Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant was born in Massachusetts and graduated from Bryn Mawr College. Sergeant was a friend of Willa Cather and wrote of her friendship with the writer in Willa Cather: A Memoir. In 1917 Sergeant, one of The New Republic’s original contributors, was sent to France to cover the war. In 1918 she was seriously wounded by a grenade. She recounted her battlefield experience in Shadow-Shapes: The Journal of a Wounded Woman. The work was published in 1920.
Sergeant wrote throughout her life. For a period of time she lived in the southwest and wrote about the Pueblo Indians, traveled to Europe and studied with the psychoanalyst, Carl Jung. During her career she published numerous articles and books. She wrote only one novel, Short as Any Dream, published in 1929. She died in 1965.
Excerpts from the Journal of Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant
October 21, 1918
I am not to be persuaded that love of adventure makes war good, any more than the spirit of sacrifice, or the patient endurance of pain. Is it good for the world, for his mother, or that the boy himself, who is so gifted for life, that Rick (the son of a friend) should be killed. And for how many individuals of the millions of fighters has this war, after all, been good? To prolong it by one unnecessary day, hour, minute, would be criminally wrong - of that, at least, I am sure.
November 23, 1918
A certain amount of bad pain may be good for the moral character - I may as well think so, though I don't really believe in Purgatory. But pain prolonged is degeneration, not purgation. I am losing, coin by coin, the last of the treasure of patience, I have been so carefully hoarding. It has reached the point that I want to remove the head of anyone who merely walks boldly across my floor, thereby causing a faint vibration of my iron bed, which at once communicates itself to my hyper-responsive ankle. I have learned, among my pillows, an art of timid stillness that would give points to a mummy. At moments, as after dressings, it seems quite too perilous to take a long breath.
For adventure was only the keen edge of the experience with which our slow-moving Rochambeau is so heavily laden. Tragedy was its blade. I catch an arrowy flash in the clear American sunshine, where young men in civilian clothes move swift beyond the waiting crowds. Their busy patterns of life are traced in something hard and bright.
Reflective Questions: The Journal of Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant
- How are Sergeant’s feelings about war timeless?
- What does Sergeant mean by the line: “But pain prolonged is degeneration, not purgation?”
- In Sergeant’s November 23 entry she speaks of being a patient. What thoughts are going through her head in this recovery period?
- The Rochambeau was the hospital ship that brought Sergeant back to the United States. What is the comparison that Sergeant makes between the people on the ship versus those on shore?