blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "Planked Whitefish"


Jeff Sychterz

"Over an order of planked whitefish" Horace Wild relates a series of horrifying images to his friends to explain why, after voluntarily serving in France during in 1915, he now advocates peace. The detached third person narrative of Sandburg’s semi-autobiographical poem avoids rhetoric or editorializing, focusing instead on four short, stark, and largely unadorned, images. Very different from other contemporary anti-war expressions, such as "I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier," the poem can hardly be called an anti-war manifesto. However, after the poem assaults us with those four images, we understand why Wild states, "‘I don’t care who the hell calls me a pacifist. I don’t care who the hell calls me yellow. I say war is the game of a lot of God-damned fools.’" Wild tells his friends—and the poem tells us—that because of those violent "circumstantial details" of war he wears his "blue (Peace) button in the lapel of his coat."

We might say that the horrific images themselves are enough to convince anyone to be anti-war; but representations of war’s violence can cut both ways, by either encouraging people to avoid war, or to enlist. The first two images, for example, resemble alleged atrocities committed by the Germans in their occupation of Belgium, as documented in the Bryce Committee’s "Report on Alleged German Outrages": "at Haecht several children had been murdered, one of two or three years old was found nailed to the door of a farmhouse by its hand and feet . . ." (Bryce Report, Aerschot and District. Period III. [September.]) and "At Elewyt a man’s naked body was tied up to a ring in the wall in the backyard of a house. He was dead, and his corpse was mutilated in a manner too horrible to record" (Bryce Report, Aerschot and District. Period II. [August 25th.]). Some isolationist groups saw the Bryce report as propaganda designed to incite Americans against the German "Huns" and bring the U.S. into the war on the side of the Triple Entente. Whether or not the accusation is true, the Bryce Report, as well as other representations of German barbarity and cruelty, did help to sway the isolationist nation to a position of ideological support for England and France. Representations of violence, therefore, can be used to promote either war or peace.

Sandburg, however, mitigates the pro-war possibilities of his poem through passive constructions, which focus attention on the victims and leave the perpetrators unnamed. In addition, the victims are all soldiers instead of innocent civilians (although the poem does not specifically describe the castration victim as a soldier it also does not name him as a civilian, and in context with the other represented victims the reader is left with the impression that he is a soldier). The poem, therefore, represents the soldiers not as victims of a specific enemy, but as victims of war itself. War, not the Kaiser, is the enemy.

This anti-war message is relayed to the reader through an extradiegetic narrator, but the message is authenticated by the words of an eyewitness to those events, Horace Wild. In the poem Wild is represented as a volunteer corpsman or ambulance driver, "running a truck puling ambulances out of the mud near Ypres in November, 1915," despite the fact that he volunteered as a pilot in the war. The poem’s representation of Wild as an ambulance driver—his flying is even described as driving—not only helps to authenticate the images of horror he brings back—an ambulance driver is more likely to see such atrocities than a pilot flying overhead—but also to make Wild more representative of American involvement in the war.

Before America entered the war many college students, and other young men, volunteered as ambulance drivers for the French cause. Their motives for joining were varied—some for the adventure, some for a love of France (Hansen, 128-31)—but for whatever reason, American ambulance drivers garnered much media attention back home. At a time when American reporting on the war was spotty and inaccurate the ambulance drivers were regarded as invaluable eyewitnesses. Many of them wrote letters home to local newspapers; some had their personal letters and diaries published in newspapers, magazines and books; and some, who were already professional writers, wrote articles for major metropolitan newspapers (Hansen, 85-7). By representing Wild as an ambulance driver the poem capitalizes on this reputation of the driver as an insider to European violence; one who brings authentic tales of the war from the front back to the American reader.

Paradoxically many American ambulance drivers were pacifists, like Harvard novelist John Dos Passos and his classmate Robert Hillyer. But they successfully negotiated their pacifism and their desire to save France from German aggression by volunteering as non-combatants (Hansen 151-2). In the poem, however, Horace Wild never admits to being a pacifist; his statement, "I don’t care who the hell calls me a pacifist," is far from an admission like "I am proud to be called a pacifist." This statement indicates that the term carries a negative connotation; and that although Wild may not necessarily apply the term to himself, he will not argue if others do. Wild’s anti-war argument tends toward a visceral reaction to the extreme and unnatural physical mutilation of bodies rather than take a philosophical or moral stance against violence and warfare. The poem certainly assures us that he is not averse to violence: "Horace Wild, the demon driver who loves fighting and can whip his weight in wildcats . . .."

In fact the poem goes out of its way to ensure that the reader does not confuse Wild for a coward; more than that, the poem emphasizes the masculinity of not only Wild but of the whole environment of the poem. The homosocial setting is unmistakable, three male friends sharing a meal "at a downtown club," and at least two are the epitome of machismo; Horace B. Wild, who, as one of America’s first aviators, survived his share of near fatal crashes in the days when flying airplanes frequently led to crashing airplanes; and Charley Cutler, who was not only a "famous rassler," but also the 1914 National Wrestling Alliance (the earliest professional wrestling organization) champion. The odd man out is Sandburg, a poet; however by slipping in the statement "now out of jail," the poem represents even him as rough, ready and not afraid to go in harm’s way.

This, perhaps conscious, need to assert the friends’ masculinity seems to indicate that masculinity is threatened in the space of the poem. The source of this threat comes not only from the possible labels of coward or pacifist, but from the particular form that violence takes in the poem. The second violent image, "the genital organ of the victim amputated and placed between the lips of the dead man’s mouth," because of its threat of castration, particularly stands out from the other three images. However, although the threat of castration is probably enough to provoke Wild’s anti-war response, something else is particularly troubling about the image; despite the gruesome detail, it is erotically charged. Although all the images are noticeably unadorned by descriptive qualifiers—allowing the images to plainly speak their horror—the word-choice for this particular image is odd. First, the word "placed" is much more gentle than other possible verbs, such as "shoved," "forced," or "crammed." The verb bespeaks of a lack of force or violence; if the image were to contain a descriptor, one can imagine more readily the adverb, "gently" than others such as "rudely" or "roughly." Second, "lips" itself is erotically charged, both through its sound and through what it signifies: the primary non-genital sexual organ in human beings. Sandburg could have omitted this detail—saying instead "placed inside the dead man’s mouth," or even "shoved into the dead man’s mouth"—without affecting the brutality of the image.

I give so much attention to this line because I think its erotic charge complicates an otherwise straightforward anti-war message. For Wild, Sandburg and the reader to be attracted to such a repellant image is troubling, to say the least. Furthermore, the poem heightens the homoerotic tension in the following line, "And Horace Wild, eating whitefish, looked us straight in the eyes." Wild’s masticatory act not only symbolizes communion—in response to the Christ-like Canadian soldier of line five—but also repeats the indignity of the second victim. The whitefish stands in for both the flesh of the first victim and the castrated genitals of the second; symbolically, Wild fellates both victims. We can read Wild’s response to the represented violence as not only a reaction to inhuman mutilation, and a fear of castration, but also as a fear of his own homosexual attraction to the bodies of the dead soldiers—a homophobic response. Therefore, the cause and effect logic of the poem—"because of these instances of violence I am anti-war"—contains a further element: "because I am attracted to these images of violence, I find war reprehensible." Wild is horrified by his compulsion to symbolically (and perhaps literally) repeat those violent acts. Pacifism, a term often associated with women and intellectuals, paradoxically becomes a site where Wild can maintain his masculine self-image in the face of the horrifically homoerotic violence of the European war.

Works cited

Bryce, the Right Hon. Viscount, et. al. Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages Appointed by His Britannic Majesty’s Government. 15 December 1914. 26 April 2001 <http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/brycere.htm>

Hansen, Arlen J. Gentlemen Volunteers: The Story of the American Ambulance Drivers in the Great War, August 1914-September 1918. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1996.

Copyright 2001 by Jeff Sychterz


Return to Carl Sandburg