The book: James A. W. Heffernan *64 offers a comprehensive analysis about the impact of World War II on the works of American, English, and European writers. Highlighting the writings of Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Evelyn Waugh, Henry Green, and others, Politics and Literature at the Dawn of World War II (Bloomsbury) shows the ways in which these great writers were influenced by what was happening around them. Homing in on the early years around the war from 1939 to 1941, Heffernan details how these writers were able to capture the moment in novels, poems, plays, and other imaginative works. The book ultimately puts into perspective this interesting moment in time to reveal the intersection of where history meets literature. 

The author: James A. W. Heffernan *64 is a professor of English emeritus at Dartmouth. He earned his undergraduate degree from Georgetown University, and his Ph.D. in English from Princeton. He received five grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and has published various books and articles including The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery and Hospitality and Treachery in Western Literature.


Hitler, FDR, and the Partisan Review in 1939

Whether or not we are always in transition, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once declared, 1939 was a year of extraordinary transition for the United States. In the spring of 1938, after struggling to keep the New Deal alive in the face of massive labor strikes, the Recession of 1937, and a recalcitrant Supreme Court (whose size he tried in vain to increase), President Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided to stop worrying about balancing the budget and start attacking deflation with a five billion dollar spending program. The stubborn tenacity of the Depression, which in various ways persisted right through the 1930s, was perhaps nowhere better illustrated than by the top-selling novel of 1939: John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the story of a family of tenant farmers in the Oklahoma dust bowl who are forced off their land by predatory banks and who slowly make their way to California, where they earn barely enough to keep them alive. By the opening months of 1939, however, Roosevelt had turned his attention elsewhere — from the plight of American farmers and workers to the rise of Adolf Hitler, whose ruthlessness was quite literally illustrated on the New Year’s cover of Time magazine for January 2, 1939, which named him “Man of 1938.”

Time’s cover was drawn by Baron Rudolph Charles von Ripper, a 33-year-old Austrian artist who had endured three and half months in a Nazi concentration camp during the winter of 1933–34, had been rescued by the Austrian government (then still independent), and had already depicted his ordeal in a series of Goyesque etchings called Écraser l’Infâme — “Wipe out Infamy.”

For Time von Ripper drew Hitler as an “unholy organist” playing a “hymn of hate” in a desecrated cathedral whose cross appears at the top of the picture. Unlike every other New Year’s cover in the history of Time, this one hides the face of its subject. Viewed from behind at the base of the picture and dressed in his Nazi uniform, he sits beneath the pipes of a gigantic organ supporting a medieval instrument of torture known as a St. Catherine wheel: a large wooden wheel to which victims were bound so that their limbs could be broken by repeated blows with a cudgel or club, after which the wheel was sometimes erected on a pole so that its victims could be left there to rot. This method of execution ended in Germany about a hundred years before Hitler’s time. But the fate of the emaciated figures shown hanging from the wheel in this picture fittingly represents what Nazism had already done to thousands of its victims by the end of 1938. Since then, in fact, pictures of hanged men and women have remained conspicuous in the iconography of Nazism, most recently in Jo-Jo Rabbit (2019), a satirical film about the Hitler Youth.

In Time’s cover picture, the pipes of the organ played by Hitler fittingly support a wheel of torture. More than any other dictator who came before or after him, Hitler gained and kept his power by means of his own vocal pipes: by a torrent of speeches whose manic stridency mesmerized his hearers even while appalling Bertolt Brecht, as we shall see in Chapter 5. His very voice inspired them with his virulent antisemitism, his hatred of anyone who opposed him, and his megalomaniacal lust for war. On the eve of the Nazi party rally held in Nuremberg in September 1934, the American journalist William F. Shirer was struck by the rapture on the faces of those gathered in thousands around Hitler’s hotel. When he appeared on the balcony, wrote Shirer, “they looked up at him as if he were a Messiah.” At the opening of the rally the next morning, Hitler showed himself a master of spectacle as well as sound: a god of pageantry. The first meeting of the day, Shirer wrote, “was more than a gorgeous show; it also had something of the mysticism and religious fervor of an Easter or Christmas Mass in a great Gothic cathedral” (Shirer, BD 17). No wonder von Ripper placed him in a desecrated cathedral rededicated to the religion of fascism, whose very name derives from the bundle of rods (fasces) so vividly evoked by the close-bound vertical pipes of the organ.

Given the record of atrocities that Hitler had compiled by the end of 1938, we should expect to find at least some reference to him in the New Year address (“State of the Union 1939”) that FDR delivered to Congress on January 4. But this long speech is a masterpiece of evasion. Nowhere does it mention Hitler, the plight of German Jews (whom he had just privately proposed settling in “a part of Ethiopia and surrounding colonies” [Ciano, TCD 5]), or the vulnerability of a Czechoslovakia freshly shorn of the fortified frontier that had previously protected it from Germany. Nevertheless, Roosevelt had good reason for his reticence. Since the Neutrality Act of 1937 forbade U.S. ships to furnish any passengers or goods to belligerents, let alone send troops, the president could do little more to combat German belligerence than wring his hands.

