Virtually everyone has heard of Ernest Hemingway. But you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who knows of Ellen N. La Motte.
She is the extraordinary World War I nurse who wrote like Hemingway before Hemingway. She was arguably the originator of his famous style – the first to write about World War I using spare, understated, declarative prose.
Long before Hemingway published “A Farewell to Arms” in 1929 – long before he even graduated high school and left home to volunteer as an ambulance driver in Italy – La Motte wrote a collection of interrelated stories titled “The Backwash of War.”
Published in the fall of 1916, as the war advanced into its third year, the book is based upon La Motte’s experience working at a French field hospital on the Western Front.
“There are many people to write you of the noble side, the heroic side, the exalted side of war,” she wrote. “I must write you of what I have seen, the other side, the backwash.”
“The Backwash of War” was immediately banned in England and France for its criticism of the ongoing war. Two years and multiple printings later – after being hailed as “immortal” and America’s greatest work of war writing – it was deemed damaging to morale and also censored in wartime America.
For nearly a century, it languished in obscurity. But now, an expanded version of this lost classic that I’ve edited has just been published. Featuring the first biography of La Motte, it will hopefully give La Motte the attention she deserves.
Horrors, not heroes
In its time, “The Backwash of War” was, simply put, incendiary.
As one admiring reader explained in July 1918, “There is a corner of my book-shelves which I call my ‘T N T’ library. Here are all the literary high explosives I can lay my hands on. So far there are only five of them.” “The Backwash of War” was the only one by a woman and also the only one by an American.
In most of the era’s wartime works, men willingly fought and died for their cause. The characters were brave, the combat romanticized.
Not so in La Motte’s stories. Rather than focus on World War I’s heroes, she emphasized its horrors. And the wounded soldiers and civilians she presents in “The Backwash of War” are fearful of death and fretful in life.
Filling the beds of the field hospital, they are at once grotesque and pathetic. There is a soldier slowly dying from gas gangrene. Another suffers from syphilis, while one patient sobs and sobs because he does not want to die. A 10-year-old Belgian boy is fatally shot through the abdomen by a fragment of German artillery shell and bawls for his mother.
War, to La Motte, is repugnant, repulsive and nonsensical.
The volume’s first story immediately sets the tone: “When he could stand it no longer,” it begins, “he fired a revolver up through the roof of his mouth, but he made a mess of it.” The soldier is transported, “cursing and screaming,” to the field hospital. There, through surgery, his life is saved but only so that he can later be court-martialed for his suicide attempt and killed by a firing squad.
After “The Backwash of War” was published, readers quickly recognized that La Motte had invented a bold new way of writing about war and its horrors. The New York Times reported that her stories were “told in sharp, quick sentences” that bore no resemblance to conventional “literary style” and delivered a “stern, strong preachment against war.”
The Detroit Journal noted she was the first to draw “the real portrait of the ravaging beast.” And the Los Angeles Times gushed, “Nothing like [it] has been written: it is the first realistic glimpse behind the battle lines… Miss La Motte has described war – not merely war in France – but war itself.”
La Motte and Gertrude Stein
La Motte and Stein – both middle-aged American women, writers and lesbians – were already friends at the start of the war. Their friendship deepened during the first winter of the conflict, when they were both living in Paris.
Despite the fact that they each had a romantic partner, Stein seems to have fallen for La Motte. She even wrote a “little novelette” in early 1915 about La Motte, titled “How Could They Marry Her?” It repeatedly mentions La Motte’s plan to be a war nurse, possibly in Serbia, and includes revealing lines such as “Seeing her makes passion plain.”
Without a doubt Stein read her beloved friend’s book; in fact, her personal copy of “The Backwash of War” is presently archived at Yale University.
Hemingway writes war
Ernest Hemingway wouldn’t meet Stein until after the war. But he, like La Motte, found a way to make it to the front lines.
In 1918, Hemingway volunteered as an ambulance driver and shortly before his 19th birthday was seriously injured by a mortar explosion. He spent five days in a field hospital and then many months in a Red Cross hospital, where he fell in love with an American nurse.
After the war, Hemingway worked as a journalist in Canada and America. Then, determined to become a serious writer, he moved to Paris in late 1921.
In the early 1920s Gertrude Stein’s literary salon attracted many of the emerging postwar writers, whom she famously labeled the “Lost Generation.”
Among those who most eagerly sought Stein’s advice was Hemingway, whose style she significantly influenced.
“Gertrude Stein was always right,” Hemingway once told a friend. She served as his mentor and became godmother to his son.
Much of Hemingway’s early writing focused on the recent war.
“Cut out words. Cut everything out,” Stein counseled him, “except what you saw, what happened.”
Very likely, Stein showed Hemingway her copy of “The Backwash of War” as an example of admirable war writing. At the very least, she passed along what she had learned from reading La Motte’s work.
Whatever the case, the similarity between La Motte’s and Hemingway’s styles is plainly evident. Consider the following passage from the story “Alone,” in which La Motte strings together declarative sentences, neutral in tone, and lets the underlying horror speak for itself.
“They could not operate on Rochard and amputate his leg, as they wanted to do. The infection was so high, into the hip, it could not be done. Moreover, Rochard had a fractured skull as well. Another piece of shell had pierced his ear, and broken into his brain, and lodged there. Either wound would have been fatal, but it was the gas gangrene in his torn-out thigh that would kill him first. The wound stank. It was foul.”
Now consider these opening lines from a chapter of Hemingway’s 1925 collection “In Our Time”:
“Nick sat against the wall of the church where they had dragged him to be clear of machine-gun fire in the street. Both legs stuck out awkwardly. He had been hit in the spine. His face was sweaty and dirty. The sun shone on his face. The day was very hot. Rinaldi, big backed, his equipment sprawling, lay face downward against the wall. Nick looked straight ahead brilliantly…. Two Austrian dead lay in the rubble in the shade of the house. Up the street were other dead.”
Hemingway’s declarative sentences and emotionally uninflected style strikingly resemble La Motte’s.
So why did Hemingway receive all of the accolades, culminating in a Nobel Prize in 1954 for the “influence he exerted on contemporary style,” while La Motte was lost to literary oblivion?
Was it the lasting impact of wartime censorship? Was it the prevalent sexism of the postwar era, which viewed war writing as the purview of men?
Whether due to censorship, sexism or a toxic combination of the two, La Motte was silenced and forgotten. It’s time to return “The Backwash of War” to its proper perch as a seminal example of war writing.
For many years, the Library of Congress categorized many of its books under a controversial subject heading: “Illegal aliens.”
But then, on March 22, 2016, the library made a momentous decision, announcing that it was canceling the subject heading “Illegal aliens” in favor of “Noncitizens” and “Unauthorized immigration.”
However, the decision was overturned a few months later, when the House of Representatives ordered the library to continue using the term “illegal alien.” They said they decided this in order to duplicate the language of federal laws written by Congress.
This was the first time Congress ever intervened over a Library of Congress subject heading change. Even though many librarians and the American Library Association opposed Congress’s decision, “Illegal aliens” remains the authorized subject heading today.
Cataloging and classification are critical to any library. Without them, finding materials would be impossible. However, there are biases that can result in patrons not getting the materials they need. I have worked in university libraries for over 20 years, and I’d like to highlight some issues of bias that you need to be aware of in order to find what you’re looking for.
How library catalogs work
The U.S. does not have an official national library. However, the Library of Congress fills this role on several fronts.
Many libraries across the U.S. adopt policies established by the Library of Congress, such as their call numbers and subjects for cataloging books. Its subject headings system is one of the most popular in the world.
Subjects are used to assign call numbers, so that items on similar topics are grouped together. An item will have only one call number, but it can have multiple subjects.
Using a specific system ensures consistency. For example, imagine how many variations of “William Shakespeare” you might have to search for if libraries did not use the authorized term “Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616.”
The ‘straight white American man’ assumption
In April 2018, I presented my research into issues of library bias in the Library of Congress Classification and Subject Headings at NCORE, the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education in New Orleans.
Today, when I search for subjects containing “women” or “men,” the results are unbalanced. There are 4,065 subject terms containing “women” and only 444 containing “men.”
One example of bias is subjects containing the word “astronauts.”
Women are designated with “Women astronauts” and “African American women astronauts,” but there is no subject heading for male astronauts. A book about astronauts who are men would have the general subject “Astronauts,” unless the racial identity prompted the use of a subject like “Hispanic American astronauts” or “Indian astronauts.” Likewise, a book about Russian astronauts would have a geographic subdivision added: “Astronauts – Soviet Union” instead of “Russian astronauts.”
Without gender, race or geographic qualifications, “Astronauts” can be assumed to mean white American men in terms of library subjects.
Another exercise I did was to search for professions that are traditionally perceived as female. Nurses, for example, were divided equitably, with subjects for both “Male nurses” and “Female nurses.” However, under “Prostitutes,” there was only a “Male prostitute” subject heading, revealing the generic assumption that most prostitutes are female.
This is not to say that there aren’t positive changes occurring. For example, in the late 1970s, “Afro-Americans” replaced “Negroes.” This was in turn replaced by “African Americans” or “Blacks” in 2000. In 2001, “People with mental disabilities” replaced “Mentally handicapped” and “Retarded persons.”
Gender identity is also an area where positive changes have been made. LGBT subjects have been distinguished and classed under “Sexual minorities” since 1972, rather than being under the subject “Sexual deviations,” as they previously were. “Sexual deviations” does not even exist as a subject heading anymore.
In December, the Library of Congress changed the broader term from “sexual minorities” to simply “persons,” in order to align with how other minorities are handled.
The classification dilemma
Many items cover multiple subjects, yet a single physical item can only be shelved in one location. Selecting a call number automatically devalues other subjects, but it must be done.
For example, take the book “Women of the Depression: Caste and Culture in San Antonio, 1929-1939.” Would you classify it under women’s history, Depression of 1929, Texas history or somewhere else?
Catalogers rely upon publisher-assigned subjects and summaries to help assign library subjects. These subjects, the Book Industry Standards and Communications codes, consist of 52 main categories, which are not as specific as Library of Congress subject headings. This can result in incorrect subjects being applied.
For example, I recently cataloged a book about basketball. The BISAC subject was “sports.” While it’s true that basketball is a sport, if I assigned “sports” as the main subject, it would be classed somewhere around GV704, but if I assigned the subject “basketball” it would be classed under GV885. Between these numbers, there could be books covering rules, the Olympics, equipment, air sports, water sports, winter sports and roller skating before the “Ball sports” starting with baseball. This difference could result in the patron not finding the book if browsing the shelves where the other basketball books are.
So the issue is that, by prioritizing certain subjects over one another, it might be more difficult for readers to find what they’re looking for. Women’s history books (HQ1121) may be far away from books about the Depression of 1929 (HB3713); therefore, someone looking for books about the Great Depression might not find the book she needed if it was classed in women’s history.
In my experience, catalogers try to be unbiased when applying subject headings and call numbers. But established subjects are created and adapted based on societal norms. If you can’t find what you need in your library, be aware that the term you use today might not be the term that was previously created. Ask your librarian for help.