The Twin Passions of Samuel Hynes

By Coyne, John R. | The American Conservative, July-August 2018 | Go to article overview

The Twin Passions of Samuel Hynes


Coyne, John R., The American Conservative


On War and Writing, Samuel Hynes, University of Chicago Press, 215 pages

Samuel Hynes, Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature emeritus at Princeton and a decorated Marine pilot who flew in both World War II and Korea, is author of numerous books, articles, essays, and reviews, all written in easy, natural, and elegant prose. Among his well-received books are The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World and Flights of Passage: Recollections of a World War II Aviator.

In On War and Writing, a collection of pieces written over the years, the common subject is war--specifically the two world wars fought in the 20th century, as experienced by "young men who fought and civilians who only imagined," and the men and women who wrote about them. "Those great wars changed the world, and the lives of the men who fought in them, and of those who lived in the aftermath. We in the twenty-first century live differently, and think differently, because those wars were fought."

As for himself, "I fought as a very young Marine in my generation's war, and I found, in the long teaching career that followed, that war remained in my mind, an ever-interesting subject that I returned to again and again." War is important, he writes, because "it's always present in our world, dozens of wars are being fought, somewhere, right now. Because war stirs young hearts. Because, as the great Eric Partridge wrote, war 'next to love, has most captured the world's imagination.'"

But as a former Marine combat pilot--the elite among the service fliers, as we land-bound Marines viewed them--he's especially aware of the war in the air, from its earliest days in the last century, when in World War I, not long after the Wright Brothers first flew, a whole new concept of warfare was developed. That brand of combat was viewed by many in those early days as mounted cavalry warfare with wings.

"All my working life I've had two vocations," he writes, "flying and professing." But he adds, "The flying came first." As a boy growing up in Minnesota in the 1930s he played a game called "dogfight" with his friends. That's when aviation was still in its infancy, and the fliers were Eddie Rickenbacker and the Red Baron, heroes of the First Great War. Such men, knights of what one writer called "the open cockpit silk scarf era," were mounted in planes still nearly Kitty Hawk primitive.

During those years, Hynes and his friends had imaginations "full of World War I flying images" that they had gathered from movies like Wings and Dawn Patrol, and from stories they had read about the Lafayette Escadrille, and from pulp magazines like G-8 and his Battle Aces. Those stories and movies may not have added up "to a true account of that war-in-the-air," but they were "enough to stir these small boys... We were caught up in the romance of flying and planes."

Later, Hynes and his friends would ride their bikes to the city airport to lie in the grass beyond the perimeter fence and watch the planes approach for landing. The Navy had a reserve squadron on the field, and they came to see and hear the Navy planes land, "sleek and serious." It didn't occur to him, he recalls, that he would "ever be inside one of those magnificent machines."

Then the war came. Hynes, a freshman at the University of Minnesota, enlisted in the Naval Aviation program. He was commissioned in 1944 as a Marine Corps second lieutenant. When he went to draw his flight gear, "I was handed a long white silk scarf, just like [actor] Richard Barthelmess's.

Someone in Procurement must have seen Dawn Patrol and thought he knew what a pilot should wear when he took off on his last, doomed mission."

Hynes was a success in his "first vocation" getting a Distinguished Flying Cross. But at war's end he returned to the university and took up his other vocation, academics. "I became a college teacher," he recalls, "taught academic subjects, and wrote academic books (though the pilot in me got restless if they were too academic. …

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