| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
After a small-town Minnesota childhood and a college
education at Macalaster (class president, summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa), Tim
O’Brien was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1968 and served one year as an
infantryman in the American conflict in Vietnam. The war, which appears in all
seven of his published books, constitutes a central focus of his uncollected
writings; yet in interviews O’Brien repeatedly objects to being labeled a
Vietnam War writer: “It’s like calling Toni Morrison a black writer or
Shakespeare a king writer.” His concerns as a writer resonate beyond the
battlefield: the subjective nature of experience, the life of the imagination,
the grip of the past, control and its loss, love, betrayal, obsession,
language, guilt, rage, death, moral ambiguity, mental and emotional
instability, and storytelling as a means of coping with it all. Nevertheless,
his personal experience of that war, along with his midwestern background,
provided him a site for his literary explorations of the human condition in
late-twentieth-century American life.
of his books—one work of nonfiction and two works of fiction—deal directly with
the war experience: If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home
(1973), Going After Cacciato (1978), and The Things They Carried (1990). Going
After Cacciato, his third book and second novel, won the National Book Award.
The book takes place largely in the mind of Paul Berlin as he keeps himself
awake on guard duty by remembering actual events and fancifully imagining what
might have been. Berlin imagines his squad chasing the deserting Cacciato all
the way to Paris, and his imagination transforms this initial act of what if
into a tale that includes an echo of Alice in Wonderland and a Socratic
exchange on the morality of the war, a tale that dramatizes Berlin’s own desire
to escape the war and to deny his own culpability. O’Brien’s intellectual
approach to the war is significantly informed by his political science graduate
study at Harvard in the early 1970s; his unfinished doctoral dissertation is
titled “Case Studies in American Military Interventions.”
fourth work of fiction, The Things They Carried, is a collection of previously
published and new stories, brought together, revised, and arranged to make a
thematically unified work much like Hemingway’s In Our Time and Joyce’s
Dubliners. The story printed in the anthology, “In the Field,” comes from this book.
Several of its stories are narrated by a character named “Tim O’Brien,” who
remains distinct from the author. The presence of “Tim O’Brien” underscores one
of the novel’s major conceits: the difference between “happening-truth” and
“story-truth,” or what actually happened versus what we say happened as factual
events are received through our limited perspective and then transformed by memory,
by the nature of storytelling, and by quasi-willful acts of reinvention for
other novels, including Tomcat in Love (1997), turn from war to romantic love
between men and women as another source of conflict, ambiguity, shame, and
haunting history. Northern Lights (1975), his first and by his own judgment his
worst novel, pits two brothers—one a recently returned veteran—against one
another, against the women in their lives, and against mother nature. Set in
the future of 1995, The Nuclear Age (1985) presents a man struggling with his
wife’s adultery and his own obsession with nuclear war while simultaneously
reliving a turbulent past of being in love with a militant anti-war activist.
Paul Wade, the protagonist of In the Lake of the Woods (1994), is a politician
who just lost an election after the newspapers exposed his presence during the
atrocities against Vietnamese civilians at My Lai, and who wakes one morning to
find that his wife has vanished.
happens to Paul Wade’s wife? What happens to bring about Kiowa’s death in the
following story? Tim O’Brien’s fiction frequently resists answering the what
happens questions to emphasize that who we are is far more manifold, layered,
and mysterious than such questions pretend.
In the Heath Anthology
In the Field
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Transcript of an interview on war writing conducted by Daniel Bourne and Debra Shostak.
The Vietnam in Me
An article by O'Brien originally published in The New York Times, October 1994.
A transcript of O'Brien's President's lecture at Brown University, April 1999.
Catherine Calloway, "Tim O'Brien: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography," Bulletin of Bibliography 50.3, 1993
Tina Chen, "'Unraveling the Deeper Meaning': Exile and the Embodied Poetics of Displacement in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried," Contemporary Literature 39.1, 1998
Tobey C. Herzog, Tim O'Brien, 1997
Steve Kaplan, Understanding Tim O'Brien, 1995
Farrell O'Gorman, "The Things They Carried as Composite Novel," War, Literature & The Arts 10.2, 1998
Lorrie N. Smith, "'The Things Men Do': The Gendered Subtest in Tim O'Brien's Esquire Stories," Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 36.1, 1994
Mark Taylor, "Tim O'Brien's War," The Centennial Review 39.2, 1995