Over the last month, I’ve been asked many questions about When Books Went to War. The one that comes up most often is, “How did you discover this story?” Here’s the answer.
When I was researching my first book, The Myth of Ephraim Tutt, I was going through the archives of Charles Scribner’s Sons, which was a major publishing house during the early twentieth century. (In fact, Scribner’s, through the efforts of legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, published works by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.) The research I was conducting related to the author Arthur Train, and the literary hoax that landed him, Scribner’s, and Perkins in court.
Train was a prominent author who published over 40 books from 1905-1945. One of these books was Yankee Lawyer: The Autobiography of Ephraim Tutt. There was just one problem: this book was not an autobiography. Tutt was a fictitious character. Yet, Yankee Lawyer gave every appearance of being a true autobiography. It was copyrighted by Ephraim Tutt. It had (fake) photographs of Tutt and his family. The introduction explained that Arthur Train had finally convinced Tutt to come out of the shadows and tell his story in his own words. And the tale of Tutt’s life is laced with references to actual events and people, giving the impression that Tutt had lived and walked on this earth.
Thousands of people were fooled into believing Tutt was real. Tutt, who was as likable a lawyer you could imagine, received bags of mail from people asking him to represent them in court. Lawyers wrote to Tutt for legal advice. The public wrote to cheer him on and thank him for the example he set. And a few women even wrote to ask Tutt to stop by their homes for a cup of tea.
When the news broke that the book was a hoax, one lawyer grew so incensed that he sued Train, Perkins, and Scribner’s for fraud. Newspapers had a field day. One even said that it was a shame that Tutt couldn’t write the brief for his friend, Train. (To avoid giving away the ending, I will not go further in telling the story of the hoax).
Of all the books the publishers selected for publication as Armed Services Editions, Yankee Lawyer: The Autobiography of Ephraim Tutt happened to be one of them. And, as you can see from the spine, the book does not say that it is by “Train.” The spine presents “Tutt” as the author. For American soldiers serving overseas, often lacking the newspapers and magazines printed on the home front, the book caused a world of confusion. And they wrote to Train, Tutt, and Scribner’s to get answers.
As I was combing through the Charles Scribner’s Archives, I came across hundreds of letters from soldiers asking whether Tutt was real. Bets had been made, factions had formed, and disagreements abounded. To give just one example, several members of the Seventh Division wrote from Okinawa Island the day after a long and bloody battle, because they had argued about Yankee Lawyer for long enough. “Having read your published book, Yankee Lawyer, . . . we have started a never ending discussion. The question raging back and forth is whether Ephraim Tutt is a real or an imaginary character,” the letter said. “At the moment we are fighting two battles, one with the Japanese on Okinawa and the other among ourselves about your particular book,” the men continued. “We have no doubt as to the outcome of the argument with the Japanese but are certainly up in the air about Ephraim Tutt.”
Hundreds of letters like this one were mailed from locations around the world. Many of these letters mentioned the Armed Services Edition of Yankee Lawyer. Others thanked Scribner’s for taking part in the Armed Services Edition program. At the time, I had never heard of the ASEs, but because there were so many letters talking about them, I decided to find out what I could. The more digging I did, the more I wanted to know about these incredible little books. The story fascinated me. As I discovered all of the different dimensions to the wartime book programs–starting with the book burnings in Germany and the Victory Book Campaign, to the ASEs, the congressional censorship battle, and the GI Bill–I realized this forgotten story of World War II needed to be told, and I wanted to tell it. When Books Went to War was born.