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My students, too, are at a transitional point in their lives High school lies ahead of them; the trappings of childhood are dropping away. My eighth graders are attempting to define themselves, find truth and logic in the world, challenge authority and, above all, determine what is right and just. This search is not an easy one for them. It is as if eighth graders are at war with themselves, their parents, and their teachers. They are attempting to confront and to come to terms with themselves, to find peace. This is a search for self and peace and is accompanied by questions and doubts that make their way into the classroom. Too often, I feel that I teach and my students learn in a vacuum. Literature can help my students answer their questions and confront their doubts. Learning will be of value to my students if they are able to connect with the topic under study. Increased self-knowledge and self-awareness are vital parts of this unit of At Home. Although the study of World War II will provide us with a context for discussion, the primary focus will be on how these situations apply to my students. I have made conscious connections between literature and history in this unit, so that we will be able to move beyond the surface of our reading. This unit is designed to accomplish the following:
In this unit, I will focus on the teaching of two novels, The Human Comedy and A Separate Peace, and an autobiographical memoir, Farewell to Manzanar. The stories take place on the American homefront during the early stages of World War II, and are examples of well-written stories with excellent characterization. Because their plots, center on teenaged protagonists confronting selves and authority, I believe these books will hold student interest. Because their actions will raise moral issues, I hope they will contribute to my students’ self-awareness.
- 1. a greater understanding of a historical period, made up of
- ____a. how the changes which took place have ramifications today, for we’ll study events no longer accessible to our observation, balancing them against our current knowledge;
- ____b. how the time period affects the characters in the book under study and the connections my students can make with those characters;
- 2. an enriched reading experience. Themes in the books we’ll read and discuss will be related constantly to the lives of my students. Emphasis will be on the teenagers’ relation to authority. Linkages among the books will be discussed; and
- 3. knowledge and understanding of references to wartime measures.
My research will provide the background information which will give my students a sense of historical detail. The information will be given in lecture-form preceding our reading and discussion of the books and will be referred to when appropriate during our reading. I will reproduce non-fiction articles about life on the homefront appearing in newspapers and popular magazines of the period which we will read and discuss. If time permits, I will include several short stories in the teaching of the unit. At Home will also explore the points of relevance and contact among the books under study. These linkages range from the obvious to the subtle. The main focus is on the difficulties faced by the teenaged protagonists in order to set up a connection between adolescence and war.
The event which brought the war home to America and led to direct participation was the bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Simply put, America’s sense of fair play had been violated.2 There had been no warning. Indeed, Japanese envoys involved in peace negotiations in Washington had been uninformed by their government. The racist theory of the “Yellow Peril” was all too readily accepted. Coupled with the hatred of Hitler and Mussolini, these feelings caused Americans on the homefront to rally behind their President and take whatever steps were necessary to secure victory. America could no longer afford to view the war as something far, far away. Her men and women were involved, on the battlefront and on the homefront.
Having sent sons, husbands, and lovers far away to fight and to work in wartime industries which produced enormous amounts of materiel, the war effort at home was taken up mainly with providing support: assuring civil defense, rationing, coping with shortages, maintaining Victory Gardens3. Such trivia, however, allowed Americans to feel a part of the larger effort, promoted continued support of the war, and did help to shorten the conflict.
Fearing an enemy attack on the mainland, Americans clamored to become Civil Defense volunteers. Plane-spotters scanned the skies for signs of hostile aircraft. Air raid wardens enforced blackouts, deemed to be necessary should an enemy plane be spotted. The attack on Pearl Harbor had shattered a belief in America’s inviolability. In addition to a sense of participation in the war effort, Civil Defense activities, such as scrap drives for crucial materials and War Bond drives, also helped instill a sense of mutual cooperation among Americans.
“Victory Gardens” were perhaps the most popular of all civilian war efforts. By maintaining these gardens, Americans could ensure that the produce of commercial farmers could be reserved for the troops. “Sunday farmers” were deluged with materials and information from the Department of Agriculture and from seed companies. Americans were eating in a more healthy manner, despite shortages in other food areas. In 1943, one-third of all vegetables consumed in the United States had been produced in Victory Gardens.
