[Crossposted from New Books in History] You may not know who John Galsworthy is, but you probably know his work. Who hasn’t seen some production of The Forsyte Saga? Galsworthy was one of the most popular and famous British writers of the early 20th century (the Edwardian Era). He left an enormous body of work, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1932. But Galsworthy was also what we might call a “public humanitarian,” that is, he used his high profile and influence in a great, good cause. The focus of his effort was disabled solders returning from World War I. We, of course, are well acquainted with the remarkable destructive power of modern weaponry. Not a week goes by (alas) in which we do not hear about a soldier being wounded by mines, grenades, artillery fire or bombs (often of the “roadside” variety). But we also have come to expect that soldier, no matter how grievously wounded, will receive medical treatment that will stand at least a fighting chance of saving their lives. And indeed, many wounded soldiers do survive incredibly severe injuries and return to our world. The generation that fought and suffered World War I–or as they called it “The Great War”–were really not familiar with any of this. Europeans and Americans of the nineteenth century were surely used to wars, but they were generally short and decided by pivotal battles (Waterloo, Gettysburg, Sedan). But the Great War was different. Millions of men lived for years at the “front” and under the shells. Many died there and many more were wounded. Thanks to advances in medical knowledge (and particularly the discovery of the germ theory of disease), a goodly proportion of the wounded survived. This presented a new problem: How to re-integrate wounded men into society? This became Galsworthy’s cause. The course of his efforts on the part of wounded soldiers is detailed with great skill and care by Jeffrey Reznick in his John Galsworthy and the Disabled Soldiers of the Great War (Manchester UP, 2009). Reznick shows us Galsworthy attempting to create the modern infrastructure of veterans’ care: special hospitals, rehabilitation programs, work-transition agencies and so on. And we get to read Galsworthy’s writing on the subject, both non-fiction and fiction. All this give us–or gave me–a new understanding of Galsworthy’s literary work. Galsworthy was a great man. But as it turned out he was greater than I knew. We should thank Jeff for bringing his good-works to our attention.
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