Wednesday, May 8, 2013

WWII-Era Book Giveaway Boosted Popularity of The Great Gatsby

The 1945 Armed Services Edition of The Great Gatsby.
One might say that this flimsy 5½ x 3⅞ inch paperback edition of The Great Gatsby was ultimately responsible for the book’s film adaptation nearly seventy years later. The Armed Services Edition program was a colossal government-sponsored book giveaway during World War II. Over 120 million paperbacks were distributed to American troops overseas. One of the titles included in the project was F. Scott Fitgerald’s The Great Gatsby. It was released at a time when literary critics were less than enthusiastic about Fitzgerald’s work and book sales of Gatsby were sluggish.

Back cover.

In Books in Action: The Armed Services Editions (1984) writer Matthew Bruccoli theorized on the Gatsby sales boost that returning GIs may have produced:

“There is no way to determine how many converts to literature—or, less elegantly, to reading—were made by the ASE. The fix was free. Moreover, it seems highly probable that some postwar reputations were stimulated by the introduction of authors in the ASE to readers who had never read them before. One hundred fifty-five thousand ASE copies of The Great Gatsby were distributed—as against the twenty-five thousand copies of the novel printed by Scribners between 1925 and 1942. Was there a connection between the ASE publication of Gatsby and Diamond as Big as the Ritz and the Fitzgerald revival that commenced in the late 1940s?”

The Armed Services Edition print run of The Great Gatsby was 155,000 copies, nearly eight times the book’s first printing in 1925. Soldiers and sailors tended to swap their books when they were finished reading. So, the real number of new readers introduced to Fitzgerald’s writing could have been much higher than number of copies circulating in the military. Both Gatsby and Diamond (with a print run of 90,000) were distributed after Germany and Japan surrendered. There were still millions of Americans overseas, and they had a lot of spare time for reading. It’s a convincing idea that these hundreds of thousands GIs who came home after the war sparked the new popularity of Fitzgerald, cementing The Great Gatsby’s reputation as a great American novel.

—Andrew Brozyna

1946 Armed Services Edition of Diamond as Big as the Ritz.

Back cover.
Book scans courtesy of ASE collector Brian Anderson.

References:

Bruccoli, Matthew J., Editor. New Essays on The Great Gatsby. Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Cole, John Y. Books in Action: The Armed Services Editions. The Center for the Book, Library of Congress, 1984.

Further Reading:

Read about The Council on Books in Wartime, the publisher of the Armed Services Editions.

Read about the history of the Armed Services Editions.

Read about the unique design of the Armed Services Edition paperbacks.

2 comments:

  1. I wrote an article about the Armed Services Editions. It appeared in the magazine "World at War" in August, 2012. If you can't find a copy, let me know. I'll post one on my website.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I wrote an article about the Armed Services Editions. It appeared in the August, 2012 issue of World At War magazine. If you can't find a copy, let me know.

    ReplyDelete