On February 6th, 1988, the New York Times typeset a headline: ADRIAN WILSON, 64, PRINTING TEACHER AND BOOK DESIGNER. The obituary came to six short paragraphs and articulated a quiet admiration that Adrian would have appreciated. “His many volumes while little-known to the general public, are famous among printing connoisseurs, and many are collectors’ items,” said the paper. But the fifth paragraph would have pleased him most. Tucked in among the details of his Genius Grant and his bibliography was a note about how he “became interested in typography and book design while doing alternative service as a conscientious objector at a civilian camp in Waldport, Ore., in 1944.”1

*

Back in 1942, when Adrian Wilson was just a freshman at Wesleyan University, the Office of War Information published a poster of Nazis burning books. Five uniformed men with red armbands over their biceps hurled armloads of volumes onto a smoking fire. Behind them, huge and pale like a marble monument, the artist had drawn a hardback book. Carved onto the front cover was President Roosevelt’s quote: “Books cannot be killed by fire. People die, but books never die. No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever. No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man’s eternal fight against tyranny.  In this war, we know books are weapons.”2

Publishers had come up with Roosevelt’s famous line, “books are weapons in the war of ideas,”3  and damn it all if they didn’t intend to win that war. Just a decade earlier, booklovers like Adrian would have been lucky to find a bookstore in their hometowns. They had to comb through catalogues for their favorite titles, shelling out two dollars each for the hardbacks that came bundled in the mail. It was an industry for the wealthy, the intellectual, and the indolent.4

But by the time Adrian was conscripted in 1943, the publishing world had undergone a revolution. Penguin and Pocket Books flooded the market with twenty-five cent paperbacks that appeared on magazine shelves in drugstores and dime stores all across America.5  Random House calculated that soldiers had more time for reading than civilians did and started selling single copies directly to GIs for just six cents apiece. Major Donald Klopfer, cofounder of Random House, wrote home from the front worrying about bankruptcy. His business partner, Bennett Cerf, wrote back from New York: “You are making more money every day than you ever dreamed you would have in a lifetime.”6

It wasn’t just the prices or the readership that changed; the process of making books changed, too. The copy of D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow that Adrian leafed through in 19427  would have little resembled the copy he first read as an adolescent. For his old hardback copy, typesetters had sat at machines that looked like typewriters hooked up to car engines, each stroke of a key sliding another letter mold into line  — one row of words in a book. Other workers arranged the finished lines into pages and then set the pages into metal frames, flattening them and locking them in place. Yet another group of workers poured wax over the pages to produce a plate of wax, which was dipped into a tank of melted copper to form a stronger copper plate. The plates were then taken to the printing press, where ready men laid them out on the press bed. Rollers spread ink over the plates and then the press itself rolled sheets of paper over the plates. The completed sheets were folded down to the size of a single piece of paper, and these folders were sewn together and bound with cardboard and glue.8    

But in 1943, partly to save on their restricted supply of paper and partly in hopes of turning a profit, the Council on Books in Wartime started printing paperbacks on old magazine presses rather than old book presses, and the shape of books changed. Now, publishers printed two copies on a single sheet of paper and then cut the folders in half, producing two short and squat booklets, wider across than they were tall. Many printers chose to print two columns of text on these wide pages to make the books easier to read in the low light of the army-issued tents being pitched all across Europe.9

Adrian eagerly read many of those books, but he refused to pitch one of those tents.

*

The nineteen-year-old boy who turned up at the Hartford Recruitment Office in January of 1943 didn’t look like a troublemaker. Though he was six-foot-three and strong, with round wire-rimmed glasses that lent a professorial air to his boyish face, he didn’t press these natural advantages. Adrian was good at keeping quiet. He was quiet even at the Fellowship of Reconciliation meetings he attended every week, where his pacifist Christian friends got into philosophical firefights over whether shooting Hitler could be morally justified. “Bang Bang!  The Argument begins again, two and one-eighth guys to one,” he wrote home. “I am the one-eighth.”10

Adrian kept quiet at the recruitment office when made to strip in front of hundreds of other young men and submit to a physical examination. He kept quiet as he slipped back into his clothes.  He kept quiet when he and the others were ordered into lines. When a uniformed soldier told “all who were willing to serve in the armed forces” to step forward, place their right hands over their hearts, and repeat the Oath of Allegiance, Adrian stayed in place and still kept quiet.

