Barry Hannah on WWII & Writing
Posted on March 3, 2010
The great lit Web site The Rumpus has an intriguing piece about the late, great Barry Hannah. Apparently he was a bit of a WWII buff and gave a lecture at Bennington entitled “Military History as Regards Fiction: The Unquenchable Thirst about World War II.” Man, what I would’ve given to have been there.
In the lecture he explored how a generation of soldiers came back from the war with a passion for literature. He mentioned that returning vets enrolled in school, feeling that they didn’t have time to “mess around.” Barry identified with the returning Vietnam vets and said an MFA program saved his life. He reminded his audience that the “greatest generation” had been fighting “real evil.” He said something about how he wasn’t impressed by science fiction and that “nonsense in outer space” because it had already happened – even Star Wars had the Nazi helmet. He said that Norman Mailer, William Styron, and Gore Vidal didn’t expect to be as educated as they were, or own the world as they did, or be a part of the only nation to drop an A-bomb in 1945. He mentioned the Cuban Missile Crisis, Iraq, and Iran – and that we can’t really know what these wars are like for the silent men who return – those suffering with PTSD. There were a lot of one-liners in this lecture. My notes say: A writer is not romantic … but better be having fun. He said: “I think you can imagine my almost total disinterest in e-mail.” The lecture is also filled with mantras: People didn’t die in vain. A single person could make a difference. You’ve got to teach something to exist. You’ve got to act to exist. I thought existentialism meant you’ve got to have a turtleneck and smoke cigarettes. It’s harder and harder to write because you don’t have to surprise anyone anymore. The best job you can do is not to know more, but to know what you like, and like it passionately. The lecture, despite my inability to tie everything together here, was exceedingly well constructed.
He said, in closing: “I grew up believing life is precious. Objects are precious.” He listed the pencil, the pen, and the Smith-Corona Electric. He quoted Solzhenitsyn and talked about Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. He encouraged us to sit in a room alone and show what we can do.