MAY 3, 2020
THE STUBBORN MATERIALITY of this object: a tapered wooden dowel with a crude hook impaled in its flat end. Everything else in the playwright Sidney Howard’s archive at Berkeley’s Bancroft Library is two-dimensional. Letters, photos, typescripts. One little envelope bulged, and out rolled this assertive thing. I’m different. I don’t belong to these words and ideas, it said. I tell a story you can’t hear. You will need new ways to understand.
Sam See’s capacious epistemologies in Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies offer some openings. We need both history and myth, this collection reminds us. As a theorist and intellectual historian, Sam saw keenly and thought clearly, and, near the end of his life, he wondered if these tools were enough. “Unable to decide if I was a historian or a theorist [in graduate school]” Sam wrote, “I was able to argue almost anything but believed next to nothing.” In turning to myth (as “falsehood and foundational tale”), Sam acknowledged the limits of empiricism. Valuing belief, impatient with arid facts, Sam honored another kind of desire: the hunger for heart-knowledge and the “appeal of the spiritual” in queer mythmaking. Sam left rich remains: the essays collected in Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies, as well as unpublished writing on how he had grown and where he was heading.
Writing a biography begins with detective work, but it’s not simply that. My work on Sidney Howard, for example, entailed months of reading in the National Archives, talking to his family, reading his correspondence from Berkeley to the Beinecke at Yale. I collected shards of meaning, but how to look at these discoveries was informed by Sam. From his readings of Darwin’s writing to his self-appraisal of his own professional performance, Sam understood that the conundrum that the thing observed and the subjectivity of the observer are always intertwined.
To read the object that rolled out of the envelope in Howard’s papers historically is to place it contextually, timeful and timebound, even as we are anchored in our own moment. Biographers knit the past to now. But history is not enough. In his posthumously published writing and his archival fragments, Sam expanded his epistemological range to slip the knot of time through mythic explorations. Myth connects to ancient human ways and posits future human connections. Myth can explain things, and can explore how things come to be forgotten. Even a straight story is illuminated by Sam’s eye.
First, History. The object is a German bullet from World War I, late September 1918 to be exact. Cut off from the iron fields of Lorraine, German munitions manufacturers saved scarce metal for the bigger shells. To meet machine guns’ profligate appetites, then, they lathed wooden bullets. Sidney Howard was an aviator, one of 28 men in the AEF’s First Day Bombardment Group. Renegades and intellectuals, they dubbed their unit the Mad Bolsheviks. On the nose of their planes they painted a cartoonish emblem of a bearded man holding a bomb with a lit fuse. They chafed and waited for months to get into battle, training on French planes because American war production lagged. Eventually the DH-4s with American-made Liberty engines arrived. Seven planes flew north in a V formation like a flock of geese. The two-man crew sat back-to-back with the fuel tank wedged between them, the pilot in front and the observer looking backward, reading the landscape below, dropping bombs on the target, and manning the machine gun. The fuel tank made a dandy target; they called the plane The Flying Coffin. As pilot, Sidney Howard teamed with a fellow Californian Edmund Parrott, who had dropped out of Yale to volunteer. Parrott was 22, a tall string bean of a fellow with a spectacular mustache. He embraced each bombing run with maniacal glee. When Pershing’s all-American offensive on the Meuse Argonne began on September 1918, the unit destroyed railyards and bridges behind the German lines to cut off their retreating army.
At the point of the V on September 25, 1918, Lieutenant Howard led a disastrous raid north of Verdun. Within moments, German Fokkers intercepted and attacked. Only two of the seven planes returned to base. “I saw one of my planes go in flames,” Howard wrote a friend, “and another with his radiator streaming steam.” Parrott was “shot through the head in the cockpit behind me […] almost at the beginning of the flight […] [I] heard a sound like a meat cleaver in a butcher shop and then a rattle as of gravel thrown in my cockpit. […] When I turned Parrott was gone.” Sidney’s friend’s body jammed the controls. After a hideous half hour with the aileron and struts in ribbons, Sidney wrestled the shattered plane home “under the steady fire” of 12 German fighters. When they lifted Parrott’s body from the plane, he was still smiling. “I could look through the floor — five holes shot from underneath — and not a scratch on me!”
Dazed, Sidney paused to snatch a wooden bullet from the riddled cockpit. Pieced together over months, fragmented into archives from Massachusetts to California, this is one story of the strange object that rolled out of the envelope into my hand.
But there’s another, too. The minute Sidney Howard fixed a little eyehook to the bullet’s stub the object entered into myth. It became an amulet. Sidney hung the atavistic thing on a string around his neck to keep Parrott with him, to ward off death, and to assuage the survivor’s guilt that made him “feel flat and contemplative of suicide,” as he described it to the same friend. On the first of September when the campaign began, 28 American flyers camped on the wet fields of Maulun. By the end of September, only seven of them were still alive. In early October, Sidney received word that his younger brother Bruce had died of the flu that ravaged his military base in Maryland. Gaunt and haunted, his dark eyes ringed with exhaustion, Sidney posed with the survivors for a commemorative photograph on Armistice day. It’s chilly. Hands in their trench coats’ pockets, the men huddle together grimly, framed by the looming wing and propeller of the plane behind them, enveloped by death.
Sidney Howard kept the wooden bullet all his short, energetic life. Before the war he knew he would be a writer. He experimented with journalism, short stories, and bad poetry before he found his imaginative form in complex psychological dramas. He steadfastly resisted the myth of the war’s glory. For a time, he struggled to shake off guilt and despair. By the 1920s, he was the most famous young playwright on Broadway. In 1925, he won the Pulitzer Prize for They Knew What They Wanted, a surprising triangle of desire, love, and queer(ish) kinship. At 48, Howard died in a farming accident. Months later, he won a posthumous Oscar for the screenplay of Gone with the Wind.
Sidney Howard is one of a dozen figures in my book-in-progress Wounded Minds, a biography of once famous but now forgotten Americans and their circle of friends. The public health psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Salmon (1876–1927) organized the first systematic psychiatric treatment for soldiers at the front and later in government hospitals. The journalist Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant (1881–1965) was badly injured covering the Marne battles for the newly founded New Republic magazine. After a breakdown, she became Salmon’s patient and editorial right hand. Returning to a country oblivious to the lessons that the war had exacted — but determined to acknowledge and treat “war neuroses” — Salmon and Sergeant worked to bring government-funded mental health care to tens of thousands of veterans suffering from what we now call PTSD.
The rapacious amnesia of “a return to normalcy” erased the experience of war; the Lost Generation fled to Europe; and President Harding’s circle of cronies corrupted every department of government; yet these people stayed here and worked and stayed honest. They left archives; they made policy; and they made art. Their memory may have been eroded by greater traumas and by a sturdy, nationwide will to forget. But it is still recuperable.
In the month since I began this essay, the legible world has disappeared. It’s hard to recall how I felt in February, but I’m alive in the parallel news of almost exactly a century ago: the war, the flu, the psychological trauma, and the tug-of-war over who will pay for the social cost. Sam See understood how myth affords a communal truth that connects us to a deeper human past and can project, however brokenly, the promise of futurity. You could call what I’m writing social biography. My subjects were once influential but now forgotten. They were a pair, but not a couple. They don’t meet until well after the story begins, so the narrative is an odd Y-shaped thing, alternating stories and then knitting them together over time. It’s a project steeped in death about crazy people. God, I wish Sam was here to talk with about it. Were here. There it is: history, myth.
Wendy Moffat, author of A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster, is professor of English at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. Wounded Minds is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.