The Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps and American literature of World War I
The Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps numbered among its members some of the most important American writers of World War I, Including E. E. Cummings and John Dos Passos. What is less well-known is that the ambulance corps had strong tIes to a pre-war generation of American expatriates, whose participation first created the elite aura of the unit known as the "gentlemen volunteers." Henry James served as chairman until his final illness, and the family of the late Charles Eliot Norton operated the organization in France and America. This study, making use of unpublished archival material, outlines the history of the Norton-Harjes during the war, from its beginnings in Paris and London, to its activities on the Western Front, and its dissolution in late 1917. Around this historical context, the foundations of the unit are traced to Harvard University and an ideal of humanitarian service and social duty drawing from the late nineteenth-century concept of the gentleman. The war writings of the Norton-Harjes authors are examined in view of this historical and cultural evidence. Affirmation of the artist's role in society and criticism of American industrial-commercialism feature in the work of the authors connected with the unit, themes which gained new impetus from the war. A discussion of Charles Eliot Norton's moral aestheticism, expatriation, teaching at Harvard, and attitudes towards war, along with an outline of the Harvard careers of Norton's sons Eliot and Richard and of the future Norton-Harjes writers Cummings, Dos Passos, and Robert Hillyer, make up the chapter following the Introduction, which establishes the background of early American involvement in the war. Henry James' work for the ambulance corps and his move from intense observer to direct participant in war-time is explored in the third chapter. The fourth chapter presents the bulk of the historical information about the unit's war activities while examining the career and writings of Richard Norton, founder and leader of the corps. The succeeding three chapters are devoted to the ambulance volunteers who studied together at Harvard. E. E. Cummings' The Enormous Room is interpreted in light of the author's whole experience with the Norton-Harjes, emphasizing his use of primitivism in support of aesthetic individualism. Robert Hillyer's traditionalism stands opposed to Cummings' Modernist experimentation, but the Harvard professor-poet was equally critical of American industrialism. John Dos Passos' war novels attack the commercial basis of American culture and present as alternatives the rural culture of Spain and the ideal of the gentlemen volunteers as represented by Richard Norton. A brief Epilogue describes the last stage of Norton's war career and the post-war attempts to organize former volunteers into an association and to produce a history of the ambulance service.