May, 1917. Just one month earlier the United States has declared war against the Central Powers. The draft was about to begin. For almost three years Europe has been ravaged by the First World War, much of it brutal trench warfare in France and Belgium. Now the U.S. has entered the fray after a long debate about neutrality.
On May 14, 1917, a young man born in Defiance, Ohio entered a U.S. Marine Corps recruiting station in Chicago and enlisted. Like countless other young men the decision changed the course of his life dramatically, and like other young writers who have entered the service in wartime, the experiences he had of both combat and military life helped shape the books he eventually wrote.
Thomas Boyd, who wrote a classic World War I novel called Through the Wheat, occupies, along with two other men, a special place in American literary history. When American novels of the First World War are discussed in standard literary histories, three particular books are often highlighted: Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms; John Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers; and e.e. cummings’s The Enormous Room. It is an interesting fact of our literary history that these three famous works associated with American experience of WWI were written by men who were not soldiers but civilian ambulance drivers. This is a noteworthy anomaly since there has been a flood of fiction and poetry by America’s veterans in the wake of other twentieth century wars, especially World War Two and Vietnam.
This fact has no bearing on the high quality of these three famous books, nor their significance as important American novels. Neither does it take away from the sacrifices and courage of these three men, nor the fact that they witnessed firsthand many times the war’s carnage. Hemingway almost lost his life in a mortar attack on the Italian front, and cummings had the misfortune of being wrongfully imprisoned by the French government when he ran afoul of French censors in his letters to friends and family.
For those who seriously study WWI history and WWI literature, the story of the volunteer ambulance units and their roll call of distinguished literary figures is well known, but it is certainly little known to those Americans who may have some general knowledge about the war. The larger story of the ambulance drivers in the Great War is one that Americans should honor and remember. It has never received the recognition it deserves. They rescued and transported the wounded, often under fire. They risked their lives in a foreign war long before their own country was officially involved. A number of them joined the U.S. Army’s ambulance units. It is also worth noting that cummings and Dos Passos were eventually drafted into the U.S. Army before the war ended, experiencing the American military’s rites of passage like so many of their countrymen. This was probably of particular value to Dos Passos as he was so dedicated to chronicling American life. He was exposed to a large number of fellow Americans from varied regions and social backgrounds in the close quarters of garrison duty.
But these three books are not the only important American novels that emerged from the war. There are other books that deserve recognition, and they too tell a story of how war exacts a toll on human beings. While bearing the impress and unique vision of their creators, these narratives also capture the doughboy’s experience of the war.
Any reexamination of American literature and World War One demands that Thomas Boyd, along with William March and Laurence Stallings, be brought into the light. These three writers are the most distinguished American authors of fictional works on the war whose experience was that of the rank and file American soldier on the front lines—those who enlisted or were drafted and arrived in Europe to confront the nasty realities of trench combat. They endured the military rituals of boot camp, battle, and eventual demobilization. This was an experience they shared with tens of thousands of other American men during 1917-1918.
And all three of these men were Marines, a branch of the service most Americans may not know was so deeply involved in World War One combat, nor that it was during this conflict that the Marines’ reputation as fierce warriors became better known to the American public.
William March, an Alabama native, wrote a memorable book called Company K. It is a series of vignettes, each one powerful on its own terms, that adds up to a devastating portrait of the war’s terrors and pain. March is likely better known for his book The Bad Seed, a novel about a murderous little girl. The Bad Seed was adapted for the stage and made into a motion picture.
Laurence Stallings suffered a severe leg wound in the war and returned home to co-author with Maxwell Anderson a famous play about the military called What Price Glory? Stallings in later life wrote a well-regarded history of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) called The Doughboys, but he also wrote a novel—Plumes—that deserves a wider readership. It is not a war novel in the strict sense, but a novel of a warrior after he has returned home. It is a story of a veteran readjusting to civilian life and dealing with a Veteran’s Administration system swamped with corruption and notoriously incompetent (sound familiar?). The treatment of returning servicemen and women by Harding’s administration is an unpleasant chapter of the Roaring Twenties that is not usually covered in social studies class. This sad history has been repeated too often with successive wars.
Boyd would be best known for Through The Wheat, a novel that F. Scott Fitzgerald would say “is not only the best combatant story of the Great War but also the best war book since The Red Badge of Courage. Fitzgerald’s friend and Princeton classmate Edmund Wilson, one of the best and toughest literary critics of the last century—and a man not lavish with praise—would call it “The most authentic novel written by an American about war.”
Thomas Boyd was born in Defiance, Ohio on July 3, 1898. His father came from a once wealthy Montreal family, and his mother, Alice Dunbar, was one of nine daughters born to a Defiance farmer who was a descendant of one of the earliest families to settle western Ohio. They met in Chicago where Alec Boyd was trying to establish himself in business and where Alice was working as a nurse. They were married only a short time before Alec died from an illness. Alice returned to Defiance and gave birth to Thomas Boyd.
Thomas Boyd’s upbringing was erratic. He spent his early years with his maternal grandparents, who met his basic needs but were emotionally distant. His life was further complicated when his mother, who lived with chronic pain after eye surgery, became addicted to morphine. However, his grandfather taught him much about his family history and local Ohio history—interests that would remain with Tom Boyd when later in life he wrote much about the early American frontier.
Alice later overcame her addiction and took custody of Tom. He attended the Ohio Military Academy in the College Hill neighborhood of Cincinnati and joined the Catholic Church. He later bounced between schools in Defiance, Porter Military Academy in South Carolina and Woodward High School in Cincinnati before going to live with relatives in Chicago. He eventually settled with an aunt and uncle from his father’s side of the family in Elgin, Illinois and adopted their faith: Christian Science. These relatives were also Oberlin graduates who valued literature, and Tom became more interested in reading and writing. He was attending a local business school when the U.S. entered the war, and Tom and his friend Bob Hepburn went to a recruiting office in Chicago and enlisted. They were both soon bound for Parris Island, South Carolina.
Tom Boyd finished basic training and was placed in the 75th Company of the 1st Battalion of the Sixth Marine Division. On September 16, 1917, he sailed for France and was promoted to corporal two days later. His first months in France were mainly spent on labor details, but in March of 1918 he was sent into the front lines near Verdun. From that point on Boyd and his comrades would, except for short rest periods, be involved in combat. Boyd would see action at Verdun, Belleau Wood, Soissons, and St. Mihiel. At Soissons, Tom Boyd was one of a number of men who rescued wounded Marines during a heavy bombardment, and Boyd was later awarded the Croix de Guerre for his actions. He was gassed on October 6 at Mont Blanc and evacuated to a hospital. Thomas Boyd would spend the rest of the war either in hospital beds or doing guard duty as a member of the army of occupation in Germany after the armistice.
Phosgene gas is one of the nastiest weapons human beings have developed. According to his biographer, Brian Bruce, Boyd “suffered through several illnesses and maladies related to his injuries, including bronchitis, laryngitis, diseased tonsils, and a hysterical spasm of his laryngeal muscles.” Boyd was eventually returned to the U.S. and discharged on July 10, 1919 at the Naval Hospital at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois.
He returned to Defiance, then drifted to Toledo and Chicago, where he met Margaret Woodward, who became his wife. She was also a writer—she wrote under the name Woodward Boyd–who eventually had several books published by Scribner’s as well. Boyd and his wife moved to Minneapolis, where he managed a bookstore, became a literary page editor, and met many prominent writers. He also struck up a friendship with Scott Fitzgerald, who became one of his biggest supporters and encouraged Scribner’s to publish Through the Wheat. The book was published on April 27, 1923, and reviews were good. The book sold steadily and by April of 1924 went into its seventh printing.
Boyd produced another war novel, The Dark Cloud, and followed it in 1925 with a collection of war stories entitled Points of Honor. He later turned to writing history, producing the biographies Samuel Drummond (1925), Simon Girty (1928), Mad Anthony Wayne (1929), and Poor John Fitch (1935). He also wrote a historical novel called Shadow of the Long Knives in 1928 and continued the story of Private Hicks, the central character of Through The Wheat in a novel called In Time of Peace (1935). In this phase of his career it’s clear that Boyd’s interest in midwestern frontier history resurfaced in the form of his historical novel and the books on Wayne and the famous frontier renegade Simon Girty. Boyd’s book on Girty is one of the few serious biographical treatments of this notorious figure.
Tom and Margaret divorced and Thomas Boyd remarried and moved to Vermont. The Depression had a strong impact on Boyd and he became more radical in his politics, joining the Communist party and running as the Communist candidate for governor of Vermont. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1935. Thomas Boyd was only thirty-six years old. Doctors indicated that the mustard gas attack Boyd experienced in October 1918 likely contributed to his early death.
For decades Through The Wheat has gone in and out of print, but has always found appreciative readers. The story is a simple and timeless one. A young man named Hicks arrives in France with his fellows and prepares for the inevitable experience of battle. Soon they experience chaos and the destruction of combat. Here is a young man who would, in another time, be back at home making his way in the world, now plunged into a terrible and brutal conflict, surrounded by the sights, sounds, and smells of destruction. The beautiful and fertile farm country of France has become a killing ground. It has been ninety-one years since this book first appeared, but the vision and gift of Thomas Boyd captured for all time the sad pilgrimage of a young man in a war that has shaped our lives more than we might believe. Hicks is still there, talking to the dead and trying to shake them awake, his boyhood left behind forever in the blood soaked fields of wheat.
Thomas Boyd: Lost Author of the Lost Generation. The University of Akron University Press. 2006. At long last a good biography of Thomas Boyd, and the only one available. This book focuses more on his life and does not go into much detail about his works, but it is a good treatment of his life.
Through The Wheat , Popular Library 1978 (Lost American Fiction Series under the general editorship of Matthew J. Bruccoli.) Afterword by James Dickey and biographical note by Matthew J. Bruccoli.
Wikipedia entry on Thomas Boyd.
American Literary Almanac: From 1608 To The Present, Bruccoli, Clark, Layman. 1988.
Rvive Books biographical entry on Thomas Boyd. Rvive Books has brought a number of books by Thomas and Woodward Boyd back into print.
Here’s a link to their website: