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Grolier Club Exhibitions

Authors and Readers

Authors and Readers, The Best-Read Army in the World, curated by Molly Manning, exhibited at the Grolier Club

Not only did the ASEs improve the lives of troops at war, but the authors who permitted their books to be reprinted as ASEs reaped rewards. Though they made little to no royalties from their ASEs, authors benefited from fan mail, autograph requests, and enduring writing careers—testaments to the appreciation troops felt for these books. This case features artifacts pertaining to ASE authors Betty Smith, Jesse Stuart, John Steinbeck, H. Allen Smith, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Betty Smith. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Editions for the Armed Services, Inc., No. K-28. 

Fan letters were perhaps the best way to measure an ASE’s popularity. Betty Smith received an unparalleled 10,000 letters from troops during World War II. These letters compared A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to a “good letter from home.” The book was so beloved it enjoyed two ASE editions—D-117 and K-28. It was among the titles distributed to the troops who invaded France on D-Day.

Betty Smith. Undated Photograph. 

Like many celebrities, Betty Smith received frequent autograph requests from troops, and she did not disappoint. One soldier with whom Smith kept a regular correspondence carried a photograph of Smith as he fought through Germany and Belgium. “I am going to need another,” he wrote in one letter. “I’ve carried this [photograph] around in snow, rain, mud, and combat, until it looks like it’s been through a war.”

Jesse Stuart. Taps for Private Tussie. New York: Montauk Book Manufacturing, Co., Inc., 1943. 

In 1943, Jesse Stuart inscribed his award-winning book, Taps for Private Tussie, to Army Chief Librarian, Ray Trautman. They became friends as teenagers in Kentucky. “Did we dream at that time… that we would be engaged in our greatest of wars in 1942—and that you would be getting out the overseas editions to send to our fighting forces?” In 1943, the Army purchased hardcovers of Stuart’s book for its stationary libraries.

Jesse Stuart. Letter to Ray Trautman. December 29, 1976. 

Thirty years after Jesse Stuart’s books were distributed to the armed forces during World War II, Stuart continued to insist that nothing contributed to his writing success like the ASEs. In 1976, he had published 49 books and had been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Yet in the second paragraph of this letter, he stated to Trautman, “ started this. You took all my books in World War II for the services.”

John Steinbeck. Cannery Row. Editions for the Armed Services, Inc., No. T-5. 

Omnibook. New York: Omnibook, Inc. June 1945. 

S/Sgt. Ken Eldredge (Letter). July 16, 1945. 

In this heartfelt letter to John Steinbeck, a soldier divulged that after 23 months overseas, he faced transfer to the Pacific. “I felt pretty down-hearted,” he said. But he happened upon a copy of Cannery Row, and it unexpectedly filled him with glee. “I thank you for finding a laughter that I thought I had lost for good.” He promised to “tell [his] buddies” about the book—“they will enjoy it as much as I.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay. Lyrics and Sonnets. Editions for the Armed Services, Inc., No. 857. 

Allan Ross MacDougal, ed. Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952. 

At most, an author earned a half-cent royalty per ASE. When the Army asked to eliminate this royalty to produce even more ASEs, not all authors were enthused. In a July 1943 letter to her publisher, Edna St. Vincent Millay noted she had spent all of 1942 “doing things for the government” to support the war effort. She was “stone-broke” and noted if she did not “get some money I can’t go on writing.”