Q&A with Professor Alex Vernon
Prof. Alex Vernon is the author of the essay "Kinetoscope of War: Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.” He talked with JNT in 2018.
JNT: Tell us a bit about the essay you wrote for JNT.
Vernon: It’s really common for expressive prose about the war in Vietnam by American veterans to describe certain moments as being “like in the movies.” It’s a cliché of the genre. Tim O’Brien’s book-length work of war fiction, ‘The Things They Carried,’ goes beyond the easy simile by drawing on cinema in more deeply describing the soldiers’ experience and in shaping the readers’ experience.
JNT: What inspired you to research this topic?
Vernon: For years I was aware of the book’s and his earlier memoir’s allusions to particular films. In the late 70s and early 80s, O’Brien published a couple of articles on war films as he started writing the first stories that would become ‘The Things They Carried.’ When a film studies colleague took family leave, I offered a war film class. That course became my own introduction to film theory, a process continued a few years later during a sabbatical. Through that study I began to see what I’ve come to call the book’s cinematic effects.
JNT: What was the most exciting thing about this project for you? Did you discover anything particularly strange or surprising?
Vernon: The process felt a little like being a graduate student again, in terms of teaching myself about a body of secondary literature — film theory — and teaching myself how to work with it. I was struck by how readily the ides of such theorists as Mary Ann Doane and Tom Gunning applied to O’Brien’s text. The sabbatical’s immersion also benefited an article on ‘The Hurt Locker’ that was published in a special war issue of MFS: Modern Fiction Studies.
JNT: You have a unique background for a literature scholar in today’s academy. Tell us about that.
Vernon: I graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in the late 1980s. I was trained for Cold War combat by the Vietnam generation but then I went on to see combat in the Persian Gulf War—the first Iraq war—of 1990-1991. The Vietnam era’s generation of scholars trained me in literary studies as well. In addition to bridging the world of the military and higher education, I like to imagine that I bridge the generations, from the Vietnam era to the veterans of the recent wars, whose tanks and desert warfare are versions of my own.
JNT: What's next for you?
Vernon: Much of my scholarship involves historical and archival work, so I’m excited to have joined the Ernest Hemingway letters project (Cambridge UP) as a contributing editor for the volume covering the years of the Spanish Civil War and ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls,’ related subjects I’ve written about before. The planned publication of this volume is 2023. In the meantime, a Hendrix College colleague and I will take a small group of students to Spain for about three weeks to reflect on the war.
Alex Vernon is a professor of English at Hendrix College. He received his PhD from The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. His books include two military memoirs and several works of literary scholarship on American war literature, but also the modernist cultural study ‘On Tarzan’ (U Georgia P). More information can be found at his website: alex-vernon.squarepace.com.