Creating a Classic of Military Literature

From Publishers Weekly:

In the summer of 1942, during the first seven weeks of fierce fighting between U.S. Marines and the Japanese on Guadalcanal, an island in the Solomons, the Americans were watched over by a young correspondent from the International News Service, Richard Tregaskis. In his pockets he carried notebooks, on which he wrote key details about the brutal conditions faced by the Marines in this first major combat offensive in the Pacific theater.

Tregaskis would transfer the information nightly into a black, gilt-edged diary. “The theory and practice was that I could get all the details I needed by referring to the notebook number—one, or three, or four—when and if I could later get to writing a book from my notes,” he recalled.

After leaving Guadalcanal on a B-17 Flying Fortress on September 25, Tregaskis went to New Caledonia, where he was waiting for a military transport plane to take him to Honolulu, and began writing his book. In Hawaii, his writing had to be done in the Navy offices at Pearl Harbor, under the supervision of a censor. Every morning he would go there to work, and every night, his diary was locked in a safe; he never got it back and could not find out what happened to it. “And as fast as I could write my manuscript, a naval intelligence officer took my efforts and hacked away with a pencil and a pair of scissors,” Tregaskis reported. “That was the way it was with sharp-eyed military censorship in those days.”

Tregaskis’s manuscript describing his time on Guadalcanal, arranged in an easily understood diary format, was sent to the INS offices in New York City in early November 1942. Barry Faris, INS editor-in-chief, wrote Tregaskis that he had turned the manuscript over to Ward Greene, executive editor of King Features, which was owned and operated, as was INS, by newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. Faris said Greene would work to get the manuscript accepted by a book publisher and subsequently serialized in magazines. “I did not have a chance to read it thoroughly as I would have liked,” Faris informed Tregaskis, who would be splitting the proceeds from the book 50/50 with his employer, “but from what I did see I think you did a magnificent job on it.”

One person who took the time to read Tregaskis’s writing from beginning to end was Bennett Cerf, cofounder of Random House. Greene had distributed copies of the manuscript to nine publishers and asked them to bid on it, a method “that had never been done before,” Cerf noted. Just the day before he received Tregaskis’s text, he had been telling his colleagues that the first book published about Guadalcanal would be “a knockout,” because “Guadalcanal marked the turning of the tide” in the war in the Pacific.

Cerf received the manuscript from King Features on November 11 and read it that night. The next morning, he called Greene and told him, “I’ve got to have this book.” A pleased Cerf related years later that Random House had signed the young reporter’s work before “any of the other eight publishers had even started reading it.”

The publisher’s prediction that the American public would be interested in learning more about the Marines and their pitched battles on a remote island thousands of miles away turned out to be accurate. Rushed into print on Jan. 18, 1943, Guadalcanal Diary made a steady climb up the bestseller charts, reaching, the publishing company’s advertisements were quick to report, the #1 position on lists compiled by the New York Times and New York Herald Tribune. Sales of the book were boosted by positive reviews from critics, who praised Tregaskis not for his literary flair but for his factual and honest reporting about what the Marines faced during combat.

John Chamberlain of the New York Times wrote that Tregaskis’s book served as “a tonic for the war-weary on the homefront,” showing that a country “doesn’t necessarily have to love war in order to fight it.”

Interest in the book was so great that Guadalcanal Diary became the first Random House book to sell more than 100,000 copies.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly