Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Soldier's Heart

Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point
Elizabeth D. Samet
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Why read it? The title of the book, Soldier’s Heart, refers to the symptoms of heart disease that appear in soldiers with post-traumatic disorders. They do not have physical heart disease. They do have a disease of the feeling, human heart.

The author, a female English teacher at West Point, who obviously has a close relationship with the institution and its students reveals much of what it is like to attend West Point—the rituals, the language, the culture of the military. Many of these details make fascinating reading.

Her subject, English, is out of keeping with the rest of the military training that makes up the cadets’ day. But the cadets’ interaction with the literature and the films to which she exposes them, is thoughtful, relating their lives and careers to the ideas of what they read and view. And it is a wide and varied range of literature and film that she uses.

So much of what she writes about is her interpretation of the institution and its training. The reader is taken inside its walls to view the scene from the point of view of the outsider who has willingly agreed to become an insider. She philosophizes about the psychology of the cadet, the duality of obedience and critical thought. She tries to reconcile the contradictions of the military mind. She deals with the many issues of what happens when free Americans volunteer to join the military.

As I read the book, looking for interactions with literature and life, I sometimes longed to be back in the classroom, but would I be allowed to create a culture that encouraged the personal relationship with literature as she was able to do? She taught the skills of reading literature, but she says little about explication, the isolated view of interpreting literature’s language and structure with no reference to the reader’s personality and experience. Throughout the book she refers to literary works that show the range of works she has read. One of her favorite authors, however, is General Ulysses S. Grant. In his books, he reflects thoughtfully on the military life. She not only teaches books, but she demonstrates what she has learned from them.

In my opinion, this interaction between literature and life is the only important reason for teaching literature. And it was the main reason for my purchasing this book. I was not disappointed. The author quotes from literary works and describes the responses of her students to literary works both in class and after graduation, including from the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The book strikes me as being somewhat like Moby Dick. In a way Moby Dick is about whaling, but that certainly is not the theme, which is the effect of one man’s obsession on those whom he leads. This book is about literature and its effects on the Cadets, but it is also about West Point and the life of the military and the effects of those institutions on the Cadets.

The author has her own agenda that has nothing to do with the theme of the book, the effects of literature on West Point cadets and graduates. For example she spends considerable time on the treatment of detainees during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. While I agree with the position of the soldier she quotes on equating treatment of the detainees to the domestic treatment of prisoners in the States, it really has nothing to do with the effects of literature on the West Point cadet and graduate. Her agenda is larger than the stated theme of the book: “Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point.”

One of the interesting characteristics of her writing and teaching is the ways she can interrelate literary works from different eras and places. Truly impressive. She is an eclectic reader who can join the most disparate works by applying them to her themes with her cadets.

In the last chapter she reflects on how young the cadets are and the contrast with what waits for them after they graduate. But she has helped them to think about life and war through her reading literature with them.

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