By Tony Magistrale ’74
Thirty-five years ago, as a sophomore English major at Allegheny, I took a course on the epic tradition from Paul Zolbrod. We read the Greeks, Dante, and Milton. Paul and I have managed to remain in steady contact, and two years ago we both returned to Meadville to share Homecoming weekend with another emeritus English professor, Fred Frank.
Aside from sparking my initial interest in Dante—for which I am forever grateful—my memories of Professor Zolbrod are winter-shaded. I recall him underneath a big brown furry cap, omnipresent professorial pipe in one corner of his mouth, as we talked passionately of literary matters on our way to classes in Arter Hall. And, over time, I have conflated these many walks into a single image of us trudging through the archetypal western Pennsylvania snowstorm, large flakes of snow floating around our heads, intermingling with Zolbrod’s pipe smoke.
Paul retired in 1994, after thirty years of teaching at Allegheny, and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he continues to teach literature and writing at the Navajo Nation’s Dine College in a one-building campus just off the Continental Divide. On the days when he is on campus, Paul spends the night on a mattress on the floor of the school’s library, clear illustrations of the poverty that surrounds him as well as the dedicated teacher that still resides within.
While it would have been interesting to see him teach again in a classroom setting so different from those at Allegheny, mutual time constraints forced us to rendezvous instead in Las Vegas. On the afternoon of our meeting, the desert sun peaked at 107 degrees, posing a sharp contrast to our shared Meadville winters so many years ago. Paul showed up with neither the pipe nor the fur cap that are etched into my undergraduate memory, but he hasn’t lost his passion for literary matters. On this occasion, however, the writer under discussion was not Dante, but Zolbrod himself.
When Paul was just a little older than the age I was at Allegheny, he authored a novel about the Korean War entitled Battle Songs. Although the book was accepted for publication by World Publishing Company in 1965, the initial offer was rescinded when the house merged with a larger conglomerate. From 1965 to 2005 the novel lay dormant. Zolbrod resurrected it, in part, at his daughter’s urging; given U.S. involvement in a war that resembled Korea in so many ways, she thought the book timelier than ever. The manuscript underwent substantial revisions as Paul, his daughter, and his new editors revisited it, and it will soon be available to readers as a print-on-demand book from iUniverse or Amazon.com.
Although Zolbrod never served in Korea, he came close; drafted in 1953, he underwent months of intense basic training. During our conversation, he told me of how he was instructed to “bayonet the testicles of his enemy,” and the day in which he witnessed a .50-caliber machine gun set a forest of pine trees ablaze. Battle Songs reflects his awareness that Korea, like Viet Nam, was a war fought by the poor, “by those whose parents could not afford to send their sons to college.” Set in the time period leading up to and into the advent of the Korean War itself, the narrative tracks four feisty western Pennsylvanian friends—Fran, Ben, Dick, and Sam—and their tragic trajectories from innocence to experience, from early romantic idealism about going into battle to a world-weary cynicism in response to its toll.
Only Sam survives the slaughter, but he emerges like one of Hemingway’s psychically crippled veterans of war, at home neither on the battlefield nor in civilized society. Zolbrod acknowledges the specific influence of “Soldier’s Home” and Farewell to Arms on his own work, arguing that one way we can hope to avoid repeating the horrors of war is by paying closer attention to the chroniclers of combat. “We need to read Hemingway, Stephen Crane, Tolstoy—which we are not doing.” He adds that our leaders need to be reading these writers, too.
In addition to producing a scathing rejection of our involvement in the Korean conflict specifically, Zolbrod’s novel is also a bitter commentary on war in general, and to assist him in establishing this tone the English professor enlists the help of literary artists who have transformed the violence of warfare into the subject matter of art. Hemingway is the most obvious influence in this text, but the grittiness of Zolbrod’s battle scenes recalls both Homer and Stephen Crane as well. Also, selections from the “Drum-Taps” section in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass punctuate the four major parts of the novel and resonate throughout the text. “If you follow Whitman’s selections from poem to poem,” Zolbrod notes, “you just see the disillusionment and the horror of the poet confronting the carnage of war. Whitman’s poems haunted me.”
The more I pressed Paul about the timeliness of his novel and his urge to revive it in the midst of American involvement in another war, the more it became apparent that American foreign policy troubles him now more than it did in 1965. In this context, Zolbrod’s book inspires readers to consider the long river of American blood that connects battlefields from all over the world and to ponder deeply about how much of this carnage was truly necessary, what it ultimately resolved. “Four wars in my lifetime—World War Two, Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq,” he recounts. “Wars where young people were sent to fight people they had nothing against. The same thing all over again.”
Although Battle Songs is a protest novel against war per se, the long tradition of battle—in literature and throughout history—would appear to suggest that armed conflict is an irrevocable part of human destiny, as inevitable a curse on humankind as plagues and epidemics. But Zolbrod rejects such reductive arguments as too cynical. “The idealist in me insists that implicit in my novel is a solution,” he says. “If there is a propensity for violence in the human animal, we have to struggle to overcome it.”
His most recent revisions to the manuscript have led the author to believe he has produced a better book than his initial effort some forty years ago. Decades of studying Navajo culture and traditions have undoubtedly added to the shape of the novel, especially its powerful conclusion, at once optimistic even as its lesson of hope is born out of tragic experience: “The novel now has the kind of wisdom that I hope I’ve acquired after all these years,” he says. “I have a better understanding of what the alternative to war might be.”
Tony Magistrale is Associate Chair and Professor of English at the University of Vermont.