Lawrence Rosenwald gives us an important gift. This rich and challenging collection of antiwar and peace writing puts us in touch with a part of American Literature we often forget. America’s impulse to go to war is often so frantic and intense, we can forget that part of our literature and history has always been a determined and thoughtful insistence on peace and opposition to war. In War No More: Three Centuries of American Antiwar & Peace Writing, published by The Library of America, we receive this powerful and insightful reminder.
Rosenwald’s choices invite readers to explore a beautiful thread of American Literature. His thread includes the Iroquois Traditions’ “The Tree of the Great Peace,” Quaker, John Woolman’s “A Plea for the Poor,” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “War,” Julia Ward Howe’s “Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World,” Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer,” E. E. Cummings’ “i sing of Olaf glad and big,” Bayard Rustin’s “To Local Road No. 63,” Jeanette Rankin’s “Two Votes Against War, 1917, 1941, Denise Levertov’s “Life at War,” James Baldwin’s “The War Crimes Tribunal,” Daniel Berrigan’s “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” John Kerry’s “Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and many more.
Most interesting, I thought, were his choices to include Zack de la Rocha’s “March of Death,” Brian Turner’s beautiful poem “Sadiq,” and my friend Philip Metres’ poem, “For the Fifty (Who Made PEACE with Their Bodies.”
This remarkable collection contains historical, religious, political, and literary beauty. War No More also contains a thoughtful collection of photographs, including a photo of the monk, Thomas Merton and Jesuit priest, Daniel Berrigan at the Abbey of Gethsemani. There is also a beautiful photograph of Joan Baez at a 1965 anti-war rally in London, among many others.
This collection reminds me, a teacher of American Literature, that the antiwar thread has been as lively and robust as any other element in American Literature. My students need to know this. I am certain that most Americans would benefit from knowing this too.
Let’s explore two specific works Rosenwald offers us: Martin Luther King’s speech, “Beyond Vietnam” and Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Jerusalem.”
Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, given on April 4, 1967, at New York City’s Riverside Church, exactly one year before his assassination, cost him a great deal. Many civil rights leaders, and others, urged him to stay off the topic of Vietnam and stay with civil rights. Dr. King though, understood his role as broader than that. He took on the Vietnam War in a theological and historical manner that surely advanced the peace movement. He spoke from a position of love, “make a passionate plea to my beloved nation.” He connected the dehumanization of Blacks in America to the dehumanization of the Viet Cong, and others in the world’s liberation movements. He spoke, “as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam.” This speech is detailed in its history, solid in its theology, and rich in its written and oral beauty.
Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Jerusalem,” speaks to its readers with a kind and insistent directness. “I’m not interested in / who suffered the most. / I’m interested in / people getting over it.” Her perspective as a Palestinian-American poet gives her an important stance from which to see the futility of war. This beautiful poem illustrates the ugly cyclical blaming which warring parties take on. Her poem itself acts, as he wants conscience to do– “Something pokes us as we sleep.”
While there are dozens of works I could reflect upon here, War No More, in its entirety, is necessary, nuanced, and beautiful. Its 768 pages of antiwar and peace texts, its chronology, its foreword by James Carroll, and its introduction by Lawrence Rosenwald himself, offer us context, history, and beauty. Anyone interested in American Literature, in peace and war more generally, anyone in a Peace Studies program or a high school social justice class will find a worthy companion in this book.
We all owe Larry Rosenwald a word of thanks for this important collection. If only the book’s title, War No More, might come true.