~ contributed by guest blogger Dr. Ludy T. Benjamin, Jr.
Pictured below is a tiny paperback book, designed to fit in a uniform shirt pocket, and issued for the men and women of the United States Military during World War II. These little books were commonly known as ASEs or Armed Service Editions. They were published by the Council on Books in Wartime and distributed free of charge to servicemen and women between 1943 and 1946. There were 1,322 different titles — fiction and nonfiction — intended to contribute to the entertainment and education of America’s military forces.
The series included works by Edgar Allan Poe, Virginia Woolf, William Wordsworth, John Steinbeck and, in the case of the photo below, a collection of essays and stories by American humorist James Thurber entitled Let Your Mind Alone. The story of Thurber’s little book, however, begins a few decades before the war.
Amidst the euphoria of the 1920s, Americans fell in love with psychology. Not the psychology extant at universities, but the popular psychology of magazines and books that promised the secrets to a life of health, happiness, and success. In a 1920s article in Harper’s magazine, Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock warned his readers that America was suffering from an “outbreak of psychology,” that people had been led to believe that they should make all decisions, such as selecting a mate, selecting a career, or raising a child, with the help of psychology. He lamented that the situation was so absurd that there would soon be a “psychology of playing the banjo.”
Thurber, was in full agreement with Leacock. He wrote a series of articles for The New Yorker in the mid-1930s entitled “Let Your Mind Alone.” He was especially critical of the many popular psychology books with titles such as Be Glad You’re a Neurotic or Calm your Nerves. Thurber wrote: “I have devoted myself to a careful study of as many of these books as a man of my unsteady eyesight and wandering attention could be expected to encompass. And I decided to write a series of articles of my own on the subject, examining what the Success experts have to say and offering some ideas of my own, the basic one of which is, I think, that man will be better off if he quits monkeying with his mind and just lets it alone.”
With unemployment in the United States reaching 25% in the Great Depression, many Americans sought to reinvent themselves or at least to seek out new strategies for success and happiness. Books and magazines that promised such outcomes were even more prominent in the 1930s than during the economic prosperity of the Roaring Twenties.
The cost of a few dollars, typical for a year’s subscription to one of the many popular psychology magazines or the cost of a self-help book, was a small price to pay for an investment in a better future. It is doubtful that many of these publications were able to deliver on their often extravagant claims for ensuring a better life. And so Thurber cautioned his readers, “Your mind may not be much good, but it’s all you’ve got to misunderstand with.”