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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Recovering the Masculine Hero: Post-World War I Shell Shock in American Culture


In a February 1915 article in the Lancet, British psychologist Charles S. Myers gave definition to an increasingly used war-front medical term, shell shock. Myers described shell shock as the physical injuries that resulted from the impact of an exploding shell.1 By the end of World War I, however, shell shock’s definition had become so malleable it could describe nearly any physical or mental ailment. Shell shock, with its seemingly elusive definition, came to carry cultural meaning that extended far beyond the wounds of the soldier. As historian Jay Winter’s provocative work points out, for example, soldiers’ “shell shock” in Europe became a metaphor for deep national wounds in the civic body.2

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