Sunday, February 19, 2012

BJ Omanson, blogger and webmaster for the Fairmont State University School of Fine Arts, has  released his second book related to the arts in the First World War.

The first book, published in 2008 by the University of South Carolina Press, was a republication of a cycle of highly innovative war sonnets by John Allan Wyeth, distinguished for their technical virtuosity, disjunctive syntax, multilingualism and surgically precise descriptions.

Omanson discovered an original 1929 edition of Wyeth’s sonnet sequence, “This Man’s Army: A War in Fifty-odd Sonnets,” in Wolf’s Head Books in Morgantown nearly 20 years ago. Already thoroughly familiar with the poetry of the First World War, he could not believe he had never heard of a WWI poet, especially an American, of such obvious accomplishment.

“I knew quite a few WWI historians, as well as literary historians of that period,” Omanson said, “and I set about asking all of them in turn if they had ever heard of Wyeth, and not one of them had.”

Finally Omanson sent a copy of the book to a friend of his, the poet Dana Gioia, who was also a knowledgeable scholar of early Modernist poetry, but he had never heard of Wyeth either. Gioia in turn began sending Wyeth’s sonnets to a wider circle of literary scholars whom he knew, such as the Robert Graves scholar Patrick Quinn, the Wilfred Owen scholar Jon Stallworthy and the Lost Generation scholar Matthew Bruccoli, but neither they, nor any of the others Gioia contacted, had heard of Wyeth. 

Gioia by this time had published several short essays on Wyeth, and had located members of Wyeth’s family, who revealed some fascinating facts about their eccentric relative. 

Wyeth, like so many other aesthetically-inclined veterans of the trenches, took up the life of an itinerant bohemian after the war. For a few years he pursued a doctorate in French and German at Princeton, and then in Liège, Belgium, but by 1924 he was living among the American colony in Rapallo, Italy, where he become friends with Ezra Pound. Wyeth wrote to his family that he was abandoning his studies in order to pursue literature full-time, and it was almost certainly at this time that he wrote his sonnet cycle.

After the publication of the sonnets in 1928, and their disappointing reception, Wyeth abandoned literature for landscape painting. By 1932 he was studying with the Scottish painter Duncan Grant, a member of the Bloomsbury Group, then later studied for six years at the Académie Moderne in Paris under Jean Marchand. 

Subsequently Wyeth exhibited in Paris, at the Corcoran in Washington, D.C., and joined the Frank Rehn Gallery in New York. When Wyeth died in 1981 his obituary mentioned only that he was a noted painter. None of Wyeth’s surviving family members, when Gioia contacted them in the mid-1990s, had any inkling that their uncle had ever been a poet.

After not having heard from Gioia for some years, Omanson got a phone call one afternoon in 2007 from the office of the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington. It was from Gioia, now serving as Chairman of the NEA.  He told Omanson that he had found a publisher for Wyeth’s sonnets. 

Matthew Bruccoli, the Lost Generation scholar, had for several years been publishing “lost” literary classics of WWI as part of his “Great War Series” for the University of South Carolina Press, and now wished to bring out Wyeth’s sonnet cycle as the eighth title in the series. Gioia would write the introduction to the sonnets, and Omanson would provide a detailed historical context for each poem. 

According to Gioia, Bruccoli was chagrined that he had never heard of Wyeth, as Bruccoli was a leading authority of American literature of WWI, and especially because both he and Wyeth were alumni of the same university (Princeton).  Moreover, there is mention of Wyeth in both the journals of Edmund Wilson and the letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, about whom Bruccoli had published major studies.

Omanson sent over 40 typed pages of annotation and commentary to Bruccoli, who complained that “the tail was now wagging the dog,” and cut Omanson’s work in half. “This Man’s Army: A War in Fifty-odd Sonnets” was released in 2008. 

Since then it has received notice in both England and the United States, with the consensus being that Wyeth should be regarded as the most significant American poet of the war, and stands comparison with the major British war poets.

In 2012, McFarland Publishers released the illustrated memoir of a young enlisted Marine and artist in the First World War: “At Belleau Wood with Rifle and Sketchbook: the Memoir of a United States Marine in World War I” by Louis C. Linn. For this book, as for the Wyeth poems, Omanson provided extensive military historical annotations and introductions for each chapter.

Unlike Wyeth, explained Omanson, Linn was not an artist of major importance, but he was uncommonly articulate both in his writing and his drawing, and his vision of the war, from a lowly private’s perspective, was both idiosyncratic and unflinchingly honest, and therein lies its importance as a chronicle of wartime experience. 

By sheer serendipity, Private Linn and Omanson’s grandfather, Corporal Alpheus Appenheimer, happened to serve in the same company, and Omanson, having already spent over 20 years researching his grandfather’s war service, was able to bring much of that research to bear on Linn’s experiences.   

“Artistic interest in the First World War is on the rise just now with many new books coming out and films such as ‘War Horse’ and ‘Downtown Abbey’ gaining attention,” Omanson said. “The 100th anniversary of ‘The Great War’ is just two years away, and now is a propitious time to re-examine the arts of that war. It was, after all, the cradle of Modernism.”