Where Did All the Great War Books Go?

Book Review:  ‘Merchants Of Hope; British Middlebrow Writers and the First World War, 1919 – 1939’, by Rosa Maria Bracco.

Rosa Maria Bracco’s book was published by Berg in 1993 when she was working for a publisher based in Cambridge, England, after being awarded a doctorate from the university there. ‘Merchants of Hope’ reads like a Ph.D. thesis reworked for a middlebrow readership and it works. Almost every page holds something of interest about the Great War’s writers and their books. The author provides frequent summaries of plots, themes and characters and is helpfully restrained in not presuming too much upon the reader’s wider knowledge of the period.

In so far as Bracco pursues a critical argument it seems to be this: the invigorating analysis proposed by Paul Fussell in ‘The Great War & Modern Memory’ (1975) has had the unfortunate effect of obscuring the evidence offered by literature written closer to the event , much of which challenges Fussell’s assertion that the truest writing about the Great War was ironic. There were certainly bangry, ironical and disillusioned writers at work, 1919 – 1939, but most of those who made the Great War their subject after it had been won, civilian or military, Home Front or overseas, portrayed characters who thought the Great War was beastly but necessary. Heroism, fortitude, self-sacrifice and comradeship were taken as real by a majority of mainstream, best-selling English writers; these values signified an important truth about the War that readers expected to find endorsed in their novels.

Altogether Bracco refers to nearly 200 books, quite a few of them from names that will be familiar to Great War collectors. She also mentions a surprising number who will be new, including some from writers who never wrote again after their debut. Equally surprising, especially to book hunters familiar with ABE as a source of Great War titles, is the number of Bracco’s books which appear to have become extinct. About a quarter (37) of the books in her index are unavailable as hardback first editions on ABE. Many are now only available as print-on-demand facsimiles or e-books.

I checked two of Bracco’s titles – ‘Spears Against Us’ (1932?) by Cecil Roberts and ‘Simon Called Peter’ (1921) by Robert Keable. According to info gleaned from booksellers’ catalogue entries on ABE, sales for ‘Spears Against Us’ reached at least 170,000 copies; sales of ‘Simon Called Peter’ reached at least 250,000. Of the two titles, there were 16 copies of ‘Spears Against Us’ for sale on ABE and 31 copies of ‘Simon Called Peter’. This gives a survival ratio, in ABE terms, of approximately I: 8,000 for copies of ‘Simon Called Peter’ and 1: 10,500 for ‘Spears Against Us’. What happened to the rest of them, those tens of thousands of copies of both titles that have not survived the intervening eighty or ninety years? Lost? Discarded? Pulped? Are they still out there, somewhere, but not on ABE?

If Rosa Maria Bracco is right In thinking that English middlebrows of the Twenties and Thirties wrote of the Great War with a surer grasp of authenticity than their modern successors we should perhaps be taking them more seriously. Hurry now while stocks last.

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