As part of Bas Bleu’s 2016 Book a Month program, each month we’re offering discussion questions, author interviews, or other bonus material about our Bluestocking BAM selection to enrich your reading experience—for book clubs as well as thoughtful individuals. (We’ll do our best to avoid plot spoilers, but you should proceed with caution!)
Every day at Bas Bleu, we celebrate the extraordinary power of books to shape the lives of those who read them. So is it any wonder we fell in love the moment we read our May Book a Month selection, When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II? It’s the fascinating true story of the influence of books on the U.S. armed forces during World War II, and includes an inspiring account of the lengths the American government, local libraries, and private citizens went to provide inspiration, entertainment, and solace to our fighting forces. This week in the Bluestocking Salon, author Molly Guptill Manning explains how she uncovered this heartwarming story, what it teaches us about war that history textbooks can’t, and the novels she fell in love with along the way.
Bas Bleu: How did you first learn about the Armed Services Editions?
Molly Guptill Manning: I first learned about the Armed Services Editions when I was researching my first book, The Myth of Ephraim Tutt. Tutt was a popular fictional character invented by Arthur Train, a best-selling author of the early twentieth century. When I was combing through archival records about Train, I discovered hundreds of letters from around the world, thanking Train for his participation in the Armed Services Edition program (his book, Yankee Lawyer: The Autobiography of Ephraim Tutt, was printed as an ASE). I had no idea what an ASE was. As I searched for information on it, I discovered the incredible story of how the government and publishers banded together to send millions of books to Americans serving in World War II. I was amazed that this story had never been told, and I decided to be the one to tell it.
BB: The letters that authors like Betty Smith received from their military readers are simply incredible! Where did you find them all? What insight can those letters provide us into the war experience that journalists and history books can’t?
MGM: In telling the story of books going to war, I wanted to use the words of the soldiers and sailors who read them. Luckily, they wrote thousands of letters during the war to authors and publishers. The letters to authors are scattered in archives across the country. For example, letters to Betty Smith can be found in the archives at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Katherine Anne Porter’s letters are housed at the University of Maryland Libraries. Many letters can also be found at Princeton University, where the publishers’ records for the ASE program are held.
What I love about these letters is they illuminate an aspect of war that is rarely discussed in history books or by journalists. The letters expose many of the emotions that soldiers felt, but were rarely expressed. Many men suffered from loneliness, homesickness, fear of death, and sadness from watching friends die. Books provided solace, hope, and catharsis. Thousands of men were so grateful for the relief they found in books that they wrote to authors to express what a particular book meant to them. Many of these letters discussed the hardships the men faced and how the author’s book helped them persevere. While many history books focus on the battles and tell the story of the war from a military perspective, these letters explore the emotional, psychological, and mental effects the war had on the individuals who fought it. The letters make the war feel personal.
BB: The ASEs made bestsellers out of several books that publishers considered commercial failures, like The Great Gatsby. How do you explain that? And how were the books for the ASE program chosen in the first place?
MGM: Many titles selected as ASEs enjoyed long-term financial success. Anywhere between 50,000 and 155,000 copies of each title were printed. For any author, it was an incredible feat to gain such a huge audience. As for The Great Gatsby, the ASE was printed at the height of the program, and so 155,000 copies were distributed to American troops. The fantasy of Gatsby’s life—his opulent parties and lifestyle—provided a great distraction from war. I think many soldiers enjoyed the book for the escape it provided.
The success of the book spread to the home front—and my theory is that this was done through letters sent home from the fronts. Letters were read by censors, and soldiers couldn’t disclose where they were, what they were doing, where they were going, etc. This reduced letters to the discussion of mundane topics—the weather, one’s health, etc. They were horribly unsatisfying to write and read. As Armed Services Editions were distributed, many soldiers began to write about what they were reading. Loved ones at home could read the same books and critique them in letters, forging a bond that bridged the thousands of miles of separation. Thus, the popularity of titles printed as Armed Services Editions often spilled over to the home front. And, books popular on the home front were often the most sought-after Armed Services Editions. So, it worked both ways.
As for the selection of titles to be made into ASEs, there was a three-part process. First, publishers would comb through their stock lists and choose titles that would be appealing to men in their twenties (the average soldier). Next, a group of “readers”—individuals employed to read books and judge their merit—narrowed the list of contenders. And, third, the Army and Navy reviewed the lists of books and further edited them. Soldiers and sailors could also write to publishers and ask that certain titles be printed as ASEs.
BB: It was so interesting to us that the troops had access to ASEs of books that were banned back home in the States. Were you surprised by the War Department’s censorship policy? Do you know what is the Department of Defense’s current policy for providing deployed troops with reading materials?
MGM: I was initially surprised by how liberal the War Department was in printing titles that were banned at home, but the reasoning behind this decision made a lot of sense. The War Department did not want soldiers to think that their reading materials were being censored by the government; rather, the department believed it would do a world of good for soldier morale if the War Department was thought to trust the soldier to read whatever he wanted—even banned books. Soldiers were grateful to have access to a range of titles.
There are Army and Navy library programs today, and the Navy is experimenting with a pilot program of distributing pre-loaded e-reader devices to those serving on submarines (where it might be difficult to store an entire library of titles). There are also many volunteer organizations, like Books for Troops or Books for Soldiers, that feature book donations from the American public. But, there is no program that compares to the scope of the Armed Services Editions initiative.
BB: Can you imagine Americans (or our government) rallying behind the Victory Book Campaign or an ASE program today? Why or why not? What differences between our society today and during World War II could affect the success or failure of such programs?
MGM: The work of the Victory Book Campaign continues today, even though the VBC, itself, disbanded in 1943. Americans wishing to donate books to troops today may do so through Books for Soldiers (a website where you can view and fulfill book requests by soldiers) and Books for Troops (an organization that collects donated books and ships them to military units in need of books). Both organizations are thriving with donations from the American public.
However, I think a program like the Armed Services Editions is unlikely to be replicated. Over 12 million Americans served in WWII—almost everyone at home knew someone in the services. The government took extraordinary measures to satisfy the “civilian soldiers” who were drafted, and that included providing morale-boosting equipment, such as books. Given the widespread support for the war effort at home, there was no controversy when the government entered a partnership with publishers to produce (and use government funds to purchase) the Armed Services Editions. Today, America’s participation in wars abroad is hotly contested, and the number of Americans in the military is relatively small compared to WWII. Under these circumstances, it is hard to imagine publishers and the government coming together again to produce miniature books for the armed services.
BB: What was the greatest benefit of the ASE program?
MGM: I think the greatest benefit of the ASE program was it introduced millions of people to the joy of reading. The average soldier in WWII had an eleventh grade education and did not read books before the war (many read magazines and newspapers, but not books). During the war, with over 123 million ASEs distributed (plus another 18 million donated books distributed by the Victory Book Campaign), many soldiers and sailors took up a habit of reading books. It is said that war is nine-tenths waiting, and many people grabbed a book out of sheer desperation for something to do. Thanks to the wonderful selection of titles, many soldiers discovered they enjoyed reading books. When they returned home, their reading habit continued. Over two million veterans pursued an education under the GI Bill—and I think the ASEs and VBC books had a lot to do with that. After all, if soldiers and sailors could enjoy reading while under the stress of war, they could certainly read and thrive in the quiet of a classroom.
BB: While researching the ASEs, did you discover any new (to you) books that became personal favorites?
MGM: I read many of the ASEs that were mentioned in the letters from soldiers. When I was in high school, I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but I decided to reread it (considering the 10,000 letters Betty Smith received from soldiers praising it). As I read, I thought about the Americans who read it in a foxhole or on a ship decades ago. Needless to say, I had a completely different experience with the book than I did in high school (and I highly recommend the book!). Chicken Every Sunday was another favorite amongst servicemen—it was a fast read and rather amusing but it showed its age (by using outdated and sometimes offensive terms). A veteran I spoke with who remembered reading ASEs while convalescing in a hospital in France recommended Rogue Male, an action-mystery book. It was a fast-paced and enjoyable read.
BB: What future projects can readers look forward to seeing from you?
MGM: I am working on another book about WWII. So many history books focus on the battles and leaders who planned and plotted the war’s course. I am more interested in the plight of the average “civilian soldier,” who was swept out of his home and into a uniform and then sent to a front to fight. My next book will tell the story of the war from the perspective of these men.
BB: Many thanks to Molly for sharing this incredible story with us and with the world! To learn more about the ASE program, head over to C-SPAN’s website for a special BookTV presentation.