Friday, August 12, 2011

Books Into Battle: John Hench Wins Distinguished Award for Study of Propaganda and Publishing During World War II

It's always a pleasure to witness the announcement of the book award at the annual general meeting of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP).

I would have said it's "suspenseful," for that it is, too—for most members and conference attendees—just a little bit less so for me. As a member of the Executive Council of the organization, I get a heads-up well in advance of the actual moment (sworn to secrecy, if-I-told-you-I'd-have-to-kill-you, and all that sort of thing). And, as Treasurer, I have to write a congratulatory letter—and a check in the amount of $ 1000—to the winner:

 (Cornell University Press)

Even though I knew the outcome, this year's award was special in several ways. For one thing, as part of our promotion of Twitter at the conference, we promised a copy of the prize-winning book to the top ten tweeters. The volume thus got even more publicity than usual. For another, the winner was both an active SHARP member and a participant at the conference. Above all, though, I was absolutely delighted because that winner was John B. Hench, a man whose learning and generosity are matched only by his modesty.

When I started my career here in western Massachusetts, a colleague, knowing of my interest in the history of the book, brought to my attention the rich array of activities at the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) in Worcester. I got the best possible introduction to its resources, programming, and staff when I attended a summer seminar. It was invigorating to find myself again in the company of people who understood my research interests, even though I worked on Europe and they worked on the United States.

It was there that I got to know John, then director of publications. I was touched that he made a point of welcoming me personally. (Among other things, it was nice to meet another transplanted Midwesterner turned New Englander.) We saw each other periodically at AAS events and corresponded occasionally in the interim. Throughout the years, John worked tirelessly on behalf of the institution and its patrons, rising to the position of Vice President for Collections and Programs. When he retired in 2006, the AAS honored his accomplishments and the spirit of service that he embodied by putting his name on the post-dissertation fellowship program that he created. As the announcement noted, the budget of that program alone was by then greater than the budget of the entire institution when John came to work there in 1973.  It's hard to think of a more fitting way to celebrate his contribution to the organization, the field, and the careers of other scholars.

After I joined SHARP more than a decade ago, I was very pleased to learn that John was an active member. As chance, or irony, would have it, I haven't managed to make it to the AAS as often as I used to, so even though John and I live only about an hour and a half away from one another, I found myself more likely to run into him at least once a year at our conference in  places as distant as France or Finland. In fact, I still recall our meeting in Helsinki last year. As usual, we talked during the receptions and coffee breaks, and on at least one occasion, we also had lunch together. In addition, though, John came to my panel, where I gave a rather sweeping and speculative talk, testing some ideas on a subject I was just beginning to grapple with. He made a point of speaking to me immediately afterward and offering words of encouragement. Weighing the fact that John is just about the nicest guy in the world against the fact that he is also one of the smartest, who is invariably polite but does not dispense empty praise, I was simultaneously humbled and elated to conclude that my incipient idea was just perhaps not entirely nutty, and worth pursuing, after all.

My paper and one other on the panel dealt wholly or in part with Nazi Germany. Through SHARP, I had learned more and more about the breadth of John's knowledge and interests. If anything, he seemed to become even more active as he approached and then entered retirement. Having dedicated his career to the service of others at the AAS, he had begun to share results of a fascinating new research project, which involved not early America, but America in the era of World War II. I missed the 2003 conference in Claremont, California, where John first shared that research with SHARP members, but I did hear him speak about it in The Hague in 2006 and Minneapolis in 2007. John also explained the origins of the project in a recent interview:
Hench recalled how the war years had colored his upbringing. His father, a physician who was 46 when he volunteered for military service, was a collector of interesting, quirky books. His library included several of the editions published for soldiers fighting abroad.
Over time, Hench himself amassed a collection of ephemera. The assemblage included “ration cards, pamphlets, that sort of thing — really home-front propaganda — and some books on subjects such as how to behave in wartime: how to give a party, what to write to your husband, to be wary of the charms of an attractive man who was 4-F but otherwise fit,” he said with a laugh.
As he sought interesting material, he ran across a copy of an Overseas Edition. It was completely new to him, and his interest was piqued. After some initial research, Hench realized he had a potential book in the making.
What fascinated him, he said, was the idea that governments took books and culture so seriously as to see them as elements of national identity and weapons in a war of ideas. The title derives from a slogan of the World War II Council on Books in Wartime: “Books as Weapons in the War of Ideas.” As the interviewer explains, "The Nazis were portraying Americans as crass people who sought world domination. The books were intended to give Europeans an idea of the lives and values of ordinary Americans and to promote democracy." In order to counter the German view—and gain a foothold in new global economy—the United States government and military in effect got into the book business:
Some 5 million books published under the imprints of Overseas Editions and Transatlantic Editions were distributed in the ongoing effort. Some were translated into European languages, while many others were in English. They were chosen for the elites, who, it was believed, would influence their families and business and political leaders.
“It would be hard to find another time when the government bought into the professional ideology of publishers, with the power to mold minds and shape history,” Hench said.
It was, as Hench says elsewhere, an attempt to win the peace as well as the war—and new markets in the process.

The DeLong Prize Committee this year comprised Chair Marija Dalbello (USA), Amadio Arboleda (Japan), and Francis Galloway (South Africa), assisted by intern Lucy McClune. SHARP Director of Publications and Awards Claire Squires (Scotland) oversaw the entire process. As the Committee put it:

This is a book about war but it is also a book about the diplomacy of books. As an international and comparative history of wartime publishing, it presents deeply contextualized accounts, offering multiple contemporary perspectives, a true mark of scholarship that constructs the book trade as an international phenomenon. It will for sure make its mark in many fields, but it is deeply embedded in our own.
In making the presentation, Chair Marija Dalbello also cited an evocative passage from the text:
Only weeks after the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, a surprising cargo—crates of books—joined the flood of troop reinforcements, weapons and ammunition, food, and medicine onto Normandy beaches. The books were destined for French bookshops, to be followed by millions more American books (in translation but also in English) ultimately distributed throughout Europe and the rest of the world. The British were doing similar work, which was uneasily coordinated with that of the Americans within the Psychological Warfare Division of General Eisenhower's Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force, under General Eisenhower's command.

Last fall, the AAS honored John by calling upon him to deliver the prestigious annual James Russell Wiggins Lecture in the History of the Book in American Culture. Both the title—"Random Notes from a Book History Bureaucrat"—and the content reflect John's self-deprecating spirit. Although the focus there was on John's career at the AAS, he also talked about the research behind his new book.

John Hench-Nov. 16, 2010 from American Antiquarian Society on Vimeo.

He talks more specifically about the book in this C-SPAN interview in the spring of last year, commenting on, among other things, the place of the US and its culture in the upheavals of our contemporary world.

Congratulations, again, John, on your well-deserved honors: couldn't happen to a nicer or smarter guy.

Background and resources

SHARP began awarding an annual book prize in 1998. Since 2004, the award has been known as the George A. and Jean S. DeLong Book History Prize, in honor of the family that endowed it.

List of winners.

On the new SHARP blog, Director of Publications and Awards Claire Squires (Director of the Stirling Centre for International Publishing and Communication), offers some reflections on the history and significance of literary prizes, a topic on which she recently spoke at a conference in Tübingen.


The SHARP blog now has two perfect follow-ups:

In the first, Amadio Aboleda talks about his experience as a DeLong Prize juror. His remarks are not only germane to that rather esoteric task, but in fact pertain to most of what we as scholars do when we unavoidably have to make sense of works outside our field or area of personal expertise:
By the end of March, I had five books and no idea of how to go about reading them. None of them were in my own field of Japanese book publishing culture and many covered topics about which I knew little or nothing. . . . I was also worried that taking more time than other jurors to read books outside my own sphere of interest might delay a final decision. However, as I delved into unfamiliar pages I was reminded of my wonderful experience as a definition editor of the American Heritage Dictionary. Each editor had to read a certain number of books in a loosely defined area of their expertise every week to "absorb" information. The Dictionary had arranged with the New York Public Library main branch on Fifth Avenue to allow the definitions editors to request books that would be delivered to our office. I had the good fortune of being paid to read books. I realized that reading the entry books as a juror also could be considered good fortune and felt encouraged.
(read the rest: "Ying and Yang of a DeLong Book Prize Juror")

In fact, it is an example that I could cite when explaining to students the task they face in any new class.

In the second, John Hench himself responds to the award:
Like a fine piece of jazz, every book is both a collaboration and an improvisation. If there is anything we have learned from the study of book history, it is to understand the roles that mediators and even meddlers of all kinds play in the process that turns a gleam in an author’s eye into a published book. And anyone who has ever written a book knows that it is also a product of trial, error, and reconcepualization, that is, of improvisation. I would never have written Books as Weapons: Propaganda, Publishing, and the Battle for Global Markets had I not decided, about a dozen years ago, to begin to collect books, magazines, and newspapers published by private and governmental organizations to advance particular wartime agendas. In doing so, I stood on the shoulders of my father, smitten for life by the “gentle madness” of book collecting, whose stateside service in the army medical corps left me with a lifelong interest in World War II. I already knew about most of the wartime publication series. 
He goes on to discuss both the substance of his quest and the evolution of his research (much, again, thanks to exchanges of ideas with friends and colleagues), down to the choice of the final title.

(read the rest: "Collaboration and Improvisation")

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