Analyzing primary sources: Literature of World War I & World War II

This is one of a series of posts about how to analyze different types of primary sources.

Last week we took a look at a Confederate soldier’s sketchbook of prison life. This week we’re going to analyze some literature from World War I and World War II.

Context

World War I and World War II were major military conflicts that involved many of the world’s most powerful and populous countries. Each war changed millions of lives and the histories of many countries. Countless individuals were inspired to create literature, poetry, plays, films, music, and artwork interpreting the wars. The books in this post all involve one of the world wars, each in a different way and from a different perspective.

Questions

Below are five different books related to World War I and World War II. Take a look at each book and look up their summaries to find out more information. Think about some of these questions as you compare them:

  • Who wrote these books? Were they involved in World War I or World War II?
  • When and where were these books written? (Note that this version of All Quiet on the Western Front is both a translation and an edition published decades after it was first written – how might that change your analysis?)
  • Who were these books written for? How might that affect the interpretation and representation of the wars?
  • These particular books are all fictional accounts – how might that affect your analysis? How much of the plots are based on facts?
  • How do the illustrations represent the wars? (Hint: Remember to consider the audience, plot, and publication date!)
  • What is the POV for each book? What is implied in the plots?
  • How do these books compare to each other and other war literature? How do they compare to what we actually know about World War I and World War II?

All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms

All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms [click for a larger image]

Further Research

These books are all part of our Literature & Rare Books collection in Special Collections. You can find these books and many more through the UMD Libraries’ catalog (try searching specifically in “Maryland Room Collections, Hornbake Library” to find rare books).

If you are interested in finding more literature created during and after these wars, check out the following books:

Learn more about girls’ series books in the digital exhibit “Girls’ Series Books Rediscovered: Nancy Drew & Friends,” and browse The Rose and Joseph Pagnani Collection of girls’ series books (from 1917 to the present).

As always, you can download our Primary Source Analysis handout or take at look at our “Research Using Primary Sources” tutorial. Need help finding primary and secondary sources to analyze? We’re always happy to help – just ask us! You can also check out our website (we recommend starting your research here).

Sources

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