In late September 1938, when Hitler’s determination to seize the “Sudetenland” of Czechoslovakia had driven Europe to the brink of war, Roosevelt wrote twice to Hitler and Czech president Edvard Beneš, urging both to reach a “fair, peaceful, and constructive settlement of the questions at issue.” They reached a settlement only because England and France forced Beneš to swallow terms that were grossly unfair — and thus to reward Hitler’s relentless campaign of intimidation. Since FDR’s letters helped to midwife this brutal resolution, it is ironic to find him declaring in his New Year’s address not only that “God-fearing democracies of the world … cannot forever let pass, without effective protest, acts of aggression against sister nations,” but also that “at the very least, we can and should avoid any action, or lack of action, which will encourage, assist, or build up the aggressor.” Could he himself make “effective protest” without even mentioning either Hitler or Czechoslovakia? And if, as he says, “we rightly decline to intervene with arms to prevent acts of aggression,” could the U.S. “avoid any action. or lack of action” that might help the aggressor? FDR’s only answer to this question is to challenge the wisdom of neutrality laws, which “may operate unevenly and unfairly — may actually give aid to an aggressor and deny it to the victim.” Implicitly, then, in the face of all the voices raised for isolationism, he begins to make the case for intervention. But all he dares to say explicitly is that the United States must have “adequate defense”: “armed forces and defenses strong enough to ward off sudden attack.”

Behind the scenes, however, FDR was urgently planning for war. By the end of 1938, he had already made secret arrangements to furnish planes to the French and British, and in late January of 1939, just weeks after his non-committal New Year’s address, he nearly blew his cover by allowing a French Air Force Captain to join an American pilot in test-flying a Douglas 7B, the secret prototype of an American warplane. When the flight ended in a flaming disaster that only the Frenchman survived (LAT, “Bomber Fall Kills Pilot”), FDR told a press conference not only that the French could order planes from private American companies but also — in what was surely one of his biggest whoppers — that the whole episode was just “a perfectly normal testing out of the plane” (Press Conference #521, 1–3).

By the spring of 1939, FDR was gradually steering the ship of state toward war. Isolationists still controlled both houses of Congress; his own Ambassador to the United Kingdom — Joseph P. Kennedy — resolutely opposed intervention; and in a Gallup Poll taken in late February, only 17% of its respondents thought the U.S. should send troops to Britain and France. But in the same poll, 52% thought that if war broke out in Europe, the U.S. should sell planes and other materials to Great Britain and France. Just as important, prominent writers such as Walter Lippmann and Dorothy Thompson began to make the case for war as well as to cast Roosevelt as their champion. In the long lead article of the Spring 1939 issue of the Partisan Review, Dwight McDonald claimed, “All sections of the intelligentsia are swinging in behind the New Deal in its drive toward a new world war to save democracy” (McDonald, “This Quarter” 3).

Given the outcome of World War II, we might well salute the prescience of the American intelligentsia, of writers who shared Roosevelt’s conviction that America must eventually enter it. But McDonald’s statement is actually the prelude to a long, ferocious argument against war, which he saw as essentially a project of bourgeois capitalism that would re-enact all the murderous atrocities of World War I. In 1939, many other writers for the Partisan Review shared what can only be called his militant pacifism even as they exemplified what has been called “the dilemma of the intellectual (the writer, the artist) in politics” (Laqueur). This is the phrase that Walter Laqueur applied to Thomas Mann’s brief for German nationalism during World War I: Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, published just one month before the armistice of November 1918. As a rising German novelist who would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature and become one of the most admired writers of his time, Mann argued in Reflections that war was both politically unifying and morally elevating, and that Germany was totally justified in taking arms against the decadence of Britain and France. By 1939, six years after the ascent of Hitler had driven him out of his native land and one year after he arrived in America, Mann had radically shifted, urging the Western allies to take on Germany. But was this call to arms any wiser than the one he had made before, or than the bellicose words of the American intelligentsia cited by McDonald? Insofar as the Partisan Review of 1939 represents the views of the literary left in America, it shows them struggling to find a bloodless alternative to “anti-fascist hysteria” as well as to Stalinist totalitarianism, which had sorely tried their faith in the revolutionary promises of Marxism.

Excerpted from Politics and Literature at the Dawn of World War II by James A. W. Heffernan. Used by permission of the publisher Bloomsbury. All rights reserved.


“An exciting, novel, and comparative account of the impact of World War II on literature produced in the US, UK, Germany, and France and their authors.” — Edward Lebow, Professor of International Political Theory, King's College, London, UK

“An important revisionary study of how major writers, both American and European, reacted to the prospect of a second world war by mostly rejecting earlier concepts of heroism. Does the war in Ukraine, which broke out after Heffernan completed this fascinating book, dispel his thesis? We’ll see. But in the meantime, his is an original and sobering account of what really happened!” — Marjorie Perloff, author of Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire