This piece originally ran on April 27, 1927

We were sitting around at the club the second day of the Reunion. We should have been at the game, and I was surprised to see so many people leave it. In my own case, I no longer enjoy watching baseball as much as I once did and, after marching on the field with my class, I went back to the club again with the intention of reading "The Great Gatsby," I didn't get very far, however: several other men soon joined me and, before the game was over, the lounge was full. When a newcomer would appear, we would reproach him for his lack of loyalty; and when we demanded "Why aren't you at the game?" he would answer simply, "What game?" or "We seemed to be dropping the ball so much and I always find that so depressing." I had never gone in for "college spirit" myself, but I was sorry to see the others so demoralized. We were all more or less drunk: the gin bottles stood around foursquare on the big mission tables and the mantelpiece like some austere and monumental motif of the university architecture. I commiserated with one man on the difficulty of getting anything decent to drink in Columbus; and from another I listened to a long encomium on the golf and good sense of his wife which made me think he was becoming dissatisfied with her. Clark Wilder presently appeared. "How's the game going?" somebody asked. "Heigho! Lackaday! Here today—gone tomorrow!" said Clark; and then added, "It won't be long now!" This was a formula he had been featuring throughout the Reunion—to which he brought the extraordinary fortitude and endurance which had distinguished his record in the Argonne. Drinking heavily and constantly, his superb form was never affected: he always knew what he was doing and he never did anything disgraceful; his great frame was usually to be seen in the front rank of any parade and, whenever there was a speech to be made, he invariably spoke vigorously, coherently and nonsensically. When he was completely overcome with liquor, he would simply lie down and go to sleep, wherever he happened to be, and presently wake up as good as ever. When he arrived, everyone took another drink, and our lounging conversation, with its laughter at tlie end of pauses, in the wide and somber room where the afternoon sun sunk its shafts, began to convey the impression of a slowed-up moving picture. I asked Clark what he was doing and he told me he was working in a broker's office. "Ah, well!" he said, "it won't be long now!"

At last, after one of his most amusing speeches, a little deliberately and thickly delivered, he suddenly stretched out and went to sleep; a comparative silence ensued; and I presently dozed off myself. I was vaguely aware of people returning after the game, but I didn't wake up to ask who had won. When I did wake up, I found Newt Graves sitting in the leather chair next to mine. I was glad to see Newt again: I hadn't seen him for years—not since the War. He began to question me at once, with what I thought was an unnatural eagerness, as to what I was doing now: I told him that I had a job, but that I had not yet published the great Dantesque poem which I had contemplated during the years immediately after I got out of college. "In the Army, I used to long almost with tears," he said (I thought he was a little drunk, too), "for quiet and leisure to work. Just to get up in the morning and to know that you'd be there till evening! I bought a copy of Durer's engraving of St. Jerome in a print-shop at Nancy, and I used to carry it around with me. I should certainly never have envied St. Jerome before I was in the Army, but the sight of that man writing there in that great clean solid room, with its heavy beams and thick walls, while the sun of a whole long day moved the panes of light from the windows across his desk and floor, and with a lion, which he apparently kept as a household pet, dozing contentedly beside him, used really to move me deeply. No privacy! no security! no peace! I worked in a flimsy little office that was finally blown to splinters by a shell and, as for taming lions, I used to get the feeling that we were all wild animals! And then one never had a moment for one's own thoughts! And one got so used to the conditions of war that the opportunities of peace seemed almost incredible. How wonderful to write a book, to pursue a line of study, to talk with one's friends in the evening of the affairs of the world! When one first got out of college, one had wanted more action and excitement; but one had had quite enough of that. One realized that, left to itself, humanity was a raving mad-house and that it was only by long patience and effort that any order could be brought into it—that any duckboards could be built across the swamp. But such patience and effort as were needed, how sweet they seemed to me then!"

I wondered what was on his mind: his tone was not the tone of disillusionment, but of the freshest enthusiasm, and I hardly knew how to meet it. I tried to find out what had happened to him, but all his answers baffled me. "I know," I said at last, obviously enough, but feeling somehow that he would not take it as obvious, "I suppose the peace, instead of giving us something to go on, only allowed us more or less to remain demoralized, so that we didn't know precisely what to lean on in order to commence our patient effort." He looked at me quickly: "I live so far away," he said, "that I know very little of what's going on. But things were so bad during the War that it seemed as if they couldn't very well help taking a violent turn for the better. I kept feeling more and more strongly that humanity couldn't stand it much longer and that when they did finally wake up from that nightmare, there would be such a reaction toward benevolence and peace as had never been known in history. At first, I kept looking forward to an ultimate triumph of liberalism; then, later on, I was ready to say with the communists that, if the governments of a capitalist Europe were unable to put a stop to a war which was wrecking the whole of their society and of which all parties were desperately sick, but which seemed now to be crashing on toward the abyss with the uncontrollable momentum of an avalanche, then it was time for sabotage and for a new order built on different assumptions; and I found myself beginning to expect a general European revolution. In any case, it seemed to me impossible that one could ever live indifferently or trivially again. If one survived, one would at least have the advantage of having received a profound revelation as to what was important in life and what was not, of seeing clearly one's only course and of pursuing it unfalteringly and fearlessly." He spoke hopefully. I thought that he must have lived very far away indeed not to know anything that had happened since the War; and in his mouth the word "humanity" seemed somehow to date. "Yes," I answered, "one didn't count on the fact that Europe was exhausting; all its energy and that it was bound to be left too weak afterward to do anything very magnificent in the way of a new order; and we who were abroad during the War forgot that America was too remote and too ignorant to do much toward saving Europe. And then, not only the possibility, but even the desirability, of a real revolution began, in the long run, to seem doubtful. One even came eventually to doubt whether it was possible to adjust the difficulties of humanity by peaceful legislation: by a socialistic state or by a. league of nations. Our experience of the Army, I believe, had a profound effect on our ideas, and a different sort of effect than at the time we thought it would. Then, we were principally conscious of a desperate thirst for freedom, which made us sympathize with everybody else who desired freedom—disfranchised citizens, dissatisfied laborers, oppressed nationalities. Yet the Army, in the long run, gave us a lower opinion of humanity. Hitherto, we had been in the habit of looking somewhere—to some powerful institution or class—for justice and reason. However skeptical we may have thought ourselves, we really continued to believe instinctively that the lawyers could settle quarrels, that the doctors could cure disease, that the clergy could preserve Christianity, and that the government could maintain order. We had, further, a sort of confidence in the instincts of the common man. But, in the face of the chaos of the War, the professions and the government seemed futile. No one who has ever watched an army doctor trying to deal with a flu epidemic will ever get over his impression of the miserable impotence of man at the mercy of bacteria. And as for the common man, to live with him and to work with him is to learn to sympathize with and to like him, is even to feel the deepest solidarity with him. But, however much one may dislike army discipline or admit that soldiering is the one job in the world which almost no one does willingly, it is very difficult for anybody who has had intimate experience of a military unit to imagine elective action being taken by any large number of men without a firmly established group of superiors who are empowered to dragoon and penalize the rest. So that young men who went into the Army with Kropotkin under their arms not infrequently came out with a conviction that there was something to be said for Mussolini. But what affected one's ideas most of all was one's eventual realization of one's own fatal human inadequacy and one's own capacity for demoralization. It isn't at all difficult for young college men to think well of themselves, but, in a sense, it is perhaps impossible for soldiers to do so. I don't speak merely of the periods of nervous strain, though many men have never really got over them: much of our modern instability is an inheritance from it. But to have actual experience of one's own possibilities for cowardice, for brutality, for bestiality, to have it brought home to one how easy it is to abuse a position of power, however petty—is enough to give one pause in any sanguine assumptions about mankind. How many men, do you suppose, in this room have more even than the blood of the enemy on their souls? How many know that through their helplessness or their fault, they have wanted the lives of those whom they were pledged to protect—aviators who will never cease to reproach themselves with not having given proper instruction to one of their pupils who came to grief; doctors and orderlies who have let men die through negligence; commanders of companies who have misunderstood their orders and led their troops into unnecessary danger or who, too well instructed in military pedantry, have suffocated half their men by sending them back to check up on the damage in a shack which had been bombed with gas! Colonel Whittlesey, who, in spite of his glory, was tormented by the realization that he had wasted, through his own blunder, the lives of his men, finally killed himself. To learn to think ill of oneself is to learn to think ill of the world. It's no wonder if, since the War, we have tended to gravitate further and further away from ideas of perfectibility which assumed a natural goodness and wisdom on the part of humanity--if, indeed, we become reactionaries and read classical pessimistic writers instead of hopeful romantic ones and, taking refuge in such established fortresses as the poor human race has been able to provide, unexpectedly find ourselves on the side of property, convention and authority!"

There is nothing like a little gin to make an eloquent moralist. Newt smiled a little disappointedly. "Well, there are evidently some compensations," he said, "about being in my condition." I was going to ask him what his condition was, but Clark Wilder suddenly came to. "Well, thanks for the buggy ride!" he declaimed, with his hoarse, deliberate laugh. "Here today and gone tomorrow—if any!—if any!" he repeated, delighted to have found a variation. Everybody laughed and we all had another drink. When I looked around. Newt was gone. Later on, I asked Clark what Newt Graves was doing now. "What do you mean? Newt Graves is dead," he said. "He was killed in the War." "But I saw him here just now," I insisted. Clark laughed his slow drunken laugh: "Ideal reunion," he said. "Not only see class-mates who are alive, but get drunk enough to see class-mates who are dead!" "I know he's dead," he added in a moment. "He was adjutant of my outfit for a while, and we had a leave together once to Nancy. We used to have long conversations. He was about the only person at Toul that I could talk to and I missed him after he was killed."

Edmund Wilson

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.