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How World War II Made America Literate

(Photo: NPR)

Before World War II, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby was out of print and almost unknown—a forgotten work of a previous generation. Then, in 1945, it was republished for distribution to American soldiers. Now The Great Gatsby is regarded as a treasure of American literature.

World War II had a profound impact on American culture, including what Americans read and that they read at all. In an article in Commentary, Terry Teachout describes how government programs to provide books to soldiers massively increased American reading habits and middlebrow culture. The US government saw providing interesting books to soldiers as essential to maintaining morale:

The solution was to distribute paperbacks, which had been introduced to the United States by Pocket Books in 1939. At a time when most hardbacks cost two dollars or more—$33 in today’s dollars—Pocket Books printed 38 million 25-cent paperbacks in 1943 alone. Its success persuaded other publishers that it would make commercial sense to work with the military on a program to print books for soldiers, the assumption being that to do so would create a new market for inexpensive paperback reprints after the war. Thinking along closely similar lines, Time, the New Yorker, and other magazines created miniaturized “pony editions” for servicemen.

Thus, the Armed Services Editions, which were published by a civilian organization called the Council on Books in Wartime—compact, oblong, two-column-wide paperbacks that were designed to slip easily into the pockets of a uniform. They were sold to the military for six cents per volume.

These Armed Services Editions (ASEs) altered the thinking and literary experiences of a generation of American men:

Witness, for instance, the testimony of a G.I. who wrote to Helen MacInnes, the author of the espionage novel While Still We Live, long after the war. According to MacInnes: “He had read little until [the ASE edition] got him enjoying literature. From there, he read constantly, and after his service went to college. He ended with a Ph.D. and sent me a copy. It was dedicated to me, the writer of the novel that started his reading.” […]

No less suggestive was the experience of the New Yorker, whose wartime “pony edition” jumped in circulation from 20,000 in 1943 to 150,000 in 1944. The magazine’s domestic circulation, which had been 171,000 in 1941, reached 325,000 a decade later, a leap that the editors attributed to the fact that so many servicemen had read it for the first time in the pony edition. Most important of all, commercial mass-market paperback reprints—not just of mysteries but of every possible kind of book, lowbrow and highbrow alike—became ubiquitous after 1945, undoubtedly because of the popularity of the ASEs among returning servicemen.

-via VA Viper


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