Kate McLoughlin at the Times Literary Supplement:
In the spring of 1915, Henry James, “sick beyond cure” that he had lived long enough to witness it, gave an interview about the First World War to the New York Times. “One finds it in the midst of all this as hard to apply one’s words as to endure one’s thoughts”, James told the young journalist sent to interview him, Preston Lockwood. “The war has used up words”, he continued, “they have weakened, they have deteriorated like motor car tires . . . and we are now confronted with a depreciation of all our terms, or, otherwise speaking, with a loss of expression through increase of limpness, that may well make us wonder what ghosts will be left to walk.”
James seems to disprove his thesis in the act of uttering it: the two synonyms for “used up” and the reformulation of the notion of depreciation – “otherwise speaking” – suggest the war spawned, rather than exhausted, language. But the famously wordy author had nonetheless pinpointed something important early. A mere seven months into this mass, industrialized, globalized armed conflict, it was already clear to James that the power of writing both to communicate what was happening and to do something about it was alarmingly limited.
In her thoughtful and thought-provoking new study of American First World War literature, The War That Used Up Words, Hazel Hutchison makes James’s anxious observation the basis of two important and related arguments.