There was a time when American soldiers, dispatched to foreign fields and foxholes, took with them pocket New Testaments or little Torahs. I suspect this habit has fallen somewhat into desuetude. Whatever presumptions can be made about our soldiers’ faiths back then, something else must be presumed, too: our soldiers liked to read.

And not just, or probably not even primarily, holy writ. In 1943, Viking Press brought out a portable compendium with a miscellany of American prose and poetry for members of the U.S. Armed Forces and Merchant Marine. As You Were was the title, Alexander Woollcott the editor. Woollcott (who died at fifty-six just before the book appeared) was then famous at least among Americans who read, went to the theater, or listened to his radio programs. He started out in newspapers before World War I, first on the police beat for The New York Times, then as a drama critic. His “Shouts and Murmurs” column in Harold Ross’s then-new New Yorker expanded his fame, as did his radio show on CBS, The Town Crier. He collaborated on Broadway shows with George Kaufman and Moss Hart and even acted in The Man Who Came to Dinner, playing himself in the title role. He knew his way around anthologies too: his Woollcott Readers and While Rome Burns, a collection of his New Yorker pieces, were bestsellers.

As You Were was the title, Alexander Woollcott the editor.

As You Were, as the book’s unusually truthful jacket proclaimed, “was built like a Jeep, compact, efficient and marvelously versatile.” It originated with a White House visit in 1942 and Woollcott’s desire to help the war effort. (During the First World War, he had worked on the original Stars & Stripes soldiers’ newspaper.) Ninety entries filled 657 pages and ranged from high- to decidedly lower-brow. In making selections, he acknowledged help from friends and neighbors, including Carl Sandburg, Willa Cather, and E. B. White, but took responsibility himself for “more debatable choices” and “more conspicuous absentees.” Woollcott organized them all into three categories: American Fiction, American Verse, and American Fact. Fiction ranged across Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” Mark Twain’s “The Duke and the Dauphin come Aboard,” Joel Chandler Harris’s “Uncle Remus,” Ernest Hemingway’s “Fifty Grand,” and Dorothy Parker’s “The Waltz.” Poets included Longfellow, Emerson, Poe, Whitman, Sandburg, and Frost, on down to Clement Moore (“A Visit from St. Nicholas”) and Eugene Field (“Little Willie”).

A copy of As You Were (1943), edited by Alexander Woollcott. Photo by the author.

It is the non-fiction (“American Fact”), however, that most intrigues. Here, the GI might refresh himself on the full text of the Declaration of Independence (the very first entry), read why Thoreau went to Walden Pond, dip into speeches of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., chuckle at Ogden Nash’s “The Turtle” or Robert Benchley’s “A Talk to Young Men,” or discover the harrowing and then very current tale by W. L. White (the son of William Allen White) of young Norwegians escaping across the North Sea to England in 1940: “The Norse Travel Again.”

Sandwiched none too modestly between Sandburg’s “The Death of John Quincy Adams” and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, we find Woollcott’s own offering, “For Us, The Living”—a lesser work than its neighbors but not unworthy of its place. He wanted to say something weighty about America’s situation just then, in 1942 when the Allies’ fortunes had hit rock bottom, and he made a safe choice of subject material. The phrase “for us, the living” is lifted from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. But Woollcott gave it a twist. If, he mused, one could eavesdrop on that fateful moment in history and slip into the multitude gathered there on Cemetery Ridge, chances are one would have gone away singularly uninspired.

The partisan press at the time generally panned Lincoln’s words. Hardly any of the fifteen thousand souls in attendance (looking no doubt for the exit after enduring a two-hour oration by Edward Everett, who preceded the president) would have been able to hear Lincoln at all. Woollcott, the veteran theater man, knew that good performers prepare their audience. “Listen to any speaker at a dinner and note how inevitably he devotes the first two or three minutes to saying nothing at all, while the audience, with its varying rate of adjustment, is tuning in.” Obviously, the Lincoln of the great Cooper Union speech, who had held a difficult audience in thrall, and the Lincoln of the dusty debates with Stephen Douglas already knew this. Besides, his text that day at Gettysburg was all of ten sentences—272 words long—and took just two minutes and thirty-five seconds to deliver. Then it was over, and the President sat down. What was really going on? Who was supposed to hear?

Woollcott reports a recent conversation with one “John Thomason of the Marines.” Thomason had found an old letter from a Confederate captain wounded and taken prisoner at Gettysburg, who had not yet been exchanged and who evidently did hear Lincoln that November day in 1863. “To the folks back home he wrote, ‘We’ve got to stop fighting that man.’” Was Lincoln deliberately talking over the crowd and to the South? Possibly, though Woollcott had a grander idea. Lincoln may indeed have been talking to the South, “but my own inescapable notion is that, over the heads of the South, he was also talking to Americans as yet unborn and unbegot.” Woolcott’s words were as true then as they are now: in an age “when beggars on horseback the world around are challenging all that Lincoln had and was—the only question is whether we will listen: It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here . . .”

Woollcott believed that Lincoln’s famous oration was something that GIs far from home needed, and wanted, to hear. He also believed that As You Were, his Jeep-like reader and, as it turned out, his parting salute to the troops, was the best way to reach them. His was a faith born back in the First World War, when as Sgt. Woollcott he had been one of them. In the volume’s foreword he tells a story of how, making his way back from the front in the Summer of 1918, he stumbled at night on a shattered French farmhouse in which was visible “a thread of forbidden light” cast from the candle of an Australian disabled at Gallipoli and seconded to “the cushy job of fetching the mail.” They shared mugs of tea, exchanged soldierly gossip about the Americans, British, and Australians and the day when it all might end. They bedded down amid the rubble with mail sacks for pillows, his host’s a bag from Sydney, his from Melbourne. Outside, artillery intensified, “and the blood-soaked earth of the Somme Valley trembled and twitched like a setter bitch, dreaming of the chase in her sleep.”

The Australian, who was not an officer, then indulged in a forgotten luxury, which was not a cigarette. With half a candle and a few private moments, he produced a book—The Sundering Flood by William Morris—to read himself to sleep.

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