose the verbal narrative of a memoir with a visual narrative. Less familiar studies that I enjoyed writing might include "Civil Wars and Sexual Territory" in Arms and the Woman, edited by Helen Cooper, et al (1989), “The Great War and the Female Elegy,” which appeared in The Global South (2007), and “War Toys: Breaking and Remaking in Great War Narratives,” in The Lion and the Unicorn (2007), as well as “Child Witnesses: The Cases of World War I and Darfur,” in PMLA (2006). Outside the terrain of the war, I’ve enjoyed working on the relationships between words and images, as in a short essay, “Music Albums: A Tiny Gesamtkunstwerk” in Arcadia, ed. Mieke Bal (2003), as well as on the topic of suicide, for example, in “Frames of Female Suicide,” in Studies in the Novel (2000).