Howell, Thomas. Soldiers of the Pen: The Writers’ War Board in World War II. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2019. $29.95. ISBN: 1625343876
Thomas Howell’s study of the Writers’ War Board (WWB) joins the likes of Janice Radway’s A Feeling for Books on the Book-of-The-Month Club (1997) and the more recent work of Eric Bennett on American writing workshops (2015) and Sarah Brouillette in UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary (2019) in presenting the reader with a sustained study of an institution and its history, ideology, and material effects. Howell makes use of archival materials from the Library of Congress, Boston College, and elsewhere to recreate this history, and to argue convincingly that: first, the WWB, as a quasi-government organization benefited from both close government contact and federal funding, as well as limited regulation and oversight; second, that the WWB influenced domestic culture in wartime America through its widespread and effective propaganda campaigns; and, third, that the WWB was influential in “promoting liberal democracy” especially after the Office of War Information (OWI), the official government propaganda branch, ceased its campaigns in that direction.
The WWB, as Howell presents it, was the primary purveyor of U.S. propaganda during World War II, and consisted of a board of twenty writers (including Pearl S. Buck, Clifton Fadiman, and Oscar Hammerstein II), an advisory council of seventy-one members (including John Steinbeck, Langston Hughes, and Thornton Wilder) and a database of over 5,000 authors nation-wide whom the WWB matched with and conscripted for specific campaigns. Howell’s introduction lays out the board’s early history and the many levers of its propaganda machine, which, in addition to 5,000 authors waiting for specific assignments, included several monthly newsletters directed at authors which listed “suggestions for background stories, plot ideas, articles and editorials on themes the government planned to publicize in three months time” (29), four to eight monthly editorials sent out to 1,600 American newspapers, scripts and speeches to be used on the radio, a review system to promote favorable books and movies that relied on a “5 duds and 5 bombs” scale (in which bombs somewhat counterintuitively indicated a positive rating), and committees to “brainstorm” campaigns for specific issues or media (such as the Newspaper Syndicate Committee, the Radio Committee, and the Comics Committee). Howell’s chapters then go on to describe the specific efforts of the WWB in various campaigns. Most, like the recruitment of non-pilot positions for the air force or the publicizing of the sale of war bonds, were commissioned by the federal government; but the WWB also pursued its own campaigns, most notably an effort to increase racial tolerance at home, in which it used its reach throughout the media industry to discourage racial stereotyping.
Howell’s book succeeds in tracing the multi-faceted campaigns of the WWB, and the interesting tactics deployed by its writers. For example, in order to publicize the role of different military personnel, the board, in addition to publishing a factual article in the Saturday Evening Post, had author Matt Taylor change the storyline of his fictional account of the policeman hero Dan McGarry, which ran in the Sunday newspaper supplement This Week. Taylor transferred McGarry to the military police, where he learned that this was a “big-time job” and that “every job everywhere is important, in the army” (73). The anecdotes that Howell uncovers are often fascinating vignettes of wartime America and the dissemination of largely bygone media. The WWB set up a two-person committee, for example, to publicize the little-known fourth stanza of the national anthem when they realized that the more popular first stanza ends in a question (Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?). The committee persuaded Kate Smith, the most popular vocalist on radio, to sing the fourth stanza ever week. “When the board received reports that her example was being followed widely,” Howell writes, “it dissolved the committee and moved on to more substantive projects” (42). Howell also makes sure to clarify fascinating moments of intrigue—times when the WWB made utmost use of its non-government position. As Howell writes, the Roosevelt administration often contacted the group “about making an argument or taking a stand that it wished to have publicized but dared not handle itself because of political expediency. In these cases the board outwardly appeared to oppose the government’s position even though it was acting on behalf of the administration” (12). For example, the official government position, disseminated by the Office of War Information (OWI) was that the German population was victim to the Nazis, but the WWB, with the OWI’s blessing, pushed for a general “hatred” of all Germans. A similar situation unfolded with the peace agreement negotiated by the U.S. government at the end of the war establishing the United Nations, which the government paradoxically encouraged the WWB to campaign against so that public opinion might give them leverage for negotiating a stronger worldwide government.
Where Howell, a historian, deviates from Radway, Bennett, and Brouillette (all literary and/or cultural scholars) is that his account stops short of the questions about media, authorship, reading, and propaganda that his fascinating research provokes, and which would make this book particularly interesting to the SHARP community. When Howell presents a campaign against black market gasoline sales that targeted high school students in Scholastic, the reader can’t help but wonder what assumptions the WWB is making about its audience and their reading habits. Why are certain media and outlets selected over others for particular campaigns? When celebrities like Humphrey Bogart attach their names to reviews ghostwritten by WWB authors, how is “authorship” being deployed? In a particularly fascinating anecdote, Howell describes WWB efforts to turn a specifically female audience into writers by imploring them to “write to your local paper and suggest in that letter that your fellow citizens write to their husbands and sons overseas with the news about the War Bond Drives” (8). Enlisting readers to become writers to create more writers shows how quickly the network of writers and readers proliferates propaganda campaigns. But Howell doesn’t provide metacommentary on this unique campaign nor does he address the slippage of the term “writer” that this scenario seems to introduce into his account of the Writers’ War Board: who counts as a writer and who doesn’t? These questions sit like ripe fruit awaiting a cultural scholar’s inquisitive and greedy fingers to shake its delicate hold on the branch. More troublingly, Howell doesn’t take seriously the question of propaganda and literary autonomy to which his narrative consistently returns. He spends much of his conclusion defending the WWB from Steinbeck’s contention that it “was a secretive organization that not only attempted to dictate what authors should write but also inserted insidious propaganda into America’s reading materials” (244). Howell essentially dismisses this notion out of hand. But an analysis of the WWB that opens a dialogue between autonomy, literature, and propaganda would, rather than cast aspersions on the WWB, give the reader a much richer picture of how writing, mass culture, and authorship operated during wartime (an illustrative case for this would be Edna St. Vincent Millay’s dramatic poem The Murder of Lidice, which the WWB calls “one of the finest pieces of true propaganda to come out of the war” (163)). In fact, Howell doesn’t provide a definition of propaganda until page 247.
This book is a fascinating and meticulously researched account of wartime propaganda designed by a self-governing group of writers and disseminated through a great variety of media venues in order to reach specific and varied audiences. Howell’s book achieves its goals, which are limited to well-argued claims about the WWB. Readers interested in twentieth-century media (especially radio, comics, and newspapers), the dissemination of propaganda, and even just wartime history will find much to enjoy in Howell’s carefully researched book including as yet unanswered questions about authorship, the affordances of various media, and literature’s relationship to propaganda.
Anna Muenchrath, Appalachian State University