“What the matter with you, Buster?” the soldier demanded.

“I’m a conscientious objector,” Adrian replied. 

“Oh, yeah?  You’re nuts.  You’re going to the psychiatrist.”11

Adrian had heard this refrain before. Of the twelve million American men drafted into service during the Second World War, just twelve thousand successfully registered to serve as conscientious objectors.12  Their choices often met with accusations of cowardice, naivety, and insanity — charges Adrian had heard from family and friends for years. His parents wrote to remind him of the ramifications his registration would have for himself and his family, and for once Adrian did not keep quiet. He wrote back in righteous indignation: “To me your last paragraph of the June 24th letter was disgusting and revolting because it was motivated by fear.  You are afraid that I’ll be making trouble for myself that isn’t necessary […] The only time wrath or anger means anything to me is when it comes from someone from whom I desire respect. The people whom I consider worthy of giving me respect won’t be angry if I register as a C.O.”13   

But his parents—and Adrian himself—had every reason to worry. Adrian ran with a group of older boys at Wesleyan University who were all trying to register as conscientious objectors.  Some had become ministers to justify their C.O. status,14  others had had their applications for C.O. status denied,15 and one had even gone to prison for refusing to register at all.16  Still, Adrian didn’t budge. “Pacifism based on fear is worthless,” he told his parents.17

On his selective service application, Adrian wrote: “I believe the purpose of life is growth in mind, body, and spirit toward Christlike personality. I believe this purpose is best fulfilled by a life which has as its ideals the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. I believe that Christ’s teachings mean unwavering pacifism. I believe that there is something of God in each man and that this something can be developed best through the power of love. War or anything which contributes to war denies this credo.”18

The psychiatrist and local military tribunal in Hartford must have concluded that there was nothing too terribly wrong with Adrian, because he received a 4-E classification in the mail a few weeks later19  and was designated Civilian Public Service Worker 011409.20  He arrived at a Civilian Public Service camp in Big Flats, New York on April 13th, 1943 to begin his “work of national importance.”21  Over the next couple years, Adrian transported concrete slabs by wheelbarrow in Big Flats,22  dug irrigation ditches in North Dakota,23 and spent two weeks lying flat on his back in a hospital bed in Minneapolis as part of a medical experiment about the effects of extended inactivity.24  As far as Adrian and the other C.O.s were concerned, it was all “just pure wasted labor,” but he was determined “to run, not walk, the second mile for Selective Service, trying to turn the other cheek, not to let them just hit it.”25   

But the longer he stayed in the C.P.S. camps, the more and more disillusioned he became.  He didn’t resent the government for demanding that conscientious objectors serve, too. “The government has set up C.P.S. to reflect public opinion that C.O.’s should be subject to the same controls and to some of the hardships of a soldier,” he wrote to his parents. “There is really no attempt to command our wills as is necessary in the Army—only a false front that will keep soldiers’ families satisfied.”26  But he fiercely resented the draft—the S.S. Act of 1940—and the domestic propaganda being carried out by the Office of War Information. “You cannot escape from the oppression of the government,” he told his brother, Norm. “This is just what our society does. Then it goes ahead and rationalizes the ultimate good of its cause, using slogans, atrocity stories, and misrepresentations of the enemy.”27

As the war progressed, publishing and reading books became matters of patriotism. In 1942, U.S. publishers established the Council on Books in Wartime, a nonprofit corporation intended to help the publishing industry perform a national service and simultaneously rake in profits. One prominent council member, Frederick Melcher, declared that publishers must be “fiercely in earnest about the selection, production, and distribution of books of ideas” to encourage the common people to consider the country’s current problems and come to the “right” answers. He pointed out that in Germany and other countries in Europe, “millions of men just gave up the use of their minds, […] they surrendered to someone else the right to think and act for them.” So the publishing industry began producing more serious books intended to shape and sharpen American thought in the war against fascism.28

