Flying with the Poet

  • Candace Barrington
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


On November 13, 1918, Captain James Norman Hall, United States Air Service pilot, stole a copy of The Canterbury Tales from a makeshift prison library as he and three other American officers were escaping a detention facility in Landshut, Germany.1 No other prisoners had shown an inclination for the Middle English work and the German officer in charge had professed little proprietorship, so Hall, as the prison’s unofficial librarian, had already felt himself the volume’s rightful owner and expressed no remorse for leaving Germany one Chaucer volume shorter than it was when the Armistice was declared two days earlier on November 11. Hall carried the Tales with him as he and the three other prisoners boarded a train to Munich, bedded overnight at a small hotel, rode to Lindau, crossed Lake Constance to Switzerland, evaded detainment in Romanshorn, and finally reached Paris. Later, Hall’s Landshut Chaucer traveled with him when he made a final melancholy flight over the Western Front. Afterward, the volume also accompanied Hall when he went to Iowa, crossed the continent to California, sailed to Tahiti, traveled to Iceland, and finally returned to Tahiti, where he made his home at Papeete and remained until his death in 1951.2


Detention Facility American Foreign Policy American Officer Medieval Literature American Intellectual 
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  1. 3.
    Thus, before World War I, the Atlantic had published alongside Hall’s own efforts to goad the United States into joining the Allied cause Randolph Bourne’s warnings “that all the Wilsonian cant about a holy war for democracy meant Americans would neglect their own democracy while fussing ineffectively over the affairs of others” (Michael H. Hunt, Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy [New Haven, CO: Yale University Press, 1987], 135).Google Scholar
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    James Norman Hall, Flying with Chaucer (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1930), 3. This is only one of many books and articles Hall published under the aegis of the Atlantic Monthly and its book press, including the popular historical fiction, Mutiny on the Bounty, coauthored with Charles Nordhoff in 1932, and his posthumously published autobiography, My Island Home: An Autobiography (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1952).Google Scholar
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    Hall’s Flying with Chaucer, as well as his earlier Kitchener’s Mob and High Adventure, are not classified as fiction, though they share many of the characteristics of World War I fiction. See Chris Hopkins, “Beyond Fiction? The Example of Winged Warfare (1918),” in The Literature of the Great War Reconsidered: Beyond Modern Memory, ed. Patrick J. Quinn and Steven Trout (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 9–23.Google Scholar
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    James Norman Hall, “Kitchener’s Mob,” Atlantic Monthly 117 (March–May 1916): 397–407, 565–73, 695–702.Google Scholar
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    In this effort, Hall joined a host of British literary luminaries who extolled the historical and linguistic ties between Great Britain and the United States in works addressed to Americans (Wayne A. Wiegand, “An Active Instrument for Propaganda”: The American Public Library during World War I [New York: Greenwood Press, 1989], 20–21).Google Scholar
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    The time lag was caused by bureaucratic snafus (Michael Carr, “United States Air Service,” in The United States in the First World War: An Encyclopedia, ed. Anne Cipriano Venzon [New York: Garland, 1995], 604).Google Scholar
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    How to keep the soldiers distracted while they awaited being shipped back to the states was a major logistical concern (now largely forgotten) for the military. Kathrine Gordon Brinley’s husband, Daniel, and their neighbor, Columbia professor John Erskine, were two of the many volunteers who served during World War I by operating USO-like stations and pseudo-universities. (See chapter 4 for more about Kathrine Brinley). For a personal account of these quickly mobilized and quickly forgotten efforts, see John Erskine, The Memory of Certain Persons (Philadelphia and New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1947), 261–84, and My Life as a Teacher (Philadelphia and New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1948).Google Scholar
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    T.J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 97–139.Google Scholar

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© Candace Barrington 2007

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  • Candace Barrington

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