Rationing was perhaps the most controversial and unpopular of the wartime measures. Limiting the availability of life’s necessities and luxuries was incompatible with the easy way of life brought on by the sudden prosperity of wartime. The OPA (Office of Price Administration) rationed 20 items, from sugar to gasoline, deemed essential to the war effort.4 While most Americans regarded the restrictions as fair and necessary, they still grumbled. Coupon books, stamps, red points, blue points, priority restrictions—all contributed to a labyrinthine sense of frustration and confusion
Gasoline rationing was particularly unpopular with Americans who were attached to their cars. Under the rationing system, most drivers would be allowed to purchase only three gallons of gasoline each week. A storm raged, fed by the different restrictions of “A,” “B,” “C,” and “X” (no limit) cards. Cards were issued based on job priority. A black market in gas ration books flourished. Adjustments in lifestyle had to be made: the home delivery of milk was reduced, and customers at grocery and department stores were asked to take their parcels with them, rather than have them delivered. Long-distance vacations were out of the question.
These restrictions were particularly hard on a people ready to emerge from the Great Depression into a period of prosperity.
Prosperity came during the war with the changeover from peacetime to wartime production. Big business especially thrived as it wove complex new ties to the military. The conversion to the manufacture of munitions was speedy. Volume of production and speed of delivery were crucial to the war-effort.5 Millions of jobs needed to be filled.
Despite the inconveniences imposed by gasoline rationing and travel restrictions, Americans moved faster and in greater numbers than ever before. The sudden availability of well-paying jobs in war industries was the prime factor in what is now viewed as a large demographic redistribution. It’s been estimated that about 15 percent of the population’s 20 million Americans embarked on a mass migration for jobs.6 Families would also often relocate in order to be near servicemen who were in camps and training stations.
Most cities and towns were overwhelmed with the massive influx of people. Health, transportation, and education systems were incredibly overburdened. Housing was particularly hard-hit, with scarce availability and skyrocketing rents. The government’s efforts to ease the strain simply could not keep up with the rate of growth. Crowded conditions and shortages became facts of life during the war years.
The loneliness which results from the inevitable separation of war was another constant factor during the war years. Just as the men who served overseas longed for home, the women and children kept a long vigil. The demographic shift which resulted from the search for jobs separated families. As a consequence, written communication (judged by volume of mail) soared.
Letters were the universal link. Letters would be written in most households at least once a week, if not more often. The minutiae of news from home and of hometown events, coupled with expressions of love and concern, reassured those overseas. Those at home were comforted to learn that their loved ones were well-fed and in good spirits (though this news was sometimes far from true). Bad news, typified by a “Dear John” letter, often accompanied the good. Tragic news, a death, a missing-in-action report, or an injury were most often associated with telegrams. The number of deaths and injuries sustained during the war years can be easily calculated. It is impossible to measure the anguish and joy often contained in telegrams and letters.7
Work was also an antidote for loneliness. Women at home—6.5 million between 1941 and 1945—entered the labor force.8 The majority of women “manned” defense plants. They held jobs and performed functions which had been previously reserved as the exclusive domain of men, for serious labor shortages resulted from the military’s demand for manpower. Women assembled airplanes, jeeps, and ammunition. They drove buses, trucks, and tractors. They became heavy machinery operators, mechanics, welders, and riveters.
Jobs afforded women a sense of emotional and economic satisfaction The government continually stressed the need for and importance of women’s contributions in the war effort. Again, a vicarious sense of participation was fostered. Money earned contributed to a sense of security. In many cases, these wages had to supplement military allotments sent to wives with children. In other instances, many households now had two or more wage earners. Families could now buy, or save to buy, comforts and conveniences unavailable to them before. Still others chose to save for the future.
Women, however, had yet to question traditional attitudes toward their roles. The inroads made on the labor market still had to be balanced by trips to the grocery market, cleaning, cooking, raising young children. Women by and large accepted the dictum of the Children’s Bureau that in war, as in peace, “a mother’s primary duty is to her home and children.”9 This position suited women who had little or no desire to continue working once the war ended. However, the experience and satisfaction many women gained through their jobs, were to alter the way they viewed themselves and their futures.
Sexism and hostility were often elements of the job conditions which women had to confront. Disparity between men’s and women’s wages was not addressed. Some men felt that holding down “men’s jobs” would masculinize women. Working women were often criticized as “neglectful” by women who remained in the home. Sexism and hostility were joined with racism: black women were criticized and discriminated against by both men and women.
Official and unofficial discrimination was practiced against blacks in other areas, as well as against conscientious objectors and persons of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast.
Blacks were faced with the paradox of a country valiantly battling fascism and racism overseas while condoning racism at home. The threat of a mass march on Washington, D.C. to protest the lack of jobs for blacks in defense plants was cancelled after President Roosevelt issued an executive order banning discrimination based on race, creed, color, or national origin in defense industries. Roosevelt, however, condoned the segregation of black and white soldiers. In other branches of service, quotas were imposed against blacks; officer status was denied; jobs were menial. The social structure of the military services reflected those of society at large.
The summer of 1943 witnessed several race riots. In Detroit, a fight between a black and a white escalated beyond all reason. Mass fighting spread to the streets and alleys, engulfing the woefully overcrowded north and east sides of the city. Martial law was declared. Thirty-four people were killed, hundreds injured. Five hundred people were arrested. Riots also took place in Beaumont, Texas; Mobile, Alabama; Marianne, Florida; Harlem, New York; Los Angeles, California.
What caused the homefront bloodshed? Explanations range from social conditions to Nazi agitation. Surely the frustration brought on by overcrowded living conditions, want in the midst of plenty, and denial of full participation in society played their parts.
Conscientious objectors, those who chose to assert their right to resist war, challenged America. They were given few options: noncombatant military service, confinement in public-service camps, or court-ordered prison sentences. More than 5,500 men went to jail, rather than comply in any way with the war effort.
The most serious and large-scale breach of civil rights was directed against 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast. Mistrust and hatred of the Japanese did not simply emerge full-blown after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Earlier in the century, Japanese immigrants had been welcomed to the West Coast. They provided cheap labor on the farms and railroads. The immigrants tended, of necessity, to “ghettoize” themselves. They maintained their language and customs, alienating themselves from whites who refused to allow the Japanese to assimilate anyway. The Japanese had worked hard and achieved economic independence, fulfilling the “American dream” while remaining outside it. Earlier in the century, punitive steps were taken by the white businessmen who felt the immigrants were becoming too successful and therefore threatening the established order. Further Japanese immigration was halted; Issei (Japanese immigrants) were ineligible for citizenship; ownership of land was denied them. The seeds of hatred grew.
Executive Order 9066, issued by President Roosevelt, authorized the War Department to designate military areas and to exclude any or all persons from them. The Secretary of War utilized 9066 only on the West Coast, and only against Japanese-Americans.
Encouraged at first to voluntarily move inland, the Japanese-Americans were soon confronted with sterner measures. Fishing and radio licenses were revoked, so that “espionage” work would not occur. The government began to incarcerate these people in “internment” or “relocation” camps. No attempt was made to identify the loyal and the disloyal, the citizen and the alien The measure was justified on the grounds of public safety and national security.
The ten internment camps were erected in desolate and remote parts of the country. The compounds were fenced in. Housing consisted of wooden barracks, each containing several one-room apartments. Bare necessities, cots, thin blankets, a light bulb were provided. Toilets, laundries, bathing and dining facilities were communal. Meals were adequate only nutritionally. The government furnished only minimal medical care, recreation, and education.
