by Arnold Goldman

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 Snyder’s 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 McCann’s 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.

Snyder’s orderly, Mary Fahey, tells McCann not to praise Alberta’s looks to her face: "That will start her off again. She’s ashamed of being handsome." Alberta has, says Mary, "taken a fancy already to the boy with the long eyelashes. It’s funny how she picks out that kind. Feels safer, I guess. Still, I don’t think she’s queer. It looked so at first, but I’ve been with her ten months and I’m convinced she’s 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 day’s 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 McCann’s story is suspended.4

On Cape Cod, the narrator by chance finds an opportunity to meet Alberta’s 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 wouldn’t 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 or other."

The narrator is permitted to read Alberta’s (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 Snyder’s military service. Major McGregor, forty men short, can’t "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 don’t 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 Snyder’s 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 major’s right-hand man are shot dead. McGregor, beside himself at having been sidelined from battle, lashes out at Snyder, who is equally over-wrought: "Here’s 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 didn’t 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." Weller’s 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 Alberta’s 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. Hermann’s mother is distraught at her son’s 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 [Alberta’s] face." He even rents a room so that he can overlook her apartment, and he watches her from it:

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 Wetherby’s 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 Frenchwoman’s 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 narrator’s 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 Alberta’s, 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 into confusion.

He takes the unsuspecting Hermann to Chez Nicole, remains outside, and hears "Alberta’s 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 stumbles off:

...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 Snyder’s commitment to women covertly sexual throughout? If it was, was she weakened or strengthened by it? But why then did Hermann’s appeal at the end apparently succeed? The major’s 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 didn’t. 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 narrator’s act creates confusion’s 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.

This analysis of The Amazon is taken from Arnold Goldman's biography-in-progress of Elliot Paul. ©Arnold Goldman 2001.