It was the Council that first proposed that the Roosevelt administration use the image of Nazi book burnings in home-front promotional work. The Council had begun using radio shows early on as a means of reaching new American readers, and its most successful radio program was an NBC special about Stephen Vincent Benét’s They Burned the Books. Nine years after Nazi officials and students gathered in Berlin to throw “subversive” works onto the flames, the image was still strong enough to be, as council member Chester Kerr argued, powerful propaganda.29 

The Council also produced a list of what came to be called “Imperative Books,” titles that had been deemed useful for home-front propaganda and so were added to the growing canon that publishers thought all Americans should read. The “Imperative Books” included stories about U.S. military heroism and U.S. foreign policy achievements. Many of the books on this list came recommended by the Office of War Information, where Kerr had become a member of the Book Section of the Domestic Branch.30  

In the summer of 1944, while Adrian was still playing guinea pig in Minneapolis, an advertisement tacked up on a wall in the lab caught his eye.  FINE ARTS PROGRAM, it proclaimed.  We here at Waldport have organized ourselves into a Committee On Fine Arts, and having the proper authorization from the Brethren Service Committee, are issuing this invitation to all serious artists and students of art to attend the inaugural term, beginning February 15th, of the first aesthetic movement in Civilian Public Service. Adrian applied for a transfer straightaway.31

His plane flew into Seattle on July 25th and he hiked through the rain and fog down to Waldport, where Camp Angel and its Fine Arts Program looked out over sea cliffs at the unrelenting gray of the Pacific. Adrian was thrilled to be there. In his first letter to his parents from Waldport, he enthused equally over the “very snappy Frank Lloyd Wright music room” and the “flush toilets.”32 

What Camp Angel offered turned out to be not so much a fine arts school as a fine arts society made up of about fifteen men and women who wrote or painted or performed or did all three. The men worked during the daylight hours, planting trees and fighting forest fires, and then returned to the Fine Arts buildings at night to ply their trades, talk philosophy or politics, and learn from each other. Luckily, Camp Angel could boast some of the most talented artists of its generation: Bill Everson, who became Brother Antoninus, the “Beat Friar” of the San Francisco Renaissance, asked Adrian to critique his poems; Broadus Erle, a virtuoso violinist who later played with the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra and became a music professor at Yale University, matched his violin to Adrian’s clarinet for a Beethoven trio; and Kermit Sheets and William Eshelman, both future printers and publishers, taught Adrian how to use the printing press.33  Once they got him started, he never stopped.34 

He began by helping with typesetting and layout for The Compass,35  a fine arts magazine for all the West Coast C.O. camps. Adrian and his friends at Camp Angel produced almost three thousand copies.36  Adrian himself invented a new type of casting that allowed them to print the journal title, Compass, in a circle.37  “I can’t put my hand to the press without revolutionizing the industry!” he exulted in a letter to his parents. “The individual pieces of type were placed like Stonehenge in a small plywood box and plaster of Paris poured round to a depth of ¾ inches, so that the heads of the type still protruded. The casting lasted through 3,000 impressions and begins to appear indestructible. In fact I am beginning to wonder how I am going to rescue the type.”38  As his confidence and abilities grew, Adrian began printing playbills and pamphlets for the other camp members, including anti-war poetry.

The most well-known book to come out of Camp Angel was William Everson’s Waldport Poems, an eleven-part lament for people across the world trapped against their will in camps. In Part I, Everson wrote:

The pacifist speaks,

Face to face with his own kind,

And seeks to fashion a common course

That all may mark.

But whatever he offers,

Finds already framed in another’s thought

A divergent approach.

The binding belief that each allows

Is cruxed on rejection:

Thou shalt not kill.

But for all the rest,

What voice shall speak from the burning bush,

In the work-site noons,

When the loaf is broken,

And brief and rebuttal countercross,

And no one wins?39

They sold 975 copies in just two months, and would have sold even more if they’d had a better printing press on their hands.40  It wasn’t much in comparison with the thousands and thