I first met Lester Atwell on the Queen Elizabeth that was bouncing and cutting the waves, loaded with soldiers headed overseas on the Atlantic Ocean.
Both of us from Brooklyn – I an aspiring journalist, he an established short story writer for the most prestigious magazine of the day – the Saturday Evening Post – we spoke about things we had in common.
How could I know then that I had met the most acute, talented and creative American novelist of at least a century?
I was 19, he almost double my age. At the age of 36, it was almost freakish that the U.S. Army had assigned him to accompany a boatload of teenagers of the 87th Infantry Division to do battle in Europe.
But in his own way, Atwell performed brilliantly – working and writing with unparalleled insight about frontline soldiers and litter bearers of my regiment, the 345th Infantry.
Writing over three postwar years, he produced what can only be described as the most penetrating and authentic non-fiction novel about World War II, 12 years after the end of the war, naming his non-fiction novel “Private.”
Atwell’s original version described and named real people he served with. It was his publisher’s attorney who feared a libel action that compelled him to change the names. Many years later, Atwell re-identified the main figures, all deceased, in the pages of the Golden Acorn News.
I will submit three indices of “Private’s” accomplishment. One is its undeviating and unique acceptance by fellow infantrymen as authentic and real. Another is the praise it received from the most prestigious reviewers in both its hard and softcover versions. The third almost overshadows the first two – its continuing, remarkable collection, many decades after Wirkd War II, in anthologies and histories.
A Rochester, N.Y. librarian recently commented revealingly on the dilemma of classifying “Private” in the library’s stacks. The book was first catalogued as fiction, she said. Then, on reflection, it was transferred to non-fiction. In both cases, because of its internalized passages, the book stumped the librarians who then sought refuge in other libraries’ classification. (A chapter in the novel exposes the 87th Division’s capture of the Ohrdruf concentration camp not far from Buchenwald).
In fact, what Atwell had accomplished was to write the first known non-fiction novel about war since “The Red Badge of Courage.” That could only happen to a unique book from a uniquely insightful writer whose honest product, based on his own experience and talent, will indisputably grow as time goes on. And with it grows the legacy of the 87th Infantry Division which earned commendations from both General George Patton and his brilliant tactician, Lieutenant General Troy H. Middleton, both towering figures in military history.