In This Article Vietnam War Literature

  • Introduction
  • Science Fiction
  • Detective Fiction
  • Travel Writing
  • Vietnam and the Comics
  • Anthologies
  • Interviews
  • Pedagogical Approaches
  • Adolescent and Children’s Literature
  • Gender
  • Postmodernism
  • Film
  • Trauma Studies
  • The Returning Veteran and the War’s Aftermath
  • The Home Front
  • The Antiwar Movement
  • The War Correspondent
  • The War’s Images
  • The Vietnam Veterans Memorial
  • Narrative Structure, Style, and Theme
  • French Colonialism and Beyond
  • British Antecedents
  • The Australian Experience
  • The Vietnam War and Canada
  • Japanese Accounts of the War
  • The Korean Experience
  • Vietnam and the War on Terror
  • Foreign Scholarship

American Literature Vietnam War Literature
by
Catherine Calloway
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0057

Introduction

Considered America’s first “long” war, the Vietnam War, which spanned the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, has always been a topic of interest, not only to the American people, who lost over 58,000 loved ones, but also to writers of literature, historians, sociologists, psychologists, politicians, and filmmakers. Literary expression began with British writer Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955) and quickly spread to the United States, where it continues over half a century later. Since 1955 literally thousands of works of literature have been written about the involvement of America and other countries in Vietnam. In turn, these works have generated over a thousand books and articles of literary criticism—far too many to enumerate in this selective bibliography—as well as special collections at Colorado State University and La Salle University, special journals and journal issues, and numerous conference sessions. In the 1980s and 1990s especially, a growing number of scholars began documenting the war and its prolific literary endeavors. They quickly realized that the Vietnam War reflected in this literature was a diverse war. The brutal experiences of the soldier on the front lines differed considerably from the boredom of the soldier who shuffled papers in the rear, and the soldier who served in the early years fought a different war from that of the soldier who fought after the TET offensive in 1968. Vietnam was considered by many to be an “absurd” war, one that was fought with mines and booby traps and children as well as with the most-modern technology, one in which progress was measured by the “body count” rather than the taking of enemy territory, one in which soldiers served a twelve- or thirteen-month rotation, and one in which the enemy was not clearly defined. These traits are clearly reflected in the literature of the war, which takes a wide variety of approaches in its efforts toward sense making and encompasses a number of genres—novels, short stories, poetry, drama, memoirs, oral histories, scrapbooks, letters, detective fiction, science fiction, and travel literature, for instance. In its inception, literary scholarship focused almost exclusively on accounts of white male American soldiers and has gradually evolved to include gender and minority studies, the effects of the war on the home front, and the war’s aftermath as well as responses from other nationalities, including Australia, Canada, Japan, Korea, and France. Today, interest is growing in bicultural studies, especially those of the “other” or the Vietnamese people in whose land the war was fought and the diaspora or the immigration of Vietnamese to the United States. Literary connections are also quickly being made between the Vietnam War and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan during the early 21st century.

Prose

The entries in this section are a guide to well-established critical works known to most scholars of Vietnam War literature; these studies focus mainly on prose but may be interdisciplinary and cross genres. Beidler 1982, which provides one of the first book-length overviews of American literature and the war, focuses on sense making, as does Ringnalda 1994. Hellmann 1986 explores the Kennedy myth and the way in which the war “invert[s] America’s frontier mythos” (p. 222) and calls for a New Frontier hero, and Herzog 1992 focuses on another mythic figure, John Wayne, and the soldiers’ initiation into experience via “A heavy Heart-of-Darkness Trip” (p. 8). Myers 1988, too, through a focus on theme and narrative strategy, notes society’s tendency toward myth making and the way that the war’s authors realize that society will not learn from any of the graphic lessons that they share in their writing, that the notion of a separate peace is truly a myth. Taylor 2003 adds the figure of Rambo and the nature of truth telling, both in historical and in literary accounts, to its own discussion of sense making and the John Wayne myth. Beidler 1991 looks at the way that this generation of Vietnam writers is engaged in a “mythic self-critique” that moves them into the larger canon of American literature (p. xiii), and Gilman 1992 offers the first significant study of Vietnam’s role in the American South.

  • Beidler, Philip D. American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1982.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first groundbreaking study of the literature of the Vietnam War. Provides a chronological overview of the literature written between 1958 and the early 1980s that focuses on the American experience in Vietnam and the author’s efforts to make sense of it.

  • Beidler, Philip D. Re-writing America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1991.

    E-mail Citation »

    In his second significant study of the war, Beidler turns to examine how the initial writers of the war are still producing a prodigious body of material that ensures their status as major contributors not only to the Vietnam War canon, but to American literature and culture as well.

  • Gilman, Owen W., Jr. Vietnam and the Southern Imagination. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.

    E-mail Citation »

    A groundbreaking study of the Vietnam experience in Southern literature and of writers who place that “experience deep in the context of their region” and its tragic past (p. 20).

  • Hellmann, John. American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

    E-mail Citation »

    An important early study of the war and its literature. Looks at the way that the Vietnam War and its texts—fiction, memoir, and film—have challenged us to reconsider the traditional American myth of the frontier hero, which has been disrupted by the war.

  • Herzog, Tobey C. Vietnam War Stories: Innocence Lost. London: Routledge, 1992.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203359563E-mail Citation »

    Useful for its overview of main thematic concerns and features unique to the Vietnam War. Approaches the war experience chronologically, beginning with prewar innocence and then moving to combat experience and postwar return and adjustment, covering a variety of literary works in the process. Readable for students.

  • Myers, Thomas. Walking Point: American Narratives of Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

    E-mail Citation »

    Long considered a groundbreaking study of Vietnam War prose. Concentrates on ten well-known writers of the war, showing how these authors work within the strategies of black humor, realism, “revised American romanticism,” classical memoir, and mnemonic narrative (p. 33).

  • Ringnalda, Donald. Fighting and Writing the Vietnam War. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    Contends that we should move away from the accepted myth that Vietnam was a “unique” war and instead embrace the “nonsense” or the absurdity of this conflict. Devotes individual chapters to writers Stephen Wright, Michael Herr, Tim O’Brien, and Peter Straub.

  • Taylor, Mark. The Vietnam War in History, Literature, and Film. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    Studies the Vietnam War through the lens of the novel, memoir, history, film, and journalism. Focuses on key events of the war and the portrayal of returning veterans and analyzes the complex nature of the “true” war story. Readable for students.

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