Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Aaron Shaheen's "Great War Prostheses in American Literature and Culture"

Aaron Shaheen is the George C. Connor Professor of American Literature at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he teaches courses in American modernism. His previous book, Androgynous Democracy: Modern American Literature and the Dual-Sexed Body Politic, was published in 2010. He has published articles in PMLA, Modernism/modernity, Modern Fiction Studies, and a number of other journals.

Shaheen applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Great War Prostheses in American Literature and Culture, and reported the following:
Page 99 opens to the introductory section of a chapter that analyzes Laurence Stallings’s long-forgotten 1924 novel Plumes and, to a lesser extent, Stallings's screenplay for the commercially successful 1925 war film The Big Parade. I note that the novel is largely autobiographical, detailing the ways in which both author and main character chose a bone graft and heavy brace to save a wounded leg that would have been better off amputated and supplemented by a prosthesis. I then explain that the ensuing pages of the chapter analyze “not only the potency of the spirit that possesses men to fight wars, but also the spirit that the novel finds infecting them once they are wounded.”

Anticipating that many of my readers will have little, if any, familiarity with Plumes, the summary that constitutes the bulk of page 99 makes only fleeting gestures toward my book’s larger thrust, which is to track the ways in which Great War-era prostheses were designed to embody the spirit or personality of their wearers. This prosthetic vision could be found not only in novels and films, but also government rehabilitation publications, and even the prosthetic masks of a classically trained sculptor. Readers of page 99 would have to infer these larger dimensions of the book, but I certainly wouldn’t fault them if they couldn’t.

Still, I think page 99 can whet readers’ appetites, not only for my book, but for Stallings’s wonderful novel, as well as for The Big Parade, to which the novel is often compared. The prosthetic devices worn by veteran amputees of recent wars may not look much like those worn by amputees of the Great War; but this book attempts to show that our current-day desire to make artificial limbs transcend their cumbersome materiality stretches back over 100 years. Just as important, the book contends that even though organized religion took a big hit in the age of total war and mechanized weaponry, the human impulse to seek out forms of spiritual transcendence persisted, especially in the realm of medical technology and the various media that depicted it.
Learn more about Great War Prostheses in American Literature and Culture at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue