The Bullet/The Amulet

You could call what I’m writing social biography. He embraced each bombing run with maniacal glee. But history is not enough. “I saw one of my planes go in flames,” Howard wrote a friend, “and another with his radiator streaming steam.” Parrott was “shot through the head in the cockpit behind me […] almost at the beginning of the flight […] [I] heard a sound like a meat cleaver in a butcher shop and then a rattle as of gravel thrown in my cockpit. It’s a project steeped in death about crazy people. As pilot, Sidney Howard teamed with a fellow Californian Edmund Parrott, who had dropped out of Yale to volunteer. Everything else in the playwright Sidney Howard’s archive at Berkeley’s Bancroft Library is two-dimensional. There it is: history, myth. In his posthumously published writing and his archival fragments, Sam expanded his epistemological range to slip the knot of time through mythic explorations.   The object is a German bullet from World War I, late September 1918 to be exact. The fuel tank made a dandy target; they called the plane The Flying Coffin. They were a pair, but not a couple. When they lifted Parrott’s body from the plane, he was still smiling. I collected shards of meaning, but how to look at these discoveries was informed by Sam. Renegades and intellectuals, they dubbed their unit the Mad Bolsheviks. MAY 3, 2020

THE STUBBORN MATERIALITY of this object: a tapered wooden dowel with a crude hook impaled in its flat end. Even a straight story is illuminated by Sam’s eye. “Unable to decide if I was a historian or a theorist [in graduate school]” Sam wrote, “I was able to argue almost anything but believed next to nothing.” In turning to myth (as “falsehood and foundational tale”), Sam acknowledged the limits of empiricism. Sam See understood how myth affords a communal truth that connects us to a deeper human past and can project, however brokenly, the promise of futurity. […] When I turned Parrott was gone.” Sidney’s friend’s body jammed the controls. The public health psychiatrist Dr. By the end of September, only seven of them were still alive. It’s chilly. Sidney hung the atavistic thing on a string around his neck to keep Parrott with him, to ward off death, and to assuage the survivor’s guilt that made him “feel flat and contemplative of suicide,” as he described it to the same friend. On the nose of their planes they painted a cartoonish emblem of a bearded man holding a bomb with a lit fuse. They chafed and waited for months to get into battle, training on French planes because American war production lagged. They don’t meet until well after the story begins, so the narrative is an odd Y-shaped thing, alternating stories and then knitting them together over time. ¤
First, History. Sam left rich remains: the essays collected in Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies, as well as unpublished writing on how he had grown and where he was heading. He steadfastly resisted the myth of the war’s glory. By the 1920s, he was the most famous young playwright on Broadway. The minute Sidney Howard fixed a little eyehook to the bullet’s stub the object entered into myth. After a hideous half hour with the aileron and struts in ribbons, Sidney wrestled the shattered plane home “under the steady fire” of 12 German fighters. I’m different. In the month since I began this essay, the legible world has disappeared. We need both history and myth, this collection reminds us. Forster, is professor of English at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. One little envelope bulged, and out rolled this assertive thing. It’s hard to recall how I felt in February, but I’m alive in the parallel news of almost exactly a century ago: the war, the flu, the psychological trauma, and the tug-of-war over who will pay for the social cost. Only two of the seven planes returned to base. As a theorist and intellectual historian, Sam saw keenly and thought clearly, and, near the end of his life, he wondered if these tools were enough. Eventually the DH-4s with American-made Liberty engines arrived. Writing a biography begins with detective work, but it’s not simply that. I tell a story you can’t hear. In 1925, he won the Pulitzer Prize for They Knew What They Wanted, a surprising triangle of desire, love, and queer(ish) kinship. Sidney Howard is one of a dozen figures in my book-in-progress Wounded Minds, a biography of once famous but now forgotten Americans and their circle of friends. My subjects were once influential but now forgotten. It became an amulet. The rapacious amnesia of “a return to normalcy” erased the experience of war; the Lost Generation fled to Europe; and President Harding’s circle of cronies corrupted every department of government; yet these people stayed here and worked and stayed honest. My work on Sidney Howard, for example, entailed months of reading in the National Archives, talking to his family, reading his correspondence from Berkeley to the Beinecke at Yale. At 48, Howard died in a farming accident. When Pershing’s all-American offensive on the Meuse Argonne began on September 1918, the unit destroyed railyards and bridges behind the German lines to cut off their retreating army. To read the object that rolled out of the envelope in Howard’s papers historically is to place it contextually, timeful and timebound, even as we are anchored in our own moment. On the first of September when the campaign began, 28 American flyers camped on the wet fields of Maulun. Before the war he knew he would be a writer. Cut off from the iron fields of Lorraine, German munitions manufacturers saved scarce metal for the bigger shells. ¤
Wendy Moffat, author of A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. Parrott was 22, a tall string bean of a fellow with a spectacular mustache. The two-man crew sat back-to-back with the fuel tank wedged between them, the pilot in front and the observer looking backward, reading the landscape below, dropping bombs on the target, and manning the machine gun. Biographers knit the past to now. M. The journalist Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant (1881–1965) was badly injured covering the Marne battles for the newly founded New Republic magazine. God, I wish Sam was here to talk with about it. You will need new ways to understand. He experimented with journalism, short stories, and bad poetry before he found his imaginative form in complex psychological dramas. Wounded Minds is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Were here. Gaunt and haunted, his dark eyes ringed with exhaustion, Sidney posed with the survivors for a commemorative photograph on Armistice day. Hands in their trench coats’ pockets, the men huddle together grimly, framed by the looming wing and propeller of the plane behind them, enveloped by death. Months later, he won a posthumous Oscar for the screenplay of Gone with the Wind. Letters, photos, typescripts. An object in the Sidney Coe Howard Collection, Bancroft Library, UC BerkeleyPhoto credit: Wendy Moffat
Sam See’s capacious epistemologies in Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies offer some openings. To meet machine guns’ profligate appetites, then, they lathed wooden bullets. They left archives; they made policy; and they made art. I don’t belong to these words and ideas, it said. Within moments, German Fokkers intercepted and attacked. Pieced together over months, fragmented into archives from Massachusetts to California, this is one story of the strange object that rolled out of the envelope into my hand. Sidney Howard kept the wooden bullet all his short, energetic life. Valuing belief, impatient with arid facts, Sam honored another kind of desire: the hunger for heart-knowledge and the “appeal of the spiritual” in queer mythmaking. Sidney Howard was an aviator, one of 28 men in the AEF’s First Day Bombardment Group. But it is still recuperable. In early October, Sidney received word that his younger brother Bruce had died of the flu that ravaged his military base in Maryland. Thomas Salmon (1876–1927) organized the first systematic psychiatric treatment for soldiers at the front and later in government hospitals. After a breakdown, she became Salmon’s patient and editorial right hand. Myth can explain things, and can explore how things come to be forgotten. Myth connects to ancient human ways and posits future human connections. Their memory may have been eroded by greater traumas and by a sturdy, nationwide will to forget. Seven planes flew north in a V formation like a flock of geese. Returning to a country oblivious to the lessons that the war had exacted — but determined to acknowledge and treat “war neuroses” — Salmon and Sergeant worked to bring government-funded mental health care to tens of thousands of veterans suffering from what we now call PTSD. At the point of the V on September 25, 1918, Lieutenant Howard led a disastrous raid north of Verdun. ¤
But there’s another, too. For a time, he struggled to shake off guilt and despair. From his readings of Darwin’s writing to his self-appraisal of his own professional performance, Sam understood that the conundrum that the thing observed and the subjectivity of the observer are always intertwined. “I could look through the floor — five holes shot from underneath — and not a scratch on me!”
Dazed, Sidney paused to snatch a wooden bullet from the riddled cockpit.