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Soldier's Heart

Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point

Elizabeth D. Samet


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ISBN10: 0312427824
ISBN13: 9780312427825

Trade Paperback

288 Pages



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A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize
A Chicago Tribune Favorite Book of the Year
A Christian Science Monitor Best Book of the Year

Soldier's Heart chronicles the various tensions inherent in teaching literature to young men and women who are training to fight a war 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.


Praise for Soldier's Heart

"By writing a thoughtful, attentive, stereotype-breaking book about her 10 years as a civilian teacher of literature at the Military Academy, she offers a significant perspective on the crucial social and political force of honor: a principle of behavior at the intersection of duty and imagination."—Robert Pinsky, The New York Times Book Review

"Strong, deeply articulate . . . Samet has been an English professor at the officers' academy for a decade, and her worldview is steeped in literature, a single paragraph touching on the works of Sigmund Freud, Heinrich von Kleist, Toni Morrison, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Wilfred Owen—and filmmaker Michael Cimino. But here she also acts as an anthropologist, doing field work in the heart of an exotic society largely unknown to so many of us . . . I hope her work finds its way to more than a few Capitol Hill nightstands."—Chicago Tribune

"[A] clear-eyed, unsentimental and utterly unpretentious account of a job that simply begs to be examined from every angle."—Adam Begley, The New York Observer

"Soldier's Heart is an exhilarating read. It seats you in the classroom of a feisty professor who commands several fronts with easy expertise: classic film, ancient Greece, Shakespearean tragedy, modern poetry. And it seats you elbow-to-elbow with an elite crop of students whose intelligence and imagination match their courage."—John Beckman, The Washington Post

"[Samet's] gracefully written book, Soldier's Heart, concerns West Point and her role there, most often in the context of larger questions (courage and sacrifice, obedience and moral judgment, Iraq and Abu Ghraib). It most compellingly provides portraits of young men and women charged with leading the U.S. military."—William Kowinski, San Francisco Chronicle

"[Samet] make[s] a compelling case that the values embodied in the liberal arts can do much to steer [soldiers] to more thoughtful deliberations . . . It's reassuring just to think that the hearts and minds of young soldiers are in such hands."—Marjorie Kehe, The Christian Science Monitor

"In Soldier's Heart, [Samet] tells of her years teaching young men and women for whom the psychological and ethical issues of a Shakespeare play are much more than engaging diversions . . . The clarity of her vision and her respect for her colleagues and students are unmistakable . . . One would think that there are few places more distant from one another than the literature classroom and the battlefield. Soldier's Heart shows us that by some measures, at least, that distance is very small indeed."—Richard Wakefield, The Seattle Times

"Samet's account of teaching and learning, Soldier's Heart, is absolutely fascinating . . . Her book explores serious issues—moral questions about courage and obedience—but with graceful writing and flashes of humor . . . Her book is filled with lively classroom discussions and poignant e-mails from former students now in Iraq, often writing about the books they're reading there . . . I know of no other book that's a better choice for any reading group that loves to debate literature and politics."—Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today

"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."—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

"In a time when words like patriotism and sacrifice are tossed about with alarming casualness, Samet offers an illuminating exploration of what these terms mean to the modern soldier. In the late 1990s, Samet left graduate school at Yale to become a literature instructor at West Point, where she has for the last decade taught the humanities to young men and women preparing to lead others into combat. Here, she illustrates how literature can transform raw cadets into reflective, conscientious leaders. She and her students struggle with the relationship between art and life as well as the true meaning of sacrifice and honor and their place in a world of peace and a world at war. Samet also reflects on the dramatic changes to the academy, its cadets, and herself over the past ten years. She focuses on the post-9/11 change in attitudes and the juxtaposition between leadership and obedience in the lives of military officers. The inevitable comparison to Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran is apt owing to both books' realistic description of the transformative power of literature."—Shedrick Pittman-Hassett, Library Journal

"Azar Nafisi meets David Lipsky in this memoir/meditation on crossing the border between the civilian world of literature and the world of the military during 10 years of teaching English at West Point. Samet's students sometimes respond to literature in ways that trouble her, but she lauds their intellectual courage as they negotiate the multiple contradictions of military life. Considering the link between literature and war, Samet insightfully explores how Vietnam fiction changed American literary discourse about the heroism of military service. Beyond books, Samet also examines how televised accounts of the Iraq War have turned American civilians into war's insulated voyeurs, and discusses the gap separating her from the rest of the audience watching a documentary on Iraq. Lighter, gently humorous sections reveal Samet's feelings about army argot. She has been known to ask her mother to meet her at 18:00 instead of at 6:00 p.m., but she forbids the use of the exclamation Hooah! (an affirmative expression of the warrior spirit) in her classroom . . . this meditation on war, teaching and literature is sympathetic, shrewd . . . profound."—Publishers Weekly

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I had forgotten all about the radio in my hand. I was so startled when it crackled to life I nearly dropped it: