Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution 1.5
Down in My Heart, by William Stafford. 1998. Oregon State University Press. 120 pp. $14.95, paperback.
William Stafford was one of many conscientious objectors who spent a large part of World War II in work camps in the United States. What sets Stafford apart from the other courageous and important workers is that he would become a successful and acclaimed writer and poet, winning the National Book Award in 1963, the Shelly Award from the Poetry Society of America, acting as the Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, and serving as Oregon's Poet Laureate.
Down in My Heart is Stafford's memoir of his time spent in work camps with other conscientious objectors (CO's, as Stafford writes) in Arkansas, California, and Illinois. It was culled from writing composed at the camps and developed into his thesis for an M.A. in English Literature received from the University of Kansas. The book was originally published in 1947 and has been available in a variety of small press runs since.
This work would be valuable if only due to the fact that there is little information widely available relating to the experience of CO's during the war. But Down in My Heart is much more than a series of personal experiences. Stafford also manages to convey the nuances of antiwar belief at the time. The characters presented are unified in their refusal to fight, but not in their reasoning. Stafford uses a hypothetical conversation with George, an extreme idealist whose beliefs are sometimes at odds with the others in the camp, as a framing device for the entire work.
There are many stories in the book, but the one I found the most moving detailed the experiences of a group of CO's who traveled away from the camp with a foreman who was a "big, rough, tough hater of the Germans, Japanese, and CO's." The foreman's conversion from hatred to respect is surprising, yet believable.
Down in My Heart is a warm and readable account of the CO's lot in World War II. It illustrates the intellectual and social subtleties which make this an important aspect of peace and pacifistic history.
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