Curtis Friends are bringing author Richard Rubin to Curtis Memorial Library on Tuesday, June 18th at 7:00 pm to discuss his work and autograph books.
Rubin’s latest book is The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War (Houghton Mifflin, May 2013).
Local author Richard Rubin is a familiar face at CML and other mid coast libraries. A resident of Bath, Rubin spends much of his time at libraries researching and writing.
The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten War, chronicles Rubin’s decade-long quest to interview the last living American veterans of World War I, all between the ages of 101 and 113, and capture their stories. This monumental task led him across the United States and France, through archives, private collections, battlefields, literature, propaganda, and even music. All remaining WWI veterans are gone now but, combining oral history, cultural history and personal reporting, Rubin has skillfully and compassionately preserved their voices and memories and created a fascinating history of the American experience in World War I.
Rubin has published essays and articles in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and Smithsonian Magazine, and is perhaps best known as the author of Confederacy of Silence: A True Tale of the New Old South, a personal memoir about the year he spent living and working as a newspaper reporter in Greenwood, Mississippi. As an Ivy League New York Jew, he expected to encounter cultural differences and he soon discovers the “New South” isn’t as new as we’d like to think. His memoir offers an honest look at the complexity of race in today’s South.
Recently, Rubin took time away from his busy writing schedule to sit down with me to discuss his newest book.
CML: Tell me about your book.
RR: My book is a history of the American experience in World War I. But it’s an unconventional history in that, instead of more traditional sources, I rely more heavily on artifacts of that war that are still in our midst, things we see every day but don’t notice, like records and sheet music, books and posters and monuments and street signs. Most of all, though, I relied on the stories of America’s last living World War I veterans, whom I interviewed over the course of a half decade or so starting in 2003, the 85th anniversary of that war’s end. They, too, could be found in our midst, but were typically overlooked. Yet what stories they had to tell!
CML: What made you set out to find and interview World War I veterans?
RR: I’ve been interested in World War I since I was a child, but the thing that really set me on this search was that one afternoon in early 2003, I heard some fellow on the radio say that World War II veterans were dying at the rate of 1,000 per day, and that we really needed to get their stories down before they were all gone. I realized that I’d heard an awful lot of World War II stories, but very few World War I stories; and I wondered if there were still time to hear any of those. It turns out there was, but just barely.
I had originally intended to find maybe two or three and write up an article for veterans Day, 2003, then move on to a totally different topic for my next book; but it took me so long to find just one living American WWI veteran – months – that I got mad and decided I’d just go find them all.
CML: You call these men and women “The Forgotten Generation.” Why?
RR: Well, because they are. Think about it: How much have you ever heard about them compared to the Baby Boomers or Gen X or, especially, the so-called “Greatest Generation.” They’re called that because they grew up in the Great Depression and then went off to fight and win World War II, for which they should be greatly honored; but the people I interviewed, the Forgotten Generation, were the folks who raised the Greatest Generation, who fed and clothed and sheltered them throughout the Great Depression – and this after they went off to fight and win the most terrible war the world had ever seen, then came home and had the rebuild their lives without help from anyone. They didn’t have a G.I. Bill – that didn’t happen until 1944, by which time it was too late for them.
CML: If they’re a forgotten generation, then their war, the First World War, is a forgotten war. Why is that?
RR: People back then weren’t inclined to talk about what they’d seen and done in the Great War. For one thing, it was terribly traumatic for many of them, and for another, it wasn’t what was done back then; you kept these things to yourself. And the country, which was also traumatized by the experience – America lost 117,000 men in 19 months – didn’t want to hear about it either. America became isolationist, withdrew into itself. Then came the Great Depression, and then World War II, and World War I just receded into the past. Americans had stopped writing about it after the armistice, too, so the only new English-language histories that found their way here were British, and they tended to minimize the American contribution to the war while playing up Britain’s, leaving many Americans with the tragic misperception that their country, and their ancestors, hadn’t done very much in World War I.
CML: What kind of research did you do for this book? To you, what was the most fascinating aspect of researching the book?
RR: A lot of what I did were things you’d expect – spending time in libraries and archives, etc. But I also spent a lot of time walking through flea markets and used bookstores, poking around battlefields and ruins. My favorite aspect, though, was talking to the veterans. It’s not every day you get to ask a 107-year-old man about things he did 86 years ago. They were some of the most fascinating people I have ever met, or expect to meet.
CML: One of the things that makes this book fascinating and accessible to me as a reader versus an historian is that, in addition to the stories of its last living veterans, you chose to examine the war through old artifacts and books and, especially, sheet music. Why?
RR: I’ve always been fascinated by how much we can learn about something from inanimate artifacts. As I write in the prologue, World War I really is all around us, everywhere, every day; we just need to know how to recognize it when we see it. And frankly, I learned a great deal about the war from sheet music, things I never read about in more conventional histories. Songs spoke to people in ways that newspapers didn’t back then; in those days, really, they were as good a barometer of popular sentiment as existed. I really couldn’t have told this story without them – or without the posters, and propaganda booklets, and French-English dictionaries, and memoirs, and other artifacts I found along the way. They all speak to a different stratum of history.
CML: You’ve gone on record as a fan of libraries, what is the importance of libraries to you as a writer and a reader? What role would you say libraries have played in your own life?
RR: This book would simply not have been possible without libraries. First off, I owe all of my early intellectual development to libraries – decades before the internet, libraries were where I went, several times a week (at least), to indulge my curiosity, and I was always strongly encouraged to do so by the staff, even when my overdue fines were monumental (as they usually were). More recently, a great deal of my research wouldn’t have been possible without the Minerva and MaineCat networks, and, on a few occasions, interlibrary loan from other states, none of which cost me a dime. And finally, almost every word of this book was written in libraries; they’re great workspaces, much better for me than trying to work at home. And again, they’re totally free. They’re really one of the best things we have going for us as a society.
Mark your calendars so you don’t miss Richard Rubin’s talk and book signing: June 18, 7 pm, Morrell Meeting Room.
Links to video clips of Rubin’s interviews with veterans can be found on his web site: www.richardrubinonline.com. Also available is a video of his May 13, 2013 interview with WCSH TV 207.
Details and reviews of Mr. Rubin’s book can be seen at: Barnes and Noble
Links to Mr. Rubin’s books in the library’s online catalog.
“A wonderfully engaging study executed with a lot of heart.”
— Kirkus Reviews, starred review