Banned Books Week Featured Book: Johnny Got His Gun
Listed below is a review of "Johnny Got His Gun" courtesy of Samantha Winn, Archives Assistant.
My selection for Banned Books Week Virtual Read-Out is “Johnny Got His Gun”, by American screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo. Set during World War I, the novel was first published in 1939. The protagonist is a young American soldier, who wakes up in a hospital having lost his limbs and face to an artillery shell. Ultimately, after many years of struggling to maintain his sanity and sense of time, Joe Bonham attempts to communicate with the hospital staff. He wants to tell the world about the horrors and futility of war by putting himself on display in a touring exhibit; of course, his request is denied.
“Johnny Got His Gun” immediately struck a chord for American readers on the eve of World War II. It received critical acclaim shortly after the first printing, including the National Book Award for Most Original Book of 1939, and the American Booksellers Award in 1940. Over the course of the 20th century, the novel inspired numerous radio shows, stage plays, film adaptations, and Metallica’s song “One”.
Radical anti-war advocates on the left and right seized upon Dalton Trumbo’s book as a rallying cry against the American involvement in WWII. Fearing that his book might harm the war effort, Dalton Trumbo and his publishers voluntarily ceased printing until after the war. It was also pulled from print during the Korean War, but found new popularity during the late 1960s when American forces entered Vietnam.
Historically, the novel has been challenged not only for its anti-war sentiment and graphic descriptions of gruesome injuries, but also for the divisive nature of Trumbo himself. In 1947, Dalton Trumbo was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee as a suspected Communist sympathizer. After refusing to testify, he was declared in contempt of court and subsequently blacklisted in Hollywood. Nonetheless, he won two Academy Awards under his pseudonym “Robert Rich” (for “The Brave One” and “Roman Holiday”). Trumbo famously won acclaim for his 1960 screenplays “Spartacus” and “Exodus”, the first films publicly attributed to him after his blacklisting.
I first read this book in the summer of 2001, just before the start of my eighth grade year. My father served on a nuclear submarine during and after the Persian Gulf War, so I had some small understanding of the price paid by military families during times of conflict. Before I read “Johnny Got His Gun”, my thoughts on war generally reflected the Latin Proverb, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (“It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”). Trumbo’s novel dramatically influenced my understanding of armed conflict. I was especially moved by Joe Bonham’s inner monologues, which questioned bedrock assumptions about patriotism and justice. I chose one of these monologues for my Virtual Read-Out, on the topic of “liberty”.
If you enjoyed ”Johnny Got His Gun”, I also recommend these frequently banned classics:
- Ericha Maria Remarque - “All Quiet on the Western Front”
- Ernest Hemmingway – “For Whom the Bell Tolls”
- Tim O’Brien - “The Things They Carried”.
To view a reading of this book, see the library's YouTube channel.
To see more about banned books, check the library's Banned Books Week Guide. We'll also be in the UC from 11am-2pm all this week for virtual read-outs.