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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
Thomason, although he didn’t know it, had walked into Stallings’s office at exactly the right moment. As always, war fever burned itself out after the armistice, and the cheering had stopped in 1919, when Johnny came marching home. The veterans were eager to resume interrupted lives, and they, and the public, were fed up with the hyperpatriotism, false heroics, and crude, silly propaganda of the war years. The true nature of the slaughter and carnage was only now sinking in, another war was unthinkable, and the last thing anyone wanted to read about, or see in a movie, was war. (In 1933, Stallings would arouse a storm of criticism for titling a magnificent photographic collection—for which Helen had written the haunting captions— The First World War .) For a long time after the armistice, almost nothing appeared except the stuffy, self-serving memoirs of high commanders and political leaders, suddenly at loose ends and eager to eke out their retirement pay.
But as Franklin P. Adams had sagely noted in 1918, “When this is over, there are only going to be two kinds of men in America—those who were in it, and those who weren’t. Ask anyone. Ask the man next door. Ask your girl friend.” A goodly number of those who had been in it were turning to literary careers; they were now the Old Breed, with a not-so-tolerant scorn of writers and editors who hadn’t been in it. In the mid-1920s, after digesting their combat time, they themselves began to write about it, in a realistic fashion that had never been seen before (except in The Red Badge of Courage , and Stephen Crane hadn’t been in the war he wrote about, or any other). In Britain and Germany, France and America, there began to appear books and plays that brought home exactly what the fighting had been like. Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel , Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and The Road Back , R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End , Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire —all came as sobering shocks to readers who had been largely ignorant of the actualities of trench warfare. In America Stallings, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Boyd, Leonard Nason, and many others—and now Thomason—were to benefit from that development.
Scribner’s was dumbfounded; their unknown artist could write even better than he could draw.
The men who produced this material were indeed a breed apart, with a moral authority those who hadn’t been in it couldn’t muster. The veterans tended to review each other’s works—almost invariably favorably—and no one who hadn’t been in it dared write about combat or criticize the material of those who had. Novels and plays and movies about the First World War written by those who hadn’t participated didn’t start to appear until the generation that did the fighting finally began to fade from the scene. Until well after the Second World War, they had a copyright on the first one.
Stallings took Thomason’s portfolio to the prestigious Scribner’s Magazine . The editors were impressed and wanted to publish the drawings. They paid a nice price for them but needed some sort of text to go with them.
Stallings asked his friend if he could work up some copy to accompany the sketches; Thomason brought him the material he’d been unable to market a few years earlier. It wasn’t a cohesive book; it was a series of anecdotal accounts of the battles he’d found himself in and a few shorter pieces about time in billets behind the front.
Scribner’s was dumbfounded; their unknown artist could write even better than he could draw. Thomason was turned over to Maxwell Perkins, Scribner’s editorial genius; the pieces could run as articles by themselves, and Perkins began to think in terms of an eventual book. Scribner’s Magazine ran four of Thomason’s “chapters” several months apart, with some of his illustrations. The articles caused a tremendous stir; men who had been in action were deeply moved by what they regarded as the best description of what combat was really like they’d ever read. The author found himself famous, almost overnight. John W. Thomason had arrived.