The dismal conditions began to break down the traditional family structure. The desire for privacy was virtually impossible to fulfill, as was the practice of modesty and decorum. Reversals took place in traditional age-roles. The WRA (War Relocation Authority) encouraged community government in each camp. The traditional authorities, the elders, could no longer be deferred to by their children; the children were more fluent in English, a necessity for dealing with the red-tape of daily life in the camps. Once the camps were functioning, the WRA worked on mainstreaming the internees back into American life. Many camps continued to operate for the duration of the war, for many internees, fearing the hostility of the Americans on the “outside,” chose to remain.
At war’s end, the desire of the American people to preserve their way of life had been fulfilled to varying degrees. The United States, alone among the major powers, was never bombed, never invaded. The response to the war effort halted the Great Depression, bringing employment and prosperity to Americans. It also fostered bigness in labor, agriculture, business, and government. Millions of Americans were uprooted, a condition frequently accompanied by disillusion. Some barriers to social and economic advancement to blacks and other minorities were lowered a bit. The expectations and self-image of women were altered by wartime, but would not come to fruition for many years.
America, however, had been profoundly changed.
John Knowles’ A Separate Peace depicts the coming-of-age of Gene Forrester, the novel’s narrator. Gene has returned to Devon School fifteen years after his graduation; he has returned to relive the events which led to his best friend’s death and to confront the part he played in causing that death.
The novel begins with Gene’s return to the school in 1958; the events related span 1942-1943. The 1942 Summer Session is a special time, a time of a separate peace. The 16-year-olds live in a world of relaxed rules and relative freedom, for they are not yet old enough to be rigorously trained for military service. Adult authority is minimal. Any flaunting of authority takes the form of pranks. The Summer Session is a time for secret societies, pranks, adventures, friendship, and jealousy.
The Winter Session is a time for seriousness, guilt, retribution, reconciliation, and death. World War II has become more real: students have been pressed into public service; some have enlisted. Authority is very much in evidence in the winter session. A military atmosphere brings severity to Devon. Finny, Gene’s friend, can no longer promote his theory that the war is only a story being made up by fat old men. The war is encroaching on Devon.
A Separate Peace is readily accessible to eighth-graders because its main theme, friendship, is of the utmost importance to them. We see the growth of friendship between Gene and Finny, two opposites who complement each other. We also see the friendship pass through various stages: competition, complexity, cooperation, betrayal, and reconciliation. There are minor skirmishes with adult authority. Tragedy occurs when, in a quest to establish what is right and just, the students put themselves in a position of authority. Because they face these decisions in their own lives, this is an area which will provoke student discussions and writings.
War is a gray eminence. In the early part of the book, war is a joke, a fable. As the story progresses, war becomes all too real. The inconveniences brought on by rationing and other wartime measures are hardly felt at Devon. The enlistment, breakdown, and escape of Leper, a student who has pretty much kept to himself, make the war all too real to Gene and, consequently, to Finny.
A Separate Peace raises issues which my students are usually eager to discuss and, I hope, to write about: What are the limits of friendship? Why might adolescence be portrayed as a time of peace and war? What beliefs do you hold about war? peace? friendship? What school rules do you feel are necessary? unnecessary? What would you issue rules about?
A Separate Peace is the most easily approached of the books we’ll read. It is intimate in the sense that it centers on the give-and-take of friendship, its joys and its tragedies. Two characters go on a series of adventures, one of which inadvertently ends in tragedy. The power of reconciliation is illustrated.
The Human Comedy offers no monumental events, dramatic conflicts, tidy resolutions. “Nothing happens!” students complain. That precisely is the point: as a depiction of daily life on the homefront, Saroyan’s novel captures the sense of waiting and longing.
We are brought into the homes, schools, clubs, businesses indeed, the lives of the citizens of Ithaca, California. Homer Macauley, a 14 year-old boy, is our guide. Homer is a telegraph messenger; in the course of his work, he experiences and encounters fear, loss, death, comfort, and hope. In the classroom and on the track field, he meets up with social class-consciousness, unfairness, blatant discrimination and a clear-cut vision of what it means to be an American. At home and at work, he experiences the joys and frustrations of close relationships, a supportive atmosphere, a sense of contributing to the well-being of those he loves. The story bears witness to the road sign Saroyan placed on the outskirts of Ithaca: “East, West—Home is Best/Welcome, Stranger.”
The novel touches on the conflicts women experienced during the war years. Mrs. Macauley remains at home in her traditional role; her daughter Bess is gently dissuaded from looking for a job, being told that education will be the key to her betterment. Girls provide platonic distraction and comfort to the soldiers who are transient visitors to Ithaca. Girls are the source of chaste fantasies.
Homer, the protagonist, is a teenager. For perhaps the first time in his life, he is confronting his self. He is very aware that he is now the man in the family; his father is dead and the older brother, Marcus, whom he idolizes is serving in the army. His job is important because it supplements his family’s income and is a vital link in the communications network. It is his job which forces the self-confrontation. In a nightmarish chapter, Homer is pursued by the Messenger of Death. More and more, telegrams became the symbol of despair and death. The despair leads Homer to question his views on the war and the wisdom of those in authority.
The war is a gray eminence. Even the few chapters which focus on Marcus occur on trains or in camp. Soldiers are on leave; combat is something “over there.”
Emphasis is on the common man: the little person leading his/her daily existence. These people are obvious symbols of the good in humankind. My favorite character is Miss Hicks, a dedicated teacher. She sees her career as having been spent in guiding the views and shaping the characters of her students. She is Saroyan’s vehicle for expressing his somewhat heavy-handed definition of an American. The members of the upper-class and those who toady to them are symbols of the bad or, at the very least, the ridiculous.
The uprooted appear throughout the book, be they soldiers, shopkeepers, job-seekers or robbers. Mr. Ara, a grocer, experiences relative ease in his new life in America, yet yearns for Armenia, his native land. He too experiences loneliness, anger, and despair, yet commands his son to be happy. Though America has been good to Mr. Ara, it is not, nor will it ever be, “home” to him—a symbol of peace.
Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar details her attempt to rid herself of a place and what it symbolized. Though she started out to tell the story of the day-to-day life she and her family lived in Manzanar for three-and-a-half years, she realized she’d have to do more: she had to confront her self. The family was very different at the end than at the beginning of its internment. She sees her book as a web of stories: hers, her father’s, her family’s, rather than as political history.
Again, the war remains on the periphery, though it directly and almost immediately affects the Wakatsukis. Though he doesn’t know where Pearl Harbor is, Jeanne’s father quickly realizes he is a man without a country. The land of his birth is at war with the land which has denied him citizenship— even after 35 years’ of residence. This man with no rights look exactly like the enemy. Authority is imposed on the Wakatsukis from the outside and leads to the internal breakdown of the tradition role and authority of the family.
Relocation was viewed by some as a relief, by others as an adventure, and by still others as an outrage. Manzanar was the setting for the breakdown of the family as Wakatsuki knew it: personal privacy was almost nonexistent; family meals could not occur in large communal dining halls; family strength and dignity were eroded.
Wakatsuki gives a good sense of place and detail. The attempts to make the bleak compound that was Manzanar habitable and attractive are well-detailed. The reader also gets a good sense of the daily life: the jobs people took on, the education given, the recreation taken, the pranks played. The valiant attempts to preserve both the idea and the actuality of “family” are among the most poignant parts of the book, as is Jeanne’s search for attention from people who are not playmates or family members.
The latter sections of the book, which deal with Jeanne’s assessment of her father and with the “double impulse,” will appeal most strongly to my students because it is part of their adolescent experience. Eighth-graders spend a lot of time thinking about and dealing with parents and other authority figures. Jeanne’s analysis of her father, from his arrival in California and his efforts to obtain a commercial fishing license to his anger over the Loyalty Oath in Manzanar, is unflinching.
Jeanne’s concept of the “double impulse” makes it possible for students to accept their own ambivalence. The urge to disappear was often in conflict with the desperate desire to be accepted by peers. This conflict plagued Jeanne for years after her departure from Manzanar, intensified by her need to be seen as an individual, rather than as one of “the Japanese,” for such thinking led to the very existence of Manzanar. This desire to be seen as individuals is terribly important to my students. Our study of Farewell of Manzanar will help them begin to establish their selves.
At Home will have positive effects on my students and on life in my classroom. Personal growth and awareness will be at the center of our reading, our discussions and our writing assignments. They’ll measure themselves against Homer as they read The Human Comedy. My students will share in Gene’s development of a sense of responsibility in A Separate Peace. They’ll experience the courage it takes Jeanne to confront her self in Farewell to Manzanar. This unit may very well be an important step for many of my students in the development and expression of self.
- 1. John Morton Blum, V Was for Victory, p. 13.
- 2. Mark Jonathan Harris, The Homefront, pp. 82-83.
- 3. Ezra Howen, series editor, This Fabulous Century (1940-1950), p. 142.
- 4. Harris, p. 64.
- 5. Bowen, p. 142.
- 6. Harris, pp. 30-32.
- 7. Ibid., p. 189.
- 8. Blum, p. 94.
- 9. Ibid, p. 95.
- 10. A. A. Hoehling, Home Front U.S.A., pp. 110-114.
This book offers an interesting picture of American culture during World War II. Especially useful to me was the analysis of the picture of the enemy presented by popular magazines, novels, and films.
Bowen, Ezra, series editor, This Fabulous Century (1940-1950). New York, Time-Life Books, 1969.
I will use the photographs in this volume in my teaching of At Home. There is a fairly detailed account of the relocation camps in this volume. Other areas are sketchily presented.
Harris, Mark Jonathan, The Homefront. New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1984.
This book is a fascinating oral history of life on the homefront; it presents the lives of everyday people in their own words. The Homefront raises issues my students can discuss and write about.
Hoehling, A.A., Home Front U.S.A. New York, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1966.
Hoehling presents the day-to-day existence of the people on the homefront in contrast to the sweep of World War II. There is strong emphasis on civil rights.
I will ask the class to reflect on and write about:
How might your life be different if it was apparent that a distant war was coming closer to us? What might you expect to give up? to take on? What would you struggle to keep? What would you willingly give up?
Written ideas will be shared in largeÐ or small-group situations. I will attempt to have students connect their answers to the hypothetical situation to their present reality.
I. Gene’s adult view of Devon
- A. Oddly new, sedate, straight-laced
- B. A museum for his memories as opposed to his memories of school
- ____1. intensely real
- ____2. his relationship to school’s existence
II. Gene’s reasons for returning
- A. Confront the part he placed in Finny’s death
- B. Achieve growth and harmony
III. Fearful sites
- A. steps of the First Academy Building
- ____1. worn with age
- ____2. hard
- B. the tree
- ____1. scarred
- ____2. shrunken
- ____3. weary
IV. Emotional impressions
Writing assignment: Recall a place which meant a great deal to you when you were younger, a place you’ve not visited for a long time. Think. Try to summon up as many sense impressions of the place as you can. Try to remember why this place (school? new home? park?) was so important. Using your own “voice” now or using your “voice” as a child, write about this place.
- A. overriding fear
- B. uncontrollable joy
* Writing a lesson plan for a discussion is difficult; so much depends on the direction in which the class takes the discussion. The themes I’ve included are mine. Your reading will provide you with other options.
I. The “separate place” of the summer session
- A. unreality of war
- B. isolated setting
II. Gene’s memory of the imprint the war made on him (which will be linked to my background material)
III. Friendship, in general
IV. The differences in the friendship of Finny and Gene
Writing assignment: Write a short composition on some way you feel you are different from many of your classmates, a difference you could change if you chose to. It can be a difference you’d like to concentrate on and develop, or a difference which you’d like to rid yourself.
- A. belief/disbelief in the existence of a war
- ____1. world view
- B. beginnings of jealousy
- ____1. subtle competition
- ____2. jealousy
- C. need for self-confrontation, self-recognition
- D. realization of the complexity of friendship
Contents of 1987 Volume IV | Directory of Volumes | Index | Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute