Books during the war and Stanley Plesent
“The Greatest Generation” is a term the Americans call a generation of the World War II. It is about people who have shown remarkable courage, fortitude and will to win. But few know that, apart from anything else, this generation is distinguished by a special love of literature. American soldiers and officers were eager to read books as the respite between battles in the trenches and dugouts, in hospitals and marching echelons. They read not only entertaining and humorous literature, but also works of English, Russian, French classics as well as works by young American authors that became classics after the war.
Molly Manning devoted her studies to research this unprecedented interest in literature by “The Greatest Generation”. The idea originated while she was working in the archives at Princeton University where she discovered numerous letters from the front, sent to the United States more than 70 years ago. Here is a passage from one of the letters:
“My heart was dead after watching my best friend die. I thought I would never go over it and was not going to feel joy or happiness. For two years I could not believe I could laugh. After contracting malaria I spent weeks in the hospital without anything to do. Then the nurse gave me the novel “A Tree grows in Brooklyn“. After finishing the book, I didn’t think I would’ve been able to sleep unless I bared my heart to the person who caused me to live it again and experience joy. This book helped me to keep my mental bearing.”
The advent of the mass reader in America was made possible by, at first glance, minor technological discovery. Shortly before the war began, the industry started selling books in paperbacks, which could easily be put in a jacket pocket or a glove bag. Someone came with an idea to use the presses on which the popular magazines are printed. Indeed, it was just necessary to put two book pages onto a single page in magazine format, then after printing cut the page in half to make a page of a paperback, and do this simple operation for the desired number of pages. It could not be sold for dollars, but for 50 or 75 cents they went very well.
On the basis of this invention several publishing houses started operating, for example, the familiar Penguin books. At first, they did not experience the expected financial success. However, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the beginning of the war with Nazi Germany, a well-known public figure W. W. Norton spoke at a meeting of the Board of publishers with an unexpected proposal: to send books to the front for free. At first, the idea was met with disbelief – if it’s free, that is a loss to our businesses! But Norton argued that, apart from its patriotic nature, such an undertaking would have a favorable economic impact on publishing in the future: millions of soldiers who enjoyed reading free books at the front would buy them after the war. Moreover, America would act in this case as the opposite of its despicable enemy, the Nazi Germany. The Nazis, back in the 30’s, began to burn books disagreeable to their regime’s ideology. Such arguments were accepted and, until the end of World War II on various fronts – in Europe, Africa, the Pacific islands – the fighting men received 122, 951, 031 million books, all free of charge. What a contrast with the Great Patriotic War in Russia: imagine for a moment what they had received in the mail at that time. Soviet soldiers who fought in WWII maybe received knitted socks or boots, but unlikely books. However, it is known that the war poets, such as David Samoilov, Bulat Okudzhava, carried with them a small bundle of poems during the war. The English envied the Americans at the front, who sometimes shared their books with them as allies. They admired the idea of delivering free books to the front, calling it, in the English slang a «super-dooper» idea.
American soldiers in their letters home, along with stories of fighting, began to share their impressions of a particular book, sometimes advising their girlfriends and relatives to buy their favorite books. Moreover, they are, as they say, wiped the nose of the literary critics, refuting their views on some of the new works of young writers. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” was coolly received by the press, but the publisher dared to send to the front some 150 thousand copies, and soldiers loved it. Now, as we know, this novel is considered one of the most popular in the history of American literature and it was made into several films, one of which was released recently, with DiCaprio in the title role.
There is no doubt that this huge demand for books during the Second World War contributed to a genuine literary Renaissance in America. During that time great novels were published by new literary talents, among whom there were the five future Nobel Prize winners: William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis singer.
Stanley Plesent in 1945
(36th Infantry Division, 143rd Infantry Regiment, Company G)
When I visited for the first time my American relative Stanley Plesent in his Larchmont house, I noticed a big pile of recently published books on a table in the living room. I realized that this was a family of passionate lovers of literature. In November this year, Stanley celebrates his ninetieth birthday. According to him, before the war, that is, in the thirties, he had almost no interest in literature – all his free time was spent on soccer, participating in school championships as a quarterback.
