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While wartime literature and popular culture frequently casts US soldiers as icons of fitness, few return from combat physically or mentally unscathed. This essay explores the cultural history of American warfare through the lens of disability studies (DS). Framed as a series of test cases, this essay shows how American culture (novels, poetry, film) both highlights and masks the experiences of disabled combatants, during wartime and after. Writers, filmmakers, and others have used tropes of disability to criticize American society and foreign policy. This essay highlights related topics, from the use of disability in wartime propaganda to the ways American culture fosters a hierarchical understanding of disability – celebrating some types of injury (e.g., physical wounds) while denigrating others (e.g., mental injuries). A DS approach allows us to see war in a new way – less as a singular event and more as a series of interwoven processes that affect combatants long after ceasefire.
A great deal of critical attention has been paid to naturalism in fiction, not as much has been paid to the movement's impact on poetry, perhaps in part because naturalist poets themselves appeared most successful in other genres, especially fiction and social science. The most important and influential American naturalist poets, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edwin Markham and Stephen Crane, were writing for a popular press, with the line between muckraking journalism and poetry at times significantly blurred. Gilman's politics build on a foundational naturalism: while individuals are controlled by their environment, she also believes that that environment is susceptible to change. Also like Gilman, Markham became widely famous for a single blockbuster poem. Crane's naturalism is on full display, as his speaker finds himself in a world where man is beast, caught in a jungle that allows for no comfort in any guiding light.
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