Many a literary colossus has come from a military background. Spanning centuries, the writers of what we today consider classics had served in a variety of military capacities.
From soldiers and spies to advisees, correspondents, and medics, many veterans had a passion for picking up their pen and pouring out their heart. These literary powerhouses carried the same conviction in writing as they had when drawing up strategies and carrying out orders.
For some of these writers, their love of language and storytelling existed long before finding themselves on the battlefield. Others worked as journalists covering conflict zones and war-torn locales, setting them up for bright writing careers in the future.
These were the people who became the great authors of popular essays, epics, and sci-fi stories. For the hours they spent in service, we have been given hours of entertainment and intrigue spent reading their work. War leaves many of its onlookers affected. But for those closest to it, its scenery persistently lingers on in memory—and sometimes in ink.
Louisa May Alcott
The celebrated works of Louisa May Alcott have proved just as popular as the work of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, or Herman Melville. With more than two dozen titles to her name, the greatest achievement she received in the eyes of public readership was Little Women.
The story has been adapted more than half a dozen times for film and TV. Two lesser-known sequels were inevitably produced by Alcott following the warm reception of Little Women: Little Men and Jo's Boys.
Alcott's writing career really began to blossom amid the American Civil War during her time spent as a nurse. Alcott wasn't pressured into this role by social norms or expectations. Rather, she was utterly determined to put herself to use in any way she could for the Union cause.
She refused to sit by idly and read the headlines divulging the ongoing tragedies. After becoming a volunteer nurse, her daily existence was dedicated to healing and comforting. The time she spent in this role, the term beginning at Georgetown, Washington, D.C., was not an easy one.
It's not just that seeing the damage war brings is harrowing, but Louisa herself grew ill. The wartime nurse battled typhoid, leaving her health altered for the worse forever after. But she persisted.
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Besides keeping a personal journal, Alcott always tried to comfort her family by sending correspondence back and forth. Some of the letters even began to be printed in the Commonwealth newspaper. These were then collectively published as a book by James Redpath. Thus were the humble beginnings of one of the great writers of the 19th century. Not six years later, the public would be introduced to Little Women.
Pierre Boulle's terrific influence on the literary world, and subsequently the realm of cinema, is undeniable. Before the French author became renowned for his own style and voice, he had gotten an education in engineering. By 1933, he had wrapped up graduate school. In the coming years, he traveled far and wide, at first pursuing employment and then as part of his military service with France's army. After France was dominated and invaded by German forces, Boulle fled and saw a variety of action throughout Asia. As a guerilla in Indochina, he was caught and imprisoned, during which time he was treated poorly and forced into manual labor.
Thankfully, Boulle was able to orchestrate an escape. Nevertheless, his time spent following the arrest at the hands of the Vichy regime (in cahoots with the Nazis) was not soon forgotten, influencing him and his writing.
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His two most remarkable books are The Bridge over the River Kwai, a work of historical fiction rooted in his wartime experiences, and Planet of the Apes, which is traditionally filed under the science fiction genre, much to Boulle's own disapproval. The latter novel also shows signs of the author's familiarity with imprisonment as the protagonist of Planet of the Apes witnesses firsthand the horrors of confinement, condescension, and exploitation. Some of the author's World War II experiences are detailed in his autobiography, The Sources of the River Kwai.
The crime novel genre would hardly be what it is today without the contributions of Agatha Christie. Her creation of the petite Belgian crime-solver Hercule Poirot (well-known from Murder on the Orient Express and other mysteries) rivals figures like Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown in popularity. While the adaptations of Christie's fiction are too numerous to list, it is certain that the recipe for detective thrillers was forever changed by her intriguing tales of murder and deceit.
Similar to Louisa May Alcott's medical experience during the Civil War, Christie served as a nurse with the Red Cross during the Great War. Though she didn't altogether shy away from bloody sights, she had not anticipated fainting in the first surgery she assisted with. Her patients, her daily companions, were the marred victims of modern warfare.