He inherited his interest in sport from his father who had immigrated to America from Russia shortly before the First World War. In his birth certificate issued to his parents in Gomel, his name was recorded as Israel Plisetski. However, to obtain his US citizenship without waiting as an added benefit for his participation in the war, he decided to change his name. He remembered how difficult it was for his fellow soldiers to pronounce his Russian name and how they called simply him “Plesent”, apparently thanks to his good-natured and cheerful disposition. Thus, he changed his name.
Stanley Plesent, his eldest son, decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and during the World War II enlisted as a volunteer at the age of 18. Stanley fought in France. He fought valiantly, as evidenced by the orders and medals he received, including the third highest order of Silver Star. There is an inscription on it, saying that it was awarded to Lieutenant Stanley Plesent for his exceptional courage in the battle near the town of Wissenburg (on the Eastern border between France and Germany) in February of 1945. Even though he was wounded, he continued to command his company to crush the resistance of the enemy. In fact, he was a platoon commander, but his senior officer was seriously wounded.
When Stanley was in a hospital, he said that he tried to ignore the pain from his wound by reading “The Three Musketeers” in paperback, as well as French language textbooks. A nurse by the name of Dominique Peiffer helped him to learn French, and Stanley, in turn, helped her learn English. 6 weeks later, when he left hospital, Dominique introduced him to her parents and Stanley struck up a friendship with them, which lasted for many years. Every time he comes to France, he visits the family, and even though Dominique’s parents are long dead, he is welcomed by their children and grandchildren.
A similar friendship of an American soldier with a French family we find in the classic American novel “One of us” by Willa Cather. According to Stanley, no one was able to describe the state of the soldiers in the trenches under heavy artillery fire as well as Cather did. I read this novel and was struck by the vivid realism of the war description written by a woman who herself was never at the front. It is true that she used in her story numerous letters from her first cousin, who was killed in the last battle of World War I. Her novel received Pulitzer Prize in 1923 and became particularly popular among soldiers during the Second World War.
After the war, Stanley Plesent served for more than a year in Germany. He observed the need for Americans to have more qualified people to help with the economic recovery of Western Europe under the Marshall Plan, and decided that his future profession will be connected with international relations. He graduated from NY State University thanks to the G.I. Bill that allowed provision of free education to more than two million war veterans. And later he became a postgraduate student at the prestigious Columbia University. Over time, Stanley Plesent became an outstanding lawyer. In Kennedy’s administration, he was the chief lawyer at USIA (United States Information Agency), responsible for liaison with the Congress and the White House. Ironically, for the Russian ear USIA almost sounds like the CIA, and his first cousins Plisetskis – Maya, Azari and Alexander from Russia who met Stanley for the first time in 1962 during a tour of the Bolshoi Theater were very cautious when mentioning his work. Stanley had to explain to them that he had nothing to do with the CIA, and that the agency he worked for organized overseas tours for famous artists abroad to acquaint the world with the achievements of American culture. That, of course, still sounded suspicious to the Soviet bureaucrats as they typically used their own cultural celebrities to “spread the good word” about Communism and possibly to even get a few sympathetic contacts in the West.
Last year at the famous US Military Academy in West Point they held a celebration in connection with the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of France from the Nazis. The French Consul-General in New York handed the Legion of Honor to several American veterans, including Stanley Plesent. There was a lot of media attention to the event and below you can see a photograph of Stanley taken during the ceremony.
We discussed literature with Stanley several times. He was well acquainted with both Russian and French classics, not to mention the American writers. His favorite author though is an Englishman, Anthony Trollope, the famous writer of the 19th century (1815 – 1882). Stanley read all of his 47 novels. He traveled to England and Ireland and visited places described in Trollope’s novels with members of the international fan club and participated in discussions about his favorite author.
Stanley lives with his wife Gloria who is only a few years younger than him, and with whom they have been living together for 67 years. They have brought up four children and six grandchildren. They both still have a very good memory and, in all likelihood, this is at least partly due to the fact that both continue reading books avidly. No wonder! After all, they belong to the Greatest Generation of America.
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