Cynthia Wachtell

Ellen Newbold La Motte, born in 1873, was an extraordinary American woman, whose accomplishments deserve attention. A trained nurse, public health advocate and administrator, suffragette, journalist, anarchist, expatriate in Gertrude Stein’s Paris circle, lesbian, and war nurse, she wrote one of the most astounding books about World War I.

This paper illuminates the life and wartime experience of this remarkable American woman and focuses on her short story collection, The Backwash of War: The Human Wreckage of the Battlefield as Witnessed by an American Hospital Nurse.  Apart from its literary merit, the book is exceptional in a number of ways.  It is one of the earliest antiwar works of literature about WWI.  It was written by an American woman, who actually had firsthand experience of the war.  It was published before America even entered the fray.  And it is one of America’s few banned books of the World War I era.

The Backwash of War was simultaneously published in New York and London in September 1916 but was immediately banned in England and France.  Less than two years later, it was also censored in America, deemed damaging to wartime morale.  This paper also traces the book’s publication, reception, and censorship.