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A TEXAS MARINE WHO DREW BEAUTIFULLY AND WROTE AS WELL AS HE DREW BECAME THE LAUREATE OF THE MEN WHO CHECKED THE LAST GREAT GERMAN OFFENSIVE. ALL BUT FORGOTTEN TODAY, HIS 1926 BESTSELLER REMAINS PERHAPS THE FINEST ACCOUNT OF AMERICANS IN THE GREAT WAR.
November 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 7
“The book is here now: a straight-forward prose account of four battles, with infinite detail of the men and emotions in these battles, reinforced with sketches and impressions drawn upon the field. It is, in the opinion of many of us who ought to know, the finest account of their sons in battle which the American people have received. …” The writer who felt he was qualified to judge a war book was Laurence Stallings, who had been wounded in action in Belleau Wood and whose wildly popular play What Price Glory ? was in its second year on Broadway when he composed this tribute to the work of a fellow Marine. “ Fix Bayonets! is in the company of Tolstoy and Crane and Bierce in the literature of war. Indeed, I should leave Crane out of it. … The Red Badge of Courage cannot stand the fierce sun of Fix Bayonets! ”
Its author, Col. John W. Thomason, Jr., U.S.M.C., is all but forgotten now, but from 1925 through the Second World War he produced a stream of stunning stories, novels, and nonfiction, all enlivened with his inimitable sketches, that lasted twenty years. Hardly a month passed without a book of his in print or a story in some magazine; millions read him avidly. And today, nearly seventy years after its publication, his first book, Fix Bayonets! , remains the single finest account of Americans in battle in World War I.
He was born on the twenty-eighth of February, 1893, in Huntsville, Texas—the first of Dr. John W. Thomason’s nine children. His mother was Sue Hayes Goree, the daughter of Maj. Tom Goree, late of General Longstreet’s staff: an uncle and four great-uncles had also been Confederate officers.
The Thomason family was remarkably close-knit, with a substantial house two blocks from the courthouse, on a lot large enough for barns and stables. Grandfather Goree, who was closer to John than his father was, taught him to ride, hunt, and fish.
Dr. Thomason, an eye, ear, nose, and throat specialist (and a deacon of the Methodist church and a militant dry), maintained a large library. It wasn’t for show. The parents read aloud to the assembled family in the evenings, and John needed little urging to work his own way through the shelves, going far beyond the obligatory reading program his father imposed. He was raised on Shakespeare, Scott, Dickens, Kipling, Thackeray, Mark Twain, Hugo, Balzac, and Dumas, and early on—as Winston Churchill put it after a similar course of literary self-education—he “got the bones of the English sentence” firmly planted in his mind.
There was also a Doré Bible, with several chapters (and memorization) set daily, which had more of a literary than a theological effect on young John. All of his life his writing, while hardly on theological subjects, bore the stamp of the grammatical usages, the vocabulary, and the stately rhythms of the King James Scriptures.
His mother was a busy hostess; a score of friends and relatives ringed her Sunday table, and the talk among the elders sooner or later turned to the war. John learned his Civil War history from the primary oral sources, who had fought in it. A favorite guest was a fiery nonagenarian Methodist preacher (unrelated, but by courtesy “Uncle John”) who had started as a circuit rider and followed John Hood’s Texas Brigade to Virginia, happily combining fighting and preaching.
It was just as well John’s education was polished at home; he was an indifferent scholar. He excelled in history and English and tended to let other subjects slide. His father had hopes he would follow him into medicine, as two of his four sons did, but John’s interests lay elsewhere.
It was hard to say exactly where. While still a child, he developed a passion for sketching, at which he was remarkably talented. He started with birds and horses and went on to people. The sketching was obsessive; he drew wherever he was, with pen, pencil, or charcoal, on whatever came to hand. He had an uncanny gift for line; his figures were vibrant and sprang off the page. He was less sure of perspective, composition, and backgrounds; large, complicated scenes never came out quite right, and the rough shading techniques that served so well on individuals didn’t always work out on landscapes or backgrounds.
He tried three colleges, was certified and taught in rural schools, and fell in love with the girl next door, Leda Bass, whose father ran the state penitentiary. Only this last gave him much pleasure: Leda was beautiful, a superb horsewoman, almost as well read as John—the epitome, he thought, of Southern graces.