With smouldering rancor against a male-dominated society, Alberta Snyder challenges
discrimination where it is most ingrained, in the U.S. Army. She is convinced that by
proving that women too can make war, all lesser inequalities will collapse. When she finds
her brigadier-general father "with his stenographer in his lap," she blackmails
him into permitting her to recruit "a crowd of telephone girls" to "Casual
Company No 256, telephone." The circumstances whereby Lieutenant Alberta Snyder can
bring her troops under fire combine her determination and cunning with bureaucratic
buck-passing and muddle. The consequence is her fulfilment and devastation.1
In different sections of The Amazon, the narrator, a journalist on an American
newspaper in Paris and an ex-serviceman, finds people who can tell him about different
portions of Alberta Snyders life. As he makes his discoveries, his own role
progressively alters; he moves from interest to determined pursuit to involved obsession.
His story becomes a parable of the dangers of investigation and of fiction-writing.
The narrator meets another veteran, John McCann, in "a little café in the Paris
market district just off the rue Pont Neuf.... [R]ight away I felt that we had come
together... for some strange purpose." Over a number of nights he finds out about
McCanns background and his military service in the "213th Field Signals."
McCann describes how a detachment of his battalion was left behind at Laferté-sur-Amance
to take delivery of tardy equipment, and how one day they were startled by the approach of
a company of American women soldiers.2
Now the narrator first hears about the forty women, each wearing the orange braid of
the signal corps, and about their leader, Lieutenant Snyder. By dropping the nomenclature
of "(f)" for female troops from her communications, she has edged them eastward
towards her destination, the front line. When (male) officers find women soldiers
unexpectedly in their midst, they offload responsibility by requesting instructions from
higher authority. In the melée of mobilising hundreds of thousands of troops, the
requests go unnoticed.
Snyders orderly, Mary Fahey, tells McCann not to praise Albertas looks to
her face: "That will start her off again. Shes ashamed of being handsome."
Alberta has, says Mary, "taken a fancy already to the boy with the long eyelashes.
Its funny how she picks out that kind. Feels safer, I guess. Still, I dont
think shes queer. It looked so at first, but Ive been with her ten months and
Im convinced shes natural enough except for her ideas."3
Compared to the slack men, the women are models of military discipline, taking their
lead - and their orders - from Alberta:
Alberta Snyder was busy all day and sometimes far into the evening, making reports,
planning the next days schedule, inspecting, studying French, arranging for
supplies, but she never went to Fays-Billot to ask for things directly,... being afraid
that if she showed herself to the officers of the advance section her outfit would be sent
back to some port or railroad center. At all times she felt insecure, and was nervous when
a courier came up the hill or the mail was brought to her, for she believed she had
slipped through the network of officials all the way from England to the Haute Marne by a
series of lax maneuvers on the part of busy clerks. Her objective had always been the
trenches, but only now, when she seemed within striking distance of them... did the
passion for active service, for actual exposure of her body to the weather and the
missiles, keep her feverish and restless, even in her sleep.
The officer-in-charge at Laferté, Lieutenant Nichols, "grew to be so keenly aware
of her fixed idea that she must undergo physical hardship and danger that he began to
dread the disappointment which he felt sure must come." To Nichols, Alberta wonders
whether "any of these girls know what we are fighting for? Have they the slightest
conception of what their example might mean to their sex and to mankind." Nichols is
partly mesmerised by the intensity of her dedication and partly falling in love with her.
When orders come attaching her company to his battalion, he refrains from informing Major
McGregor that the replacement telephonists in the battle zone will be women. At this
point, the narrator of The Amazon is obliged to leave Paris for family business in
Boston and McCanns story is suspended.4
On Cape Cod, the narrator by chance finds an opportunity to meet Albertas mother
who does not know what became of her daughter and has taken to saying she is dead. She
tells the narrator about Alberta before the War:
"She was crazy to go, and she wouldnt hear of being a nurse or a social
worker.... No class of women are more abject than nurses, she said to me,
once. They are successful only in so far as they are subservient. Alberta was
quite bitter, sometimes, about the men, and even more so about women who fawned upon them.