Also like Alcott, Christie became ill and was eventually forced to take leave for a time. After returning to the hospital where she worked, she became well versed in pharmacology. Having passed the relevant exams, she was then able to become a paid dispenser – a level up from your run-of-the-mill volunteer nurse.
This regular exposure to drugs, and the knowledge of what kinds and quantities could have adverse effects on people, sparked Christie's imagination. With her sister's support, she was prompted to begin writing her first successful mystery novel during her time as a nurse. This was The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), ironically the first Hercule Poirot story. Not too surprisingly, it also revolved around a murder by poison.
For further reading, Agatha Christie's An Autobiography offers more details in numerous aspects of the author's life.
John Hersey's groundbreaking, heartrending work of journalism – Hiroshima – remains his most famous book. However, it initially appeared in The New Yorker in 1946, taking up a whole issue in itself. As impactful as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle had been on the food industry, so much more so was Hiroshima on the general public.
Hersey's searing narrative, as it follows a small number of victims as they observe the devastation around them, would not soon be forgotten. Hiroshima brought to light many of the A-bomb's cataclysmic effects. It's arguable that this nuclear annihilation was the chief tragedy of 20th century, and Hersey was the reporter who related the biggest, most delicate story of that century.
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Hersey himself was no stranger to the sights of war. By the time he planned to dig up a detailed account of the bombing of Hiroshima, he was already honored with respect to the world of war and that of writing. He wrote A Bell for Adano (1944), which got him the Pulitzer Prize, and he had a great deal of past experience in the way of international warfare journalism.
He contributed to Time as a military correspondent and, among other articles, wrote a profile on Lt. John F. Kennedy. Nevertheless, his masterwork Hiroshima reminds us that we should be more concerned about the human suffering in war, rather than in the destruction of property.
For Alistai MacLean, the military life was a fixation—as shone in his numerous war novels. His writing is infused with a personal insight for what that life was like. It doesn't just provide MacLean the background of technical jargon; it allows Maclean to get into his characters' heads in a genuine way.
Before being an acclaimed author, he served in the Royal Navy, spending over two years on a wartime cruiser. This experience would go on to supply much of the basis for his novel H.M.S. Ulysses.
Having left the Royal Navy in 1946, he went on to attend the University of Glasgow. Here he studied English and started to publish short stories. With the success of H.M.S. Ulysses, MacLean made the jump to writing full-time. He pumped out over two dozen novels during his career, many of them bestsellers that were apt for adapting to the screen.
Among his most popular titles are The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, and others. MacLean's knack for storytelling made him as good of a screenwriter as a novelist, and audiences have always found his action/adventure style engrossing.
Harold "Hal" Moore
The violence of war can manifest itself in numerous ways. It might be struggling with PTSD, facing the fear and regret of military action, or retreated into oneself. But there are others who are compelled to tell their story, to put it down in writing. Ulysses S. Grant did this in his personal memoirs, as did Marcus Luttrell in Lone Survivor (2008). Another outstanding example of this non-fiction genre is We Were Soldiers Once...and Young, co-authored by Hal Moore and Joseph L. Galloway.
Lt. Col. Hal Moore had served in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. The book details the vale of sorrows which was the Battle of la Drang Valley of the Vietnam War. It was the courage and direction on Moore's part during this battle that gained him the Distinguished Service Cross.
Galloway's involvement showed no less courage or significance. A journalist since the age of 17, Joe Galloway was 24 when he went into the combat zone with Moore to cover the battle. Though it was a victory for US troops, the result was heavily costly. The skirmish left a devastated forest scattered with the lifeless and mangled bodies of hundreds.
His career led to Galloway covering conflict in other countries. But in the early 1990s, he wished to pursue an in-depth retelling of what went down at la Drang Valley. He and Moore made the uncanny decision of interviewing North Vietnamese commanders for the project. In 1992, the fruit of their labors took the shape of the bestselling We Were Soldiers Once...and Young. The book was soon adapted into the 2002 Mel Gibson movie We Were Soldiers.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was captivated with languages, both academically and creatively. Based on the popularity of his fantasy work, he barely needs an introduction. The things he saw while serving in World War I with the Lancashire Fusiliers (pictured in the topmost image), most notably at the Battle of the Somme, would subtly find their way into the aura of his Middle-earth saga, especially through the ever-popular The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Some of the foundations to the Middle-earth fantasies, such as The Fall of Gondolin, were first jotted down while Tolkien was hospitalized following the Battle of the Somme. The very first day of this veritable blood bath resulted in nearly 70,000 casualties from all parties involved. The losses came mainly from the ranks of British infantry. For the most part, the landscape was filled with the familiar tactics of the Great War: trenches, barbed wire, and machine guns, but there was plenty of military change going on amid the war. Procedures were reconsidered; new weapons were developed.
The Somme turned out to be the first occasion for a British tank to be deployed in warfare. A young Adolf Hitler also made an appearance, fighting for the German Empire and reportedly taking a wound to the left leg. The battle had a lasting impression on Tolkien. In a letter written in late 1960, the author confided to a peer that the fantastic and eerie “Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.”
The 2019 biopic Tolkien envisions some of the tense and tender moments he would have experienced at the Somme. Those interested in delving deeper into the author's wartime mindset might look at the personal Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien or John Garth's enlightening book, Tolkien and the Great War.
Samuel L. Clemens, better known to readers by his nom de plume Mark Twain, is one of the all-time great American writers. There are few characters in literature that possess the same amount of nostalgia as Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn. Twain is a celebrated writer who enjoyed communicating himself through sass, satire, and sincerity. But what many might not be familiar with is the author's seedy military activity amid the breakout of the American Civil War.
Clemens had first gotten involved in the war, throwing in his lot with the Confederates, and serving under Col. John Ralls. It didn't take long before he turned renegade and fled. Later on, Union officials brought forward allegations of treachery against him for informing Confederates regarding Union military movements.
He was not held in a favorable opinion in any army circles. Some believe that this ignoble and dangerous reputation was grounds for his adoption of the pen name “Mark Twain.” In the following years, Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court would criticize slavery and, in passing, the Civil War itself.
You can read more about Clemens's involvement in the war and his friendship with Ulysses S. Grant in this article. If you're looking to explore more of Clemens's non-fiction, check out The Complete Non-Fiction of Mark Twain.
Mercy Otis Warren
Mercy Otis Warren is a unique inclusion since, technically, she is not known to have taken an active role in the American War for Independence. Yet, at this time in American history, you were likely either a rebel or a pacifist unconcerned by the issues of freedom and nonconsensual law being discussed in the colonies. As for Warren, she was among the revolutionaries standing up for natural human rights. Among her acquaintances and compatriots were towering figures well-recognized today such as John Adams, Samuel Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson.
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Born the daughter of Col. James Otis, Sr., Warren and her siblings were no strangers to the politics of the day. Encouraged by family members, she never tired of learning or writing. She and her husband James Warren moved to Plymouth, MA, which was just a short trek (under 40 miles) from Boston, where tensions would lead to key events like the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party. The Warren family was in the thick of it.
As a writer who was active and published before, during, and after the Revolutionary War, Mercy's far-reaching work impacted other patriots, generals, and political leaders. The Sons of Liberty, both activists and aggressors, gathered frequently under the Warrens' own roof.
In the 1770s, Mercy's most acclaimed work came in the form of anti-British propaganda dramas. These pieces of satire, published in a newspaper spanning across several years, included The Adulateur, The Defeat, and The Group. Hailed as a historian, Patriot, feminist, and classical storyteller, she gained a great reputation for her dramas, which often contained messages pertinent to the politics of her day.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons