The Backwash of War: A New Future for an Extraordinary Book

Several items displayed from a World War I soldier

Several items displayed from a World War I soldier

Dr. Cynthia Wachtell

Director of the S. Daniel Abraham Honors Program and Research Associate Professor of American Studies

Cynthia Wachtell, Director of the Honors Program on the Beren CampusWhen I think of the future of the book, I think of the past of the book. In particular, I think of one special book: The Backwash of War, by Ellen N. La Motte. I have been immersed in researching and writing about this “lost” classic and its “lost” author for the past few years.

In this remarkable collection of interrelated stories, La Motte, an American volunteer nurse who worked in a French field hospital during World War I, offers a profoundly disturbing image of war. Midway through the book, she explains, “Well, there are many people to write you of the noble side, the heroic side, the exalted side of war. I must write you of what I have seen, the other side, the backwash.”

Published in the fall of 1916, The Backwash of War was immediately banned in England and France. Two years later, after being widely hailed as America’s most significant work of war writing and going through four printings, the book was deemed damaging to morale and censored in wartime America. Except for an unsuccessful re-release in 1919 and a reissued edition in 1934, the book—once called “immortal”—remained out of print for nearly a century.

Ellen La Motte

Ellen La Motte

My scholarly edition of the book was just published earlier this month, and it includes, along with other added components, the first biography of La Motte, who was a trained nurse, path-breaking public health advocate and administrator, suffragist, journalist, writer, self-proclaimed anarchist, expatriate, and indefatigable leader of an international anti-opium campaign. In other words, I have created a new and expanded edition of a century-old work by an astounding and long-forgotten woman.

My goal is to bring La Motte and her extraordinary book back to light, to rescue Backwash from literary oblivion. I envision a bright new future for this book, in which modern readers encounter and heed La Motte’s warning about the physical and psychic costs of war. And I contemplate how those modern readers will engage with the work in ways the original readers did not. They will read it alongside Ernest Hemingway’s World War I writing, which it quite likely influenced. They will read it alongside seminal works about World War II and Vietnam, such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. They will read it alongside recent works about our long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, by authors such as Brian Turner, Phil Klay and Brian Castner. (Castner himself read a pre-release copy and writes, “I was blown away by this book. It reads like a Great Book you’ve always meant to get to, yet it lies in censure and obscurity.”) Most hauntingly, they will read it alongside war works as yet unwritten, about wars as yet unfought.

Then again, maybe if enough people read The Backwash of War, those wars will remain unfought. To my mind, that would be a beautiful future for the book.

For more information about The Backwash of War, see jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/title/backwash-war

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