Negotiating authority: Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant's World War I memoir.

Author:Prenatt, Diane

On October 19, 1918, the American journalist Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, a correspondent for the New Republic, was touring a reclaimed Marne battlefield under the official supervision of a French army lieutenant and a French government liaison to the Red Cross. Sergeant, who had been covering the war in France for more than a year, was in the company of two other journalists--Cecil Dorrian of the Newark Evening News and Eunice Tietjens, who had just left the Chicago Daily News to begin working for the Red Cross--and Margaret Conger, the wife of an American officer. The lieutenant cautioned the women not to pick up any objects from the ground, but the impulse to gather souvenirs was hard to resist. Tietjens retrieved a German Bible, which she kept for decades afterwards. Mile de la Vallette, the Red Cross official, picked up a German "potato masher" hand grenade, thinking it was a gas mask she could give her nephew as a war memento. It detonated, killing her instantly and gravely wounding both Sergeant and the lieutenant. The lieutenant lost his arm, and Sergeant spent almost seven months at the American Hospital of Paris in treatment and rehabilitation of leg injuries so severe she narrowly escaped amputation herself. She wrote a memoir of her experience, Shadow-Shapes: The Journal of a Wounded Woman, October 1918 - May 1919, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1920.

Shadow-Shapes is an extraordinary contribution to the literature of witness and participates in what Julie Goodspeed-Chadwick has identified as the "genealogy of modernist female war writing that takes ownership of war as a subject for women writers" (1). As the personal account of a woman wounded on a battlefield and treated in a military hospital, it appears to be unique among World War I memoirs. The subtitle itself creates a startling juxtaposition of physical injury and sexual identity at the site of which Sergeant negotiates issues of narrative authority posed by her medical condition, her profession, and early twentieth-century constructions of gender. As a journalist, Sergeant was an engaged observer of the war. Her injury abruptly reconfigured her relationship to the war: she was no longer simply an observer; she was a participant. And yet she was not a combatant, even though she was wounded on a battlefield by a military weapon and received military medical care in the company of combatants.

Furthermore, although women were a minority among war correspondents, they were by no means unheard of, but as a wounded woman, Sergeant was a rare figure indeed. (Very few women served in active combat in World War I--almost all of them in the Russian army--and in their more typical work as nurses or service volunteers, they were generally safe from battlefield injury, if not from illness.) As a wounded woman, Sergeant's role shifted rapidly from self-possessed professional journalist to incapacitated war casualty, from a role in which her sexual identity was somewhat unusual to one in which it was highly problematic. Sergeant must finally negotiate her authority, then, as a woman with a war story to tell.


At the time of her injury, Sergeant was a 37-year-old unmarried professional writer with family in Brookline, Massachusetts and friends in New York City. Her values were shaped by a conscientious New England upbringing and a Bryn Mawr education under the formidable early feminist M. Carey Thomas, and she had undertaken journalism as a form of social action. She began contributing regularly to the New Republic when it was founded in 1914, joining progressive social critics like Randolph Bourne and Waldo Frank. Fluent in French and a self-described Francophile, she wrote reviews of contemporary French literature and cultural commentary that drew upon extensive visits to France where she frequented Paris intellectual circles and the group of Provencal writers and painters known as the Felibrige. Not much is known about the circumstances under which the New Republic sent her to France to report on the war, but it is likely that Sergeant, with her deep affection for the country, argued for the assignment. The magazine promoted her "vivid firsthand narrative" from France as a benefit of subscription; subscribing readers were also promised, almost as an afterthought, articles by George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells ("Over There").

The French Ministry of War prohibited journalists in France from reporting on active combat and strictly censored their mail, including the international cables used to file press reports. (1) Sergeant's "specialty," however, was "the balanced Franco-American point of view" and, despite being generally confined to Paris and its environs, she was able to write in great detail about the experience of Americans in wartime France (Sergeant to Greenslet, July 2, 1918). Through social and professional connections, she had access to the staff of the American Red Cross and the Y.M.C.A. and wrote authoritatively about the service work of those organizations, the experience of American enlisted men in France, and the devastating conditions on the French home front, substantiated by statistical information and firsthand observation. She claims to have enjoyed special privileges from the censor, probably a consequence of her friendships with well-placed officials and her reputation as an earnest and accurate reporter of the war effort (Sergeant to Greenslet, August 20, 1918). Sergeant filed at least fifteen articles with the New Republic from France in 1918 alone, and her byline appears on at least two of the magazine's covers during that time.

By August 1918, Sergeant had entered into an agreement with her editor at Houghton Mifflin, Ferris Greenslet, to produce a manuscript on the American presence in France, composed of the war correspondence she had published in the New Republic and about a dozen more articles she planned to submit to that magazine and to Century magazine. The battlefield accident naturally interrupted her correspondence with him. Five days after the Armistice of November 11, Greenslet informed a hospitalized Sergeant that the Armistice and the quick publication of a couple of definitive accounts of the war left no market for her book. The reading public was war-weary and eager to move on to more pleasant topics, he claimed; her book would not sell. Sergeant had a very clear sense of her professional identity and little concern for the mass market; she had already rejected Greenslet's suggestion that she write a predictably popular book on the Red Cross, retorting, "Of course I should like as well as anyone to sell my book to 7 million people, but if that's what you want, send over Mary Roberts Rinehart!" (Sergeant to Greenslet, July 2, 1918). (2) She refused, as a point of professional integrity, to be released from what she considered a contract. Indignant that such a momentous historical event had become simply yesterday's news, she argued that if there were no longer an audience for firsthand accounts written during the war, there must be one for informed reflections in its aftermath.

Sergeant's exertion of moral authority ensured the publication of her book--Greenslet conceded to her understanding of their contract--but her lengthy hospitalization raised issues of narrative authority that finally shaped its structure. For even though the articles she had published in the New Republic had lost their immediacy, they constituted the bulk of the book she had proposed. Bedridden, with no personal access to the Paris peace negotiations and recovery effort, she could not imagine how to bring what she had already written into postwar currency. It was Walter Lippmann, her editor at the New Republic, who suggested she capitalize on her dilemma as a hospitalized patient in Paris to present her own unique testimony to the war and its aftermath.

In response to Lippmann's suggestion and to the circumstances that confined her, Sergeant created a narrative of striking modernity. Polyphonic, fragmented, impressionistic, it has much more in common with the experimental narratives of writers such as Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner than with the more conventional collection of republished essays Sergeant and Greenslet had originally envisioned. Shadow-Shapes stands as testimony to the intersection of the personal and the historic: it is both "the journal of a wounded woman," as the subtitle has it, and a memoir of the last year of the war and the following months of peace negotiations. It is organized as a dated diary, plotted along the trajectory of Sergeant's recovery from her injury, but the chronology is fragmented throughout, interpolated with her reminiscences of war experiences, the reports of news she receives from visitors and hospital staff in the wake of the Armistice and the Paris peace negotiations, and her reflections on the nature of war and its historical consequences. Part I, for example, opens on the day after the accident, when Sergeant recovers from surgery to find herself in a military tent hospital near the battlefield where she was injured; after twelve pages that trace her first two days in the hospital, the text flashes back to a six-page description of the accident, then returns to the narrative present, in which Sergeant is being transported by train from the tent hospital to the American Hospital of Paris. The ten-hour train trip provides the framework for seven separate reminiscences of earlier days of the war, some of them based on her New Republic reports. The narrative then returns to the present for ten pages, as Sergeant settles into the American Hospital of Paris, where she would remain until May 1919.

In this first section of Shadow-Shapes, as Sergeant negotiates authorial control of her memoir, the chronological fragmentation helps to establish her narrative authority. At the time Sergeant was writing, the eyewitness account had replaced moralistic public rhetoric as the authoritative war...

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