A Life Worth Living

These are the books Samuel Hynes wrote between 1961 and 1989: The Pattern of Hardy’s Poetry, The Edwardian Turn of Mind, Edwardian Occasions, and The Auden Generation. Among the books he edited were Further Speculations by T.E. Hulme, The Author’s Craft and Other Critical Writings of Arnold Bennett, Romance and Realism, The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy, and The Complete Short Fiction of Joseph Conrad. He was an academic gypsy, with a BA degree from the University of Minnesota, and an MA and a Ph.D. from Columbia, which led to a teaching stop at Swarthmore and tenure at Northwestern. In 1976, he moved on to Princeton, where he became the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature. Then in 1989, the year he turned sixty-five, Hynes shifted his field of study. His new discipline was war in the twentieth century, both his own military service as a Marine pilot in the Pacific (Flights of Passage) and the conduct of men at arms in the two world wars and Vietnam (The Soldiers’ Tale).

I met him once in the late 1980s, when I was at Princeton on a week-long alumni fellowship that allowed me freedom of the campus. In the university catalog I discovered a course he was teaching on the narratives of war, and walked into one of his lectures. As I recall, most of the undergraduates were bored; war was something they would never have to experience; what they were seeking was a grade and a credit toward a degree, not how to use an entrenching tool, either to dig a hole or to smash the brains of an unwanted intruder into that hole. I was fascinated. “A man does not see much of the world looking down a gun barrel,” he would write a year or so later in The New York Times Book Review. “They have nothing to say about strat-egy or about why men fight, only about how they fight, and where and how they die.” And in that same article: “When you think about it, war is one subject that is continuous in the human story. The history of the world is the history of war.”

In The Growing Seasons, Hynes turns his attention to his experience during the Great Depression, the legacy of one world war, and the recruiting ground for the second. It was, he writes, “a time that seems as distant and as different from our present lives as some foreign place.” In the country of childhood, however, the Depression was a preoccupation of adults. “When I call up memories of those days,” he writes, “the life I recover doesn’t seem hard or narrow, but generous and free and full of opportunities.” Home was lower-middle-class Minneapolis, where “an ordinary curious boy…could find all the world’s temptations around him—the risks to be taken, the rules to be broken, the girls, the cars, the drinking, the sex.” He learned how to steal, not for his daily bread …

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