The poet’s new clothes
By Brian Doyle
Try these totally accurate words on for size: United States Army Air Corps Major W. H. Auden. I kid you not. Wystan Hugh Auden was recruited by the U.S. Army’s Strategic Bombing Survey to help with a study of the effects of Allied bombing on Nazi Germany. He had actually volunteered for this job, as an almost-American (he lived in New York City and would become a naturalized citizen in 1946) who detested Hitler and the Nazis, and after being sworn in, he spent months in Europe collecting stories from civilians.
There are, I am sure, any number of theories about his motivation—one holding that he joined the Army after losing the 1945 Pulitzer Prize to Karl Shapiro for not being active enough in the war effort (and for having communist leanings, to boot)— but my mind sticks on Auden trying on his major’s uniform for the first time. Whoa.
Let’s say this happens at Fort Jay, in New York Harbor. The major’s uniform in 1945 is olive drab wool serge. Auden, a famously poor dresser, for once chooses the natty option: the M-1944 short dress jacket, called the Ike Jacket. Cotton shirt and necktie—shade Number 50, light olive drab. A choice of caps, the folded flight cap or the oval service cap; but he knows that the latter is now taken for a sign of combat service, so he chooses the flight cap. Army Regulations 600-40 allow the wearing of emblems and badges, sir, says the orderly helping him dress.
Can we happily imagine Auden’s response? I am adorned beyond the wildest of imaginations, he might have said. One never knows what motley one will wear, yes?
The orderly is startled, but he presses on. He probably said something like, These are your charge papers, sir, in this letter. You’ll need to keep them with you and be ready to present them as necessary. You are charged to report the effects of bombing of civilians in Europe and to establish contact where possible with citizens opposed to Nazis. Use your personal and professional relationships.
But that is exactly what I have done my whole life and not always to my credit either, Auden might have murmured. You can hide behind the curtain of art only so long, my young friend. At some point you face the fact that you have, with reckless selfishness, stolen the lives and loves and stories of your friends, and sculpted them for your own benefit, in forms that are, in the end, of course, productive of small coin for you to live by. But what else are we to do with our tools? I hear music in speech, and I know that the more we are able to remember and make unforgettable the small piercing scraps of our talk, the better we may be able to treat each other—the less we can safely lie. Of course art is selfish. But it is also art, which is inherently bigger than the artist.
Yes, sir, said the orderly, probably, politely, probably. Good luck, sir. And they part, the orderly surely thinking, as I am today, boy, that’s the most unusual major the United States Army ever briefly employed, yes?
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the novel Mink River. He writes the weekly Epiphanies column at theamericanscholar.org.
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