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Soldier's Heart

Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point

Elizabeth D. Samet

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Elizabeth D. Samet and her students learned to romanticize the army "from the stories of their fathers and from the movies." For Samet, it was the old World War II movies she used to watch on TV, while her students grew up on Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan. Unlike their teacher, however, these students, cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point, have decided to turn make-believe into real life. West Point is a world away from Yale, where Samet attended graduate school and where nothing sufficiently prepared her for teaching literature to young men and women who were training to fight a war. Intimate and poignant, Soldier's Heart chronicles the various tensions inherent in that life as well as the ways in which war has transformed Samet's relationship to literature. Fighting in Iraq, Samet's former students share what books and movies mean to them--the poetry of Wallace Stevens, the fiction of Virginia Woolf and J. M. Coetzee, the epics of Homer, or the films of James Cagney. Their letters in turn prompt Samet to wonder exactly what she owes to cadets in the classroom. Samet arrived at West Point before September 11, 2001, and has seen the academy change dramatically. In Soldier's Heart, she reads this transformation through her own experiences and those of her students. Forcefully examining what it means to be a civilian teaching literature at a military academy, Samet also considers the role of women in the army, the dangerous tides of religious and political zeal roiling the country, the uses of the call to patriotism, and the cult of sacrifice she believes is currently paralyzing national debate. Ultimately, Samet offers an honest and original reflection on the relationship between art and life.

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Excerpt
SHAKESPEARE 3, THIS IS SHAKESPEARE 6—OVER
I had forgotten all about the radio in my hand. I was so startled when it crackled to life I nearly dropped it:
SHAKESPEARE 3, THIS IS SHAKESPEARE 6—OVERSHAKESPEARE 6, THIS IS SHAKESPEARE 3—OVERSHAKESPEARE 3, GIVE ME A SITREP WHEN YOU HAVE THE ENEMY IN SIGHT—OVERWILCO—OUT
I have said “out” when I should have said “over.” I have taken far too long to figure out that “SITREP” means situation report. Somewhere this might be fatal. Here the amused voice on the other end, that
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REVIEWS

Praise for Soldier's Heart

“Like Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, Elizabeth D. Samet’s Soldier’s Heart is an illuminating look at the use of literature by a group of young people in an uncommon predicament. As a civilian professor at West Point, Samet has spent ten years teaching Shakespeare’s sonnets and Emerson's essays to future warriors destined for the uncertain moral and physical terrain of Iraq. Her experience offers insight into the value of literature and the nature of soldiering, but most of all it offers a glimpse into the hidden mysteries of the human heart.”   —Geraldine Brooks, author of March and Years of Wonder

“Not since John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction has the intersection of literature and morality been so powerfully examined, but in Soldier’s Heart the examination occurs in the conscience of a teacher whose students are en route to war. This is a thoughtful, moving, but also troubling book—exactly as it should be.”  
—James Carroll, author of House of War and An American Requiem

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Elizabeth D. Samet

  • Elizabeth D. Samet received her BA from Harvard and her PhD in English literature from Yale. She is the author of Willing Obedience: Citizens, Soldiers, and the Progress of Consent in America, 1776-1898. Samet has been an English professor at West Point for ten years.
  • Elizabeth D. Samet © Bachrach
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Soldier's Heart

Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point

Elizabeth D. Samet

L.A. Times Book Prize - Winner
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