The Meadow: A Critical Introduction
“Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we’ve all been there.”
Michael Herr, Dispatches
In my Advanced Placement Literature and Composition course at Luxemburg-Casco High School, one of our major units of study addresses America’s literary responses to warfare. It is an intriguing unit to teach in a school where students, staff, and visitors pass three shadow boxes upon entering the building, two of which contain the dress uniforms, and all three which honor, graduates who lost their lives while serving in Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11. In the Luxemburg-Casco community, service to one’s nation carries considerable cache. Cemeteries large and small are visited each Memorial Day by members of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, where formal ceremonies take place in recognition of those who have served in the military and lost their lives, not only in combat, but following their formal service. Townspeople, not just family members, attend these services, some even traveling from one ceremony to another, attending as many as four or five such services yearly.
In the spring of 2015, my students and I concluded this unit by studying David Rabe’s Tony Award-winning play Sticks and Bones. When Sergeant Major delivers a blinded David back to Ozzie, Harriet, and Rick, he responds to Ozzie’s offer of cake and coffee by saying:
No. I haven’t time. I’ve got to get going. I’ve got trucks out there backed up for blocks. Other boys. I got to get on to Chicago and some of them to Denver and Cleveland, Reno, New Orleans, Boston, Trenton, Watts, Atlanta. And when I get back they’ll be layin’ there in pieces all over the grass…their backs broken, their brains jellied, their insides turned into garbage. No-legged boys and one-legged boys….I got deliveries to make all across the country. (104)
This line prompted us to discuss the omnipresence of “war” in the fabric of United States culture and the lives of the nation and its citizens. One student noted that in the span of her eighteen years, she couldn’t remember a time when America was not engaged in a military conflict, that she didn’t anticipate a time when this status would change—and that she couldn’t imagine what a world might look like without such engagement. On the heels of this student’s observation, I again posed the essential twofold question I had posed to open the unit, a question that provided the theoretical backbone for our study of works by O’Brien, Hemingway, Hosseini, and others: how would the collective life of our nation change were America not engaged and maintaining a military presence in so many places around the world, and what are the effects we all experience as a result of such engagement and presence?
That same essential question places The Meadow within an ongoing discourse about the impact of the United States’ military operations on not only military personnel but all Americans. Walter Neumann, the novel’s narrator, is an intelligent, inquisitive young man who wants, when he leaves his home in rural Wisconsin, to go to college, not the jungles of Vietnam where he will be compelled to participate in a conflict with which he disagrees for multiple reasons. Walt’s vision of his future conflicts with his father’s. Otto Neumann insists that his sons serve their nation as he did in World War II. What Walter does not know is the reason behind his father’s insistence—an insistence that has cast a shadow over his life and compels him to bear a yoke he does not shoulder by choice. Walt is unaware of the impact his father’s reasons have had upon the relationship between his parents, but he lives with and knows the effects of those reasons elsewhere in his life, fearing especially for his relationship with his brother, given Clay’s enthusiastic acceptance of their father’s vision, and his relationship with his girlfriend Meg. When Walt unexpectedly obtains his wish, he is freed of one burden, but he assumes another, compelling him to confront his own principles, to test their validity, and to emerge from this journey a new man.
At work within this dynamic is the premise Michael Herr advances in Dispatches: though a relatively small percentage of Americans were actively engaged in military operations in Vietnam, we have all “been there” (280). This assertion is essential to the development of one of The Meadow’s central premises: wars are never fought on the field of battle alone; battlefields can and do extend beyond geographic locale, and here is where their greatest ramifications are experienced. My friend and mentor, the late Thomas Myers, investigates this extension of warfare in Walking Point, his landmark exploration of America’s artistic responses to the Vietnam War. Myers contends that any war is actually fought on two fronts: the battlefield of armed conflict (where weapons are deployed and bodies injured, where trauma is made manifest upon both participants and civilians physically, mentally, and emotionally) and the battlefield of the collective memory or imagination (where the psychic reverberations of armed conflict are made manifest linguistically, legally, mentally, emotionally, and figuratively in the lives of all a nation’s citizens). Myers argues that the second front is where the most enduring and significant battles occur. Two narrative clusters emerge on this front. In the first, the principals and agents responsible for implementing and sustaining warfare construct narrative writ large: official narratives that shape and validate our understanding of the nation, our place in it, and its roles in and reasons for participation in such conflict. These are the narratives apt to inscribe themselves upon the hearts and minds of a nation’s citizens individually and collectively. In the second narrative cluster, we find literary narratives that seek to aestheticize the experience of warfare, narratives which can and often do conflict with official narratives and their validation of the nation’s actions.
The second front is where The Meadow operates. One conflict with which Walt struggles is his hometown’s apparent acceptance of the narratives in the first narrative cluster, those justifying the United States’ actions in Vietnam. As Walt marches with the high school band during the Memorial Day parade and witnesses the actions of the people lining the parade route, he cannot understand
…their acceptance of Vietnam as a good war and their willingness to put [his] precious fluids on the line without question. Gillett had already lost three young men in the jungles of Vietnam, the three young men who would be honored after the parade. [He]’d gone to school and played ball with those three, had played in the band and baled hay with them, but rather than prompting questions over the motives for and necessity of Vietnam, their deaths had only strengthened the town’s collective resolve that America’s objectives were noble. (13)
Here, The Meadow for the first of many times engages what noted scholar Lauren Berlant refers to as the “National Symbolic,” a Foucault-inspired construction that aligns with the first of Myers’ two narrative clusters. According to Berlant, the National Symbolic is a
political space…which is not merely juridical, territorial, genetic, linguistic, or experiential, but some tangled cluster of these…[where] ‘America’ is an assumed relation, an explication of ongoing collective practices, and also an occasion for exploring what it means that national subjects already share not just a history, or a political allegiance, but a set of forms and the affect that makes these forms meaningful. (4-5)
Narratives, writ both large (in the sense of Berlant’s National Symbolic and Myers’ first narrative cluster) and small (literary narratives that seek to aestheticize the experience of warfare) compete for the hearts and minds of the nation and its citizens. This conflict is evident both literally and metaphorically throughout The Meadow, but it is especially apparent in the novel’s scenes of ritual parades and memorial services which preserve, promote, and justify the actions being taken by the United States, the actions that Walt cannot accept as the people around him do, but which he cannot completely disregard either: “I wanted to find fault with this ceremony and display, but I couldn’t. Nor could I embrace it. My head and heart were duking it out, but neither held the upper hand. Mr. Grzesch clapped his hands as the rest of the crowd offered the mayor polite applause, but I knew him better than that. I remembered what he’d told me about Mark Twain and petrified opinions” (14).
The Twain quote to which Walt alludes—“Loyalty to a petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul” (The Complete Works)— positions Walt between competing narratives: the first, the officially sanctioned narratives inscribed upon and enacted by the townspeople around him, and the second, an alternative narrative of the nation and a path Walt struggles to envision and realize, highlighting Walt’s view of the people around him as trapped and the unfortunate consequences of their acceptance and acquiescence. In this manner, The Meadow also seeks to engage readers in a discourse about the nature of the American Dream itself and the impact it has upon our individual lives and our collective life as a nation—another of the multiple narratives operating within the National Symbolic. To do this, the novel draws upon concepts explored by scholar and educator Carol S. Pearson in her larger body of work, but especially in her monograph Maturing the American Dream: Archetypal American Narratives Meet the Twenty-First Century. Pearson’s work encourages us to become cognizant of the stories we live and to make decisions about the plot lines we want to experience, suggesting that we, both individually and collectively, possess agency capable of influencing, and perhaps even “composing,” the very narratives overlapping within the National Symbolic—that we can make a difference in steering the ship of state. Pearson primarily addresses our collective plot line, drawing upon her Jungian-influenced application of archetype to narratives and character types. In the monograph, Pearson cites organizational development experts Chris Argyris and Peter Senge, who
explain that organizations are complex, adaptive systems and that even if we cannot expect linear change, the initial conditions at the birth of any enterprise can be immensely powerful in charting the evolution of its development. These initial conditions can affect the basic patterns that give rise to the strengths and weaknesses of the organization’s culture and the way it habitually behaves. (3)
Consequently, organizations are inclined to draw upon the narratives and archetypes privileged at their inception and during their formative years in the course of their maturation and evolution, an inclination that may simultaneously help and hurt the organization.
Pearson considers nations themselves models of this dynamic, writing “It is not such a leap to consider that initial conditions could give rise to patterns that would affect the evolution of a country…For what was there at the founding was not only the emergence of a dream but embedded habits and social conditioning” (3). In the case of the United States, Pearson identifies three predominant archetypal characters and their resulting narratives as especially significant to American identity: the Explorer, the Warrior, and the Jester. And while each of these characters possesses positive qualities that have served the nation admirably in achieving some goals, they also possess inherent weaknesses; only by “being integrated with its complementary archetype” (Pearson 10) can United States become what Whitman refers to as “the meal equally set…the meat for natural hunger” in “Song of Myself.” These complementary archetypes include the Lover, the Caregiver, and the Sage.
This point/counterpoint of archetypal characters is evident The Meadow. Both the Explorer and the Warrior are evident in Walt’s perception of the United States’ actions in Vietnam, and he longs for a nation that will, instead, exhibit the traits of the Lover and Caregiver. This desire is not reflected in Walt’s overtly political actions (he and Meg participate in anti-war protests, but as Walt says, “neither of us had come to feel entirely comfortable among their participants” (127)); rather, the point/counterpoint is most effectively embodied in the characters close to Walt and the dynamics of their interaction with him. For example, his mother Anna is Caregiver to his father’s Warrior. In one scene, Walt, still in the dark about his father’s military service in World War II, questions his mother about what compels his father’s desire that he and Clay serve in the military:
“And the army?”
“Yes the army, too,” she said. “To him, that’s how a young man can and should give back to his country.”
“He can’t envision any other way? Why not being a teacher and helping people learn and grow? Or writing things that make people think and feel?”
“I know, I know,” she said. “I’m with you on that point, Walt—” She hesitated. “But I’m with your father as well.” She frowned, further accentuating the lines that had already begun creasing her face. “It’s possible, you know, that you can both be right” (93).
This moment in particular highlights Pearson’s assertion that a balance must be struck between archetypes if the American Dream is to mature and evolve in a fashion allowing it to both survive in the nation and be accepted among the community of nations. As Caregiver to his father’s Warrior, Walt’s mother vocalizes something that Walt had previously witnessed in her actions, that Walt will continue to witness in her actions, and that Pearson asserts is essential to the maturation of the American Dream if the United States is to peacefully and productively to coexist with the global community: Walt’s mother embodies the necessity of both/and, not either/or. In striving to be both Explorer/Warrior/Jester and Lover/Caregiver/Sage, individuals, and nations, can “identify the strengths that can help us tap into what is best about us and guard against our weaknesses so that we can use our power as wisely as possible and in ways that promote the common global good” (Pearson 2).
The passage above is one of many in The Meadow that embody the thematic motif of balancing archetypes. In Clay, we find the Explorer, while in Meg, we find the Lover; in Tyler we find the Jester, while in Tom, we find the Sage. Collectively, the novel’s deployment of both/and pushes Walt to reconcile strained relationships in his present, bringing him peace of mind; to reconcile strained relationships he anticipates in his future, providing him the means by which he might navigate difficult terrain; and to reconcile his own world view with official narratives accepted both by townspeople and the nation at large. This dynamic effectively positions Walt with a foot in each archetype, affording him the privileged perspective of both/and. Walt’s teacher, friend, and mentor, Tom Grzesch, helps Walt to understand and embrace both/and. Near the end of the novel, Tom meets with Walt—who by this time has undergone the emotional trauma of his father’s death and discovers the motivation behind his father’s wish that he and Clay serve in the military—and says:
“…Last question. Teacher to student, but friend to friend, too. I feel like I’ve had a hand in the man you’ve become—”
“More than you know, Tom.
“—and I want to know that you’re okay.”
“In the face of all this, how can any of us preserve ourselves and the ones we love?”
I didn’t respond immediately. I thought back over the times we’d shared and what I’d learned from and with and because of Tom, and I smiled. “We stay true to ourselves—”
“—but remain mindful of others—”
“—and we must always share.”
“What do you mean by that, Walt?”
“The stories,” I said. “They’re what keep us alive.” (181)
Stories and storytelling—the second of Myers’ two narrative clusters—are essential to assuming and maintaining the privileged position of both/and, and here is where The Meadow most clearly engages in ongoing discourses relative to war, trauma, and the means of healing psychic wounds, both for participants in warfare and for the nation which they serve. One of the first observers to articulate expressly the necessity of storytelling to this process was psychologist Jonathan Shay, who has devoted the majority of his professional life to assisting Vietnam veterans suffering the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the book Achilles in Vietnam, Shay draws upon the Iliad to point out that soldiers have always experienced emotional trauma as a result of their experiences and have been placed in a morally tenuous position. Shay writes that out of necessity, the military develops and maintains a moral order opposing the commonly circulated moral codes of the nation at large; severe trauma occurs when a soldier experiences a betrayal of that moral order by a commander, a fellow soldier, or by the nation itself (3-4). While Walt experiences the competing moralities associated with complementary archetypes, he does not experience competing moralities as a soldier could. His father does, however, leaving Walt, Clay, and his wife to cope with their consequences in whatever manner they can.
The one curative that could have done the most to heal Otto Neumann’s traumatic, psychic wounds, according to Shay, is storytelling. Shay writes that “healing from trauma depends upon communalization of the trauma—being able to safely tell the story to someone who is listening and who can be trusted to retell it truthfully to others in the community…we should listen” (4). Otto rebuffs Walt’s efforts to compel him to share the story of his experience in World War II, though Walt’s motivation isn’t healing; rather, it is his attempt to understand why his father so strongly wants him to serve in the military despite Walt’s opposition to service as matters of both principle and self-preservation. Not until his father’s story is shared posthumously does Walt come to realize the wounds his father has suffered. Otto never fully healed from his trauma, as he could never bring himself to share openly what he had done and witnessed in Europe in 1944. He shares his wounds twice. The first instance occurs with his wife in the early days of their marriage when she issues an ultimatum: “At lunch, I confronted him. It wasn’t the first time I’d tried getting him to talk, but I’d never forced the issue. ‘I’m your wife,’ I said, ‘and if I’m going to remain your wife, you’re going to tell me why you were up there on the porch with your rifle last night’” (171). Otto opening up to his wife enables the healing necessary for their marriage to survive. Otto’s second instance of sharing does not occur until Walt suffers the injury that prevents his military service. Even then, the storytelling comes in the form of letters to his sons locked away in a footlocker, and while committing the stories to writing may have brought him peace of mind, it was one-sided communication; give-and-take did not occur, give-and-take that could have allowed for healing and understanding for both Walt and his father.
In The Meadow, Walt comes to understand that stories—both telling them and listening to them—are necessary, and he envisions times when he will need to prompt others to share their stories, when he will need to listen for healing to occur. The central figure in this vision is his brother Clay, and Walt projects the future as they play “chicken ball” during a downpour in the novel’s penultimate chapter:
The rain was coming down in sheets, but we didn’t stop. Our mother came to the porch and called to us, but I couldn’t hear her voice over the booming thunder. The knee a third time. I couldn’t remember my last win in chicken ball. I might have been nine, maybe ten. A long time ago. I whipped the ball toward his chest, hoping in the act of catching it he’d hear what it was saying. Don’t say a word now. It’s okay. He’d even won when one of my throws had skipped just before reaching him, catching him in the mouth to snap one of his front teeth cleanly in half. But someday. Angled slightly away from me, I threw at Clay’s heel. Someday, you’ll talk. His left hand reached downward, snaring the ball and transferring it to his meat hand as he pirouetted to return the throw. Someday you’ll need to talk. I caught the ball a hair’s breadth above the bridge of my nose. I’ll listen. (188-189)
In this fashion, Walt is not only the “someone” Shay identifies as necessary to listen and truthfully retell to others to allow for healing the trauma of the teller, he is also a participant in an ages-old dynamic currently being revived and reimagined by Bryan Doerries, a writer, director, and translator who has turned ancient Greek tragedies into living tools for healing a nation, its communities, and its warriors. In 2007, Doerries read the Washington Post account of conditions faced by wounded veterans returning to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, prompting him to question for the first time the nature of a world about which he did not have “any point of reference that would help him understand it” (Theater 59) and began “thinking about what [he] could do to raise awareness about the needs of veterans and their families and perhaps rally more people to pay attention” (62). The result: Doerries revisited plays by ancient Greek playwrights like Sophocles, who in addition to writing tragedies for the stage had served militarily. In doing so, Doerries discovered that these playwrights’ work demonstrates that “even the strongest of warriors can be taken down, long after the battle has been lost or won. The violence of war extends far past the battlefield” (71). And in that extension, the sweep of that violence is capable of building exponentially, threatening everyone—and everything—in its path.
Sophocles realized that potential and articulates it in his plays in the form of Ajax and his bloody rampage and subsequent suicide (All That You’ve Seen). Ernest Hemingway realized it and articulates it in his novels and short stories like “Soldiers Home,” where the World War I veteran Krebs replies to his mother’s comment that “‘God has some work for everyone to do’” by telling her that he’s “‘not in His Kingdom” and that he doesn’t love her or anybody, leaving Krebs feeling “sick and vaguely nauseated” (115-116). Tim O’Brien realized it in his entire body of work, but perhaps most poignantly in The Things They Carried, where in the story “How to Tell a True War Story,” a narrator named, ironically, Tim O’Brien states, “You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you” (66) and “You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end” (72). Bryan Doerries realized it, taking his translations of ancient Greek tragedy directly to military bases and communities in which the influence of the military is prominent; his goal through the spare table readings of these works is “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable [because] stories can help us heal and possibly even change, before it’s too late” (8).
And now, The Meadow adds its voice to this chorus. I believe it is our duty to know that when we send young men and women into endless campaigns against enemies that morph and shift with the tides of public opinion, political expediency, and financial opportunity, they will come home with baggage. As O’Brien writes, “If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth; if you don’t care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty” (66). Though set in 1968 and 1969, I view The Meadow as a work that transcends time and addresses a need we still face. Despite the fact that George W. Bush stood on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in 2003 before a banner declaring “Mission Accomplished,” and despite the fact that Barack Obama promised American troops in Afghanistan would return to the United States by the end of his second term in office, we still have troops in the region and elsewhere around the world. These troops, their families, and our nation have all been traumatized, and we live—and will continue to live for a long, long time—with the ramifications of this trauma. And though I am much older than the young woman whose astute observation last spring brought my class back to the essential question motivating our unit of study, I, too, am having an increasingly difficult time imagining our nation not being militarily engaged in some fashion.
That does not mean, however, that I cannot hope, nor does it mean that I should resign myself to a nation that suffers unspeakable trauma that reproduces itself with no end in sight. As a participant in Myers’ second cluster of narratives on the second front of war, The Meadow compels readers to develop cognizance of the competing narratives circulating within our culture, the stories—official and literary—that compete for primacy in our hearts and minds. Additionally, it compels readers to understand that while relatively few of us will ever put boots on the ground on foreign soil, we all have “been there.” As scholar Mark Heberle writes in A Trauma Artist, his critical study of Tim O’Brien’s body of work, “Perhaps, then, Vietnam is not only a war or a book but also an arena of psychic wounding and its posttraumatic aftermath—and we’ve all been ‘there’” (xvi). In the same sense, we have all been to Iraq, to Afghanistan, to any of the nearly 150 countries in which the United States currently has active duty military personnel; we have all been subject to psychic wounding and its posttraumatic aftermath.
I have not witnessed the horrors of warfare myself, but I, and all Americans, live with the effects of its trauma every day. I was never compelled to fix a bayonet or pick up a rifle, but I am ready, willing, and able to pick up a pen, to compose narratives that promote the necessity of both telling stories and truly listening to them. Though these narratives may not take place on the battlefield of armed conflict, they are war stories nonetheless, located on Myers’ second front and participating in the phenomenon Modris Eksteins describes in the preface to his book Rites of Spring:
Our century is one in which life and art have blended, in which existence has become aestheticized. History…has surrendered much of its former authority to fiction. In our postmodernist age a compromise may, however, be possible and necessary. In search of this compromise our historical account proceeds in the form of drama, with acts and scenes, in the full and diverse sense of those words. In the beginning was the event. Only later came the consequences.
The Meadow “aestheticizes existence” in the manner Eksteins articulates, helping us all realize not only the consequences of events, but to participate in healing the trauma such events cause. As a participant in this process and in larger discourses about who we are as a nation and a people, I hope The Meadow embodies what I believe are the truest words Tim O’Brien has written in his distinguished career: “It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe” (74). I believe in the transformative power of stories well-told, stories that make the stomach believe. Ultimately, stories can and do heal trauma, can and do save lives, and The Meadow is, for me, the first of many such works in which I will seek to attain these goals at once both simple and profoundly complex.
Doerries, Bryan. The Theater of War. New York: Alfred A.
---, trans. All That You’ve Seen Here is God: New Versions of
Four Greek Tragedies. New York: Vintage Books, 2015.
Eksteins, Modris. Rites of Spring. Vintage Canada, 2012.
Google Book Search. Web. 15 October 2015.
Heberle, Mark. A Trauma Artist: Tim O’Brien and the Fiction
of Vietnam. Iowa City, IA: U of Iowa P, 2001.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Complete Short Stories: The Finca
Vigía Edition. New York: Collier, 1987.
Herr, Michael. Dispatches. New York: Avon, 1977.
Myers, Thomas. Walking Point: American Narratives of
Vietnam. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin,
Pearson, Carol S. Maturing the American Dream: Archetypal
American Narratives Meet the Twenty-First Century.
Kalamazoo, MI: The Fetzer Institute, 2009.
Rabe, David. The Vietnam Plays, Volume One: “The Basic
Training of Pavlo Hummel” and “Sticks and Bones.” New
York: Grove, 1993.
Shay, Jonathan. Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the
Undoing of Character. 1994. New York: Scribner, 2003.
Twain, Mark. The Complete Works of Mark Twain: Mark
Twain’s Speeches. Vol. 24. New York: Harper and Brothers,
1906. PDF file.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed.
Michael Moon. New York: Norton, 2002. Print.
Winkler, Scott. “The Meadow.” Diss. University of Wisconsin-
Milwaukee, 2015. Print.