"Where Do We Go from Here?": Ernest Hemingway's "Soldier's Home" and American Veterans of World War I (1)

Article excerpt

Criticism on Ernest Hemingway's "Soldier's Home" has emphasized the story's autobiographical dimension; however, the story also examines the problems encountered by a group to which Hemingway did not actually belong: the combat veterans of the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.). Hemingway's title, a play on the term "soldiers' home," evokes the Veterans' Bureau scandal of 1923, an event that symbolizes the mistreatment of Americans who fought in the Great War. Krebs's service in the casualty-ridden Second Division and the story's setting in rural Oklahoma (a region that contributed relatively few soldiers to the A.E.F.'s hardest-hit units) also contribute to the story's central theme--that in its post-war pursuit of normalcy, the United States had failed to provide a "home" for its most tested soldiers.

CRITICAL DISCUSSION OF ERNEST HEMINGWAY'S "Soldier's Home" has long emphasized the story's autobiographical dimension, the overt parallels between the Hemingway household in Oak Park, Illinois and the suffocating domestic environment endured, somewhere in Oklahoma, by the returning soldier, Harold Krebs.(1) As a result, it has almost become customary to connect Krebs's tortured relationship with his mother to Hemingway's own turbulent family background, and to locate in the narrative's sour depiction of small-town life a reflection of Hemingway's personal dissatisfaction with his Midwestern upbringing. Yet this emphasis on correspondences between Hemingway and Krebs, while effectively illuminating one level of meaning in the story, may lead us to overlook the fact that, with great insight and empathy, "Soldier's Home" also examines the problems encountered by a group to which Hemingway did not actually belong: namely, the combat veterans of the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.).

This essay, then, approaches Hemingway's story not as an account of its creator's personal experiences, disguised as fiction, but as a reflection of post-World War I American veterans' issues. In other words, I will argue that "Soldier's Home" contains, in addition to its broad portraiture of lost-generation angst, a more specific topicality not readily apparent to readers today. Such an interpretation requires both an understanding of the mistreatment endured by many former servicemen in the early 1920s and an awareness of how the details of Krebs's war experience--his unit designation, length of service, assignment to the Army of Occupation in Germany, and so on--contribute to the narrative's ironic themes. Thus, my analysis falls into two sections. The first sets Krebs's alienation against the backdrop of the Veterans' Bureau scandal of 1923 (an event that Hemingway's story, especially its title, may well have evoked in the minds of readers in 1925) and then briefly outlines the economic, social, and psychological hardship that many American veterans endured during the 1920s. The second argues that Hemingway uses Krebs's service in the Marine Brigade of the Second Division, which suffered more casualties than any other unit in the A.E.F., to stress the widely varying levels of exposure to combat experienced by American soldiers on the Western Front--a factor that tended to interfere with postwar understanding of the United States's four million veterans.

My assertion that Hemingway's story describes frustrations specific to the returning soldiers of the A.E.F. may seem far-fetched until one considers that the very title of the story--a play on the term "soldiers' home"--establishes the issue of America's responsibilities toward its former soldiers and, if interpreted ironically, implicitly charges the nation with failing to provide for its veterans all that the notion of "home" entails. Coined in the mid-19th century, perhaps by Florence Nightingale, the term "soldiers' home" originally referred to a kind of recreation hall, one presumably created through charity, where soldiers could, according to Elizabeth Gaskell in 1860, "read, play games, [and] write letters" ("Soldiers' home" Oxford English Dictionary def. …