Weapons in the War of Ideas

Last week I mentioned that Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn probably owed some of its success to the fact that the book had been published in an Armed Services Edition and was one of the 1300 such books that were distributed for free to members of the military during WWII.

The Armed Services edition of Tree
back cover of the ASE Tree

As I mentioned, the rediscovery of The Great Gatsby during the 1940s, and its subsequent canonization as a Great American Novel, was similarly probably partly the result of the fact that the book was republished in the ASE series and thus made available to many avid readers who might not otherwise have found it.

That publication history presents an interesting light on Smith’s novel and on Fitzgerald’s and on what the books may have meant for the readers who treasured or celebrated them. But it’s also a window onto a revealing moment in the history of American publishing and education and on the ideas that were promulgated as part of the American war effort.

The progam, which was organized by the Council on Books in Wartime–a non-profit organization of publishers and writers closely affiliated with the federal government’s Office of War Information–made small, disposable, paperbacks availble to servicemen at no cost. It amounted to one of the largest free distributions of books in history and arguably helped fuel both the “paperback revolution” of the postwar decades and the contemporaneous expansion of higher education in the U.S. As the promotional poster above suggests, it also rested on the assumption that the United States and the Allied powers were engaged in a war to defend freedom and enlightement against the forces of barbarism and tyranny.

You can find out more about the Armed Services Editions from this excellent University of Virginia Library exhibition. A good, shorter, magazine-article-length description of the ASE program can also be found here.

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