Through the Wheat By Thomas Boyd. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1923. $1.75. Reviewed by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“I did not know how good a man I was till then… I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more—the feeling that I could last forever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men… the triumphant conviction of strength, the heat of life in the handful of dust, the glow in the heart that with every year grows dim, grows cold, grows small, and expires, and expires too soon—before life itself.”
So, in part, runs one of the most remarkable passages of English prose written these thirty years—a passage from Conrad’s Youth2—and since that story I have found in nothing else even the echo of that lift and ring until I read Thomas Boyd’s Through the Wheat. It is the story of certain privates in a marine regiment which, the jacket says, was rushed into action under a bright June sunlight five years ago to stop the last thrust of the German Army towards Paris. These men were sustained by no democratic idealism, no patriotic desperation, and by no romance, except the romance of unknown adventure. But they were sustained by something else at once more material and more magical, for in the only possible sense of the word they were picked men—they were exceptionally solid specimens of a healthy stock. No one has a greater contempt than I have for the recent hysteria about the Nordic theory, but I suppose that the United States marines were the best body of troops that fought in the war.
Now, young Hicks, Mr. Boyd’s protagonist, is taken as an average individual in a marine regiment, put through a short period of training in France, a trench raid, a long wait under shell fire (a wait during which, if C. E. Montague3 is to be believed, the average English regiment of the last year would have been utterly demoralized), and finally ordered forward in the face of machine gun fire through an endless field of yellow wheat. The action is utterly real. At first the very exactitude of the detail makes one expect no more than another piece of expert reporting, but gradually the thing begins to take on significance and assume a definite and arresting artistic contour. The advance goes on—one by one the soldiers have come to know, know fragmentarily and by sudden flashes and illuminations, go down and die, but young Hicks and the rest go on, heavy footed and blind with sweat, through the yellow wheat. Finally, without one single recourse to sentiment, to hysteria, or to trickery, the author strikes one clear and unmistakable note of heroism, of tenuous and tough-minded exaltation, and with this note vibrating sharply in the reader’s consciousness the book ends.
There is a fine unity about it all which only becomes fully apparent when this note is struck. The effect is cumulative in the sheerest sense; there are no skies and stars and dawns pointed out to give significance to the insignificant or to imply a connection where there is no connection. There are no treasured-up reactions to aesthetic phenomena poured along the pages, either for sweetening purposes or to endow the innately terrible with a higher relief. The whole book is written in the light of one sharp emotion and hence it is as a work of art rather than as a textbook for patrioteer or pacifist that the book is arresting.
Already I have seen reviews which take it as propaganda for one side or the other—in both cases this is unfair. The fact that both sides claim it tends to prove the author’s political disinterestedness. As Thomas Boyd has been one of the loudest in praise of Three Soldiers and The Enormous Room,4 it is to his credit that he has not allowed any intellectualism, however justified, to corrupt the at once less thoughtful and more profound emotion of his attitude. Still less has he been influenced by the Continental reaction to the last year of war. This, too, is as it should be, for that poignant despair, neatly as our novelists have adapted it to their ends, could not have been part of the mental make-up of the Fifth and Sixth Marines. Dos Passos and Elliot Paul5 filtered the war through an artistic intellectualism and in so doing attributed the emotions of exhausted nations to men who for the most part were neither exhausted nor emotional.
To my mind, this is not only the best combatant story of the Great War, but also the best war book since The Red Badge of Courage.
1. Fitzgerald had recommended Boyd’s novel to Maxwell Perkins at Scribners. 2.(1902).
3. (1867-1928), British newspaper writer and novelist whose Disenchantment (1922) is a bitter account of the average soldier’s experience in World War I.
4. 1922 novel by E. E. Cummings (1894-1962).
5. Fitzgerald is probably referring to Impromptu (1923) by Paul (1891-1958), American expatriate writer who co-founded the Paris literary magazine Transition.
Published in The Literary Review of the New York Evening Post newspaper (26 May 1923).
Illustrated by photo-portrait of Thomas Boyd.