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This essay argues that literary authors generally resisted the glorifying impulse that designated World War II “the Good War,” including importantly those authors who were part of this generation. Literary texts did pay tribute to those who fought against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, or showed the courage, determination, and fortitude that the military effort entailed. These texts also showcased the deprivation on the home front, and the ways in which women and African Americans contributed to the war. However, while literary texts have inspired movies and television scripts that support the “Good War” narrative, war poetry and prose consistently emphasize the complexity, horror, and absurdity of World War II. The most enduring literary works nuanced or negated the master narrative of “Greatest Generation” and “The Good War,” even before these were coined.
This essay considers the literary and, more broadly, cultural memory of World War II in the later Cold War years. It contends that the ideals associated with patriotism, nationalism, and globalism, while often colliding and contradictory, were not just rivals in the discourse of the era but divisions of affiliation within the everyday citizen’s outlook toward self and world, within the ideological braid that commentators referred to as one’s multivalent “character structure.” The various guiding logics of that knotted cluster would come to be called Cold War liberalism. Its outlook valorizes both an inward-turning retreat into radical individualism on the level of the atomistic, autotelic self arrayed, and against a pugnacious outlying dimension – cosmic in scale, physical and metaphysical – of tragic and unchanging global conditions: the epistemological stasis of the Cold War’s “containment” rationale.
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