So-So Books of the Great War

As I have mentioned, one of the signs that a dealer in used books has been around a while, is the cry, “We used to get that all the time!” This indicates a book which used to come in every week and now has become scarce. The bookseller is indulging in a moment of nostalgia. The book is not necessarily of any value: it has just passed out of common currency. I have myself mentioned Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich”, which is sailing into the land of scarcity without stopping at the island of wild expense first. (No, I don’t CARE if Clement Stone signed it; you’re not going to be able to buy that Hello Kitty bedroom set with the proceeds.)

In the spirit of impending autumn and the Newberry’s big World War I exhibits, I should like to salute a couple of books which used to bring that cry from older book dealers than I. I have seen these books arrive in a number of donations, but the phenomenon really goes back before my time, believe that or not.

“Private Peat” was a bestselling book about the war of Private Harold R. Peat. It was published in 1917, just as the debate over whether or not the United States should enter the war was getting hotter. Just twenty years old, Peat went overseas with a Canadian regiment, and wrote this book about it. The book stayed on the New York Times Bestseller list for months, and launched a lecture career that carried Peat around the world. He finished up in his native Jamaica, running a hotel and renaming some of the local geography to make it sound better in brochures.

“Over the Top” was a bestseller for Arthur Guy Empey. Ten years older than Harold Peat, Empey was one of thousands of Americans who signed up with a European army for fear they wouldn’t get any war. His book was also published in 1917, also feeding the debate over entry into the war. Wounded at the Battle of the Somme, he was rejected when he tried to join the U.S. Army, but the Army reconsidered after the book became such a hit. This apparently lasted only three days. President Wilson caught a stage appearance in which Empey sneered at draftees (what real American would wait to be drafted to go to war?) and decided Empey was a little too fierce for the job.

Empey also went into show business, but it was his writing that sustained him. After World War I memoirs went out of style, he spun out the adventures of Terence X. O’Leary, a pulp magazine hero who starred in combat adventures and later fought mad scientists and witch doctors.

Both these books were made into movies, which didn’t hurt sales any, so there was never a shortage of copies of either book. Both made the transition to reading lists for American boys, as well. A nice copy of either book, in hardcover, will run you about three bucks online, though a dust jacket and an autograph will send prices higher. (Harold Peat’s signature adds about twenty dollars to the price, but Arthur Empey’s is worth an extra fifty to seventy-five. After all, he had that career in the pulps, PLUS a daughter who went on to become one of Playboy’s first centerfolds.)

Neither book, I am told, has much to recommend it in the way of literature. When the names of great World War I writers are saluted (and the Newberry will be doing just that in a number of events this fall), I’m afraid neither Private Peat nor Captain Empey will be mentioned much. But for booksellers, they will always have a place (not so very far from “Think and Grow Rich” and “Bridges of Madison County”.)

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