She had the strength and brains of a man, and every way she turned she found some handicap
The narrator is permitted to read Albertas (supposedly censored) letters, and
finds them self-critical and anguished, but determined. She admits she has flirted with
Lieutenant Nichols to get her way:
I wanted him to help me, I wanted to paralyze his will so that he could be of use.... I
will do the same with every man who stands in my way.... I have ranted so much against the
girl who uses sex appeal in business that it seems odd that I should resort to the same
thing in war, but I... I shall let no small scruples obscure my purpose. Am I, as a woman,
capable of making war? Am I as strong as a man?5
The records of the 213th, which mention no women, lead the narrator to Sergeant Horn,
in East Boston, and his wife Juanita, one of the telephonist-soldiers. Horn takes over the
narrative of the final phase of Alberta Snyders military service. Major McGregor,
forty men short, cant "get up his nerve to go to headquarters and report that a
detachment of women had been sent to him by mistake," and so like Nichols before him,
he lets Alberta stay and then move closer to the front line It is late September 1918 and
the beginning of the Allied Meuse-Argonne offensive, and Alberta "was so happy that
she could hardly breathe, and her face... had an almost exalted look." Her face
"joyous as that of a child," "actually under fire, at last," Alberta
and three other women set up a switchboard with a small detachment of men at Verrières
Farms. "I dont know how she kept up the pace she set," says Horn, "I
got the feeling from watching her that never in her life before had she done exactly what
she wanted to do." Major McGregor even pays her a direct compliment, because his
station "worked better than any other in the sector," but he is aware that after
a career of unimpeachable military service he has been marked out by his
Lieutenant-Colonel for the error of having women in his command where they do not belong.6
Despite Allied expectations of a quick victory, the battle stalls. The detachment moves
southwest to Cheppy, where three of them, Horn, Snyder and Florence Mason, realise they
have been seen by two Germans, who escape. When Horn reports the incident, to cover
Snyders chagrin he omits to mention that the enemy has seen women at the front. The
Germans begin to take a "sudden interest" in Cheppy. The lines are cut. Mary
Fahey and then the majors right-hand man are shot dead. McGregor, beside himself at
having been sidelined from battle, lashes out at Snyder, who is equally over-wrought:
"Heres the whole battalion up the spout and the best soldier that ever walked
is dead because you and your lady friends thought you had to see the war."
Horn tells the narrator,
I know he didnt mean what he said, but he was so much upset by everything that
was happening that he picked up what she had said about taking a walk. The old man really
thought she was a brick, but she took it harder than he meant it. Her face got white as
chalk and the muscles quivered around her jaw.
"Very well," she said. "If I have brought on all this trouble, I
will satisfy their curiosity." And she started up the ladder.
The narrator is hired by a Boston newspaper to report on events in the Ruhr valley,
newly occupied by the French in lieu of reparations. In Essen, he discovers a German
ex-soldier who had spent two years of the war in Cheppy.
Edmund Weller tells him that his battalion had heard "[p]ersistent reports...
that we were opposing an army of women." In fact, even before Alberta and Florence
had been seen, a German pilot had reported "a regiment of American women in brown
uniforms with skirts. The report had gotten higher up, where it was suspected that the
troops might have been Scottish and it was important to know whether there were Scotch
troops in that sector...." The Germans who remain behind to investigate suffer heavy
losses, but before being captured take "one woman alive and another dead."8
Alberta Snyder heads out of her beloved trenches for the German line, followed by
Florence Mason. The German emplacement is astonished; they hold their fire even when
Alberta shoots one of their officers and take the women prisoners. Florence swallows the
prussic acid suicide tablet with which Snyder has provided her troops in case of capture;
Alberta does not. She disappears from the American army, not officially missing in action,
since never officially present. This is as much as Sergeant Horn knows.7
Captured, Alberta became hysterical, then accused herself of cowardice for not have
committed suicide. She refused the Germans offer that she return to the American
lines: "she sat up frantically and said that she must kill herself, that she had
failed." Wellers friend, the pilot Hermann Luttenschlager, offered to fly
Alberta to Neuwied in the Rhine valley, near Coblenz, where his mother can look after her.
Weller is "sure she was on the verge of madness."9
After the Armistice, Hermann, keeping Albertas presence a secret from the
American authorities at Coblenz lest it "make trouble," looks after her and
helps her to regain her health working alongside him on his tree-farm. His growing love
for her, according to Weller, was the index of his own war-traumatised "desperation,
concentrated and distilled." Seeming to improve, Alberta panics when Hermann finally
tells her that the war is over, and that there are Americans in Coblenz. She begs to be
allowed to stay. Hermanns mother is distraught at her sons infatuation with a
"crazy woman," and unable to understand their mutually supportive relationship.
Alberta declares her love for Hermann, but the raging inflation requires him to take a job
in Berlin, leaving her with his mother and his sister Frieda. When the American soldiers
leave Coblenz, one deserts the pregnant Frieda. When Alberta helps her to confess to her
mother, Frau Luttenschlager turns on Alberta, damned now for being an American, as before
for being a woman. Alberta flees; a peasant takes her "across the line into what now
is France, hidden in a load of hay." Again, the narrator loses her trail.10
Back in Paris, the narrator one day sees the down-at-heels McCann enter a shop "in
a most expensive district," follows him intrigued, and realises that the woman behind
the counter is Alberta Snyder. He is "appalled by the suffering... written" on
her face. McCann tells the narrator how he had found her by accident, and how she had been
petrified that an American had recognised her. Henceforth the narrator becomes obsessed by
Alberta Snyder, now Mademoiselle Alberte, and "lurks about the sidewalks of the rue
de Rivoli." He conceives a hatred for Madame Joly, the owner of Chez Nicole,
"who wore severe tailored suits and kept her hair clipped short." He clearly
wishes to deny that any "queer" relationship exists between the women, but he is
"worried" by "a certain hardness which had crept into [Albertas]
face." He even rents a room so that he can overlook her apartment, and he watches her
as I watched I felt no shame. I had imagined her as a child in school and as a mature
woman like her mother, with silver hair. I had visualised her naked on the banks of the
Amance, with water sparkling on her limbs and shoulders, or digging vermin from her collar
in the trenches of the Argonne. I had seen her moods and her aspirations scrawled hastily
on Y.M.C.A. paper, had heard the quality of her voice in Lida Wetherbys slow New
England cadences. Why should I have turned away as she slid her long garment from her
shoulders? I had known that her skin was white, that her flesh was firm and strong, that
her destiny was unfulfilled. I had been carried away by her idealism and her thirst for
life, I should have like to spare her disillusionment. How much of myself had been
Lieutenant Nichols helping her toward the front, or Hermann Luttenschlager nursing her
back to a reality of which he was none too sure himself? Clothed or unclothed, she had
become my obsession and my responsibility.11
He learns from an American woman journalist how Madame Joly had discovered, befriended
and taken Alberta home with her, and how their "neighbors took it for another love
affair." Hearing that Alberta had later moved out, the narrator takes it for
confirmation that "she had misunderstood the nature of the Frenchwomans
feelings for her until the night of their separation." But when the women dine
together, and "as their intimacy was resumed[,] I was astonished to find myself
having symptoms of jealousy." By this point, the narrators balance is lost:
Too many years cannot pass without my being reminded of my unlimited capacity for
idiocy. Without my being able to detect its point of departure, my interest in Alberta
Snyder subtly shifted its basis, in the face of all reason.... I actually came to believe
at times that since I knew so much about her sufferings, I was the one to heal them....
Instead of being content to watch her and to hope for her safety and happiness, I
tried to think of ways of introducing myself. And what dismayed me most were the
indications of her prosperity.
She is, in short, out of his class. He tries uselessly to earn more money by
journalism, to rise to her level of luxury. In his misery, he turns homophobic, but
exempting Alberta: "I would heap the blame on Madame Joly for corrupting her tastes
until I hated the woman and planned all sorts of retaliatory measures." And as he
reaches "the bleak conclusion that Alberta was not for me," he plans despairful
retaliation against her too. Learning that Hermann Luttenschlager is in Paris, he
considers whether to re-introduce him to Alberta, convincing himself that otherwise
Alberta "would drift farther and father from the world in which men take part and
that unfulfilled she would be, in a sense, a monstrosity."12
When that evening, Madame Joly, at Albertas, discovers that the narrator is
spying on them from his apartment across the way, she swears and
angrily closed the heavy curtains, and I was cut off utterly from the room I had shared
invisibly so long. My eyes blurred with rage. In that instance the resolve I had made to
abstain from interference was broken. I could hardly wait for morning to throw everything
He takes the unsuspecting Hermann to Chez Nicole, remains outside, and hears
"Albertas stifled scream." He retreats to a bench in the Tuileries where
an unseeing and distraught Renée Joly flings herself down beside him, recognises him and
...I envied the woman her sorrow because it was her own. In place of it, I had only a
void which had been filled by one who knew nothing of me and whose adventures had been
re-assembled by chance in my own poor brain. But as I shuffled from street to street and
the tingling in my nerves subsided I wondered about the joys and dangers of direct
experience and reflected that I... was free to take a train when I felt like it.13
In fashioning The Amazon not to surrender to easy explanation, Paul leaves
questions. Was Alberta Snyders commitment to women covertly sexual throughout? If it
was, was she weakened or strengthened by it? But why then did Hermanns appeal at the
end apparently succeed? The majors insult was directed at Snyder being a
lady-tourist of war, a spectator out of place - but her point was that women did
belong there. Presumably her defiant gesture of advance was to prove they did, though it
could be alleged that it precisely didnt. What held Snyder back where Florence Mason
took her bitter pill? The narrator, by contrast, is tempted to action where his
objectivity lay in the distance endowed by his observer status, which he violates. Is his
loss of balance merely "personal," or does it expose the paradox and the danger
of the committed investigator, journalist or novelist? The narrators act creates
confusions masterpiece, and leaves him at once empty and free.
1 The Amazon (New York: Horace Liveright Inc,
1930), 91, 92, 68.
2 Ibid., 6.
3 Ibid., 45, 46.
4 Ibid., 54-55, 55, 66.
5 Ibid., 90, 101-02.
6 Ibid., 136, 144, 157, 168.
7 Ibid., 192, 196, 196.
8 Ibid., 215, 220, 216.
9 Ibid., 230, 231.
10 Ibid., 236, 241, 254, 264.
11 Ibid., 302, 304, 311, 312, 313, 317-18.
12 Ibid., 321, 323, 325, 325-26, 327, 332, 335. One
wonders what the dedicatee of The Amazon, "Gertrude Stein PIONEER,"
thought about this turn of events, if she read or heard about it. Perhaps she would have
considered that the narrator was now unbalanced.
13 Ibid., 337, 339.