Dr. William C. “Liam” Corley
Associate Professor of English
I have been exploring the intersection of veterans, writing,
and literature since my first year on the tenure track as a
professor of American literature and a Navy Reserve officer.
In March 2006, I published an essay in the Chronicle of Higher
Education that described my reasons for joining the military
after I completed a doctorate in the humanities. My research
falls generally into three areas. The easiest to categorize is my
creative work, which includes a growing corpus of poems
and a science fiction novel informed by my deployment
experiences. Secondly, I have written essays and made
conference presentations about ways to engage veterans in
the writing and literary classroom. This work focuses
on equipping veteran students and faculty to work productively
together in the classroom and has appeared in or is forthcoming
in College English, Pedagogy, and War, Literature, and the Arts. I have also presented on these topics at national conferences such as the Conference on College Composition and Communication and the Modern Language Association.
The third area of research is book-length project entitled, The Voice of the Veteran in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century American Literature. This project draws on my expertise in American literature of the time period and is motivated by an insight derived from my work with current veterans, namely that the trope of the veteran as it has developed in American history, literature, and culture, constrains and enables those who claim to speak as veterans today. Components of this project date back to conference presentations made in 2011 where I explored how influential American writers like Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Stephen Crane adopted the literary guise of a veteran in order to convey judgments about American policies and practices. As the following précis of the book project suggests, I view the cultural construction of veterans to be an issue of great concern for a democratic society, especially one like ours where military participation rates have declined even as our global power projection ability has increased. By laying bare the genealogy of our current pathological and depoliticized construction of veterans, I hope to lay the groundwork for a renewed engagement by American veterans with a broader range of citizenly duties.
While the connection between veteran status and exemplary citizenship as expressed through political leadership was fairly straightforward in the early republic, the meaning and presumed transformational effect of wartime service shifted over the course of the nineteenth century as veteran depictions reflected a growing chasm between the ideological rationale for a given war and the existential crises of individual experience within that war. Consequently, I argue that veteran characters grew increasingly useful for authors interested in critiquing nationalist projects even as their literary construction of those characters made the status and social perceptions of actual veterans as a class less central to political leadership.
I have found that the tension between matters of policy best determined through deliberative, intellectual processes that can be debated and demonstrated in the public sphere and the revelatory insights and idiosyncratic modes of thought deriving from combat experience in national wars is a particularly potent intersection in a longer-term epistemological dialectic within American culture. Literary veteran voices in the nineteenth century drew on an epistemological framework established before the American Revolution that contextualized the distinctive blend of authorities attributed to them. The empiricism of both Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Edwards illustrate the ways that personal experience functioned philosophically to authenticate the truth claims each made about social reality. Both were interested in distinctions between intellectual knowledge and a more robust form of knowledge that combined intellect and experience within a community of other knowers. While science and religion have, at various points in American cultural history, been seen as incommensurate or clashing systems of knowledge, the relationship between these larger systems and the dialectic of personal experience versus social knowledge has oscillated over time, and in the early Republic, there was considerable commerce between their distinctive claims to authority.
The intersection of religious and scientific knowledge claims informs the political debates about the insight, trustworthiness, and authority of veterans in the early republic and suggests what a broad swathe of Americans would have accepted as compelling evidence for economic or political reform. As my research for The Voice of the Veteran continues, I am finding that veterans become the locus for a particular form of authoritative knowledge that is both empirical and revelatory, but that the possession of that knowledge comes to be seen in the postbellum period as exceeding human capacity, thus leading either to the death or silencing of the veteran. I follow the depiction of veterans in a variety of literary and political texts over the course of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, culminating in our present moment in which veterans are expected to speak and also to be pathologically unable to speak, to have authority but to be unable to coherently wield that authority, to be both trustworthy and unwilling to undertake the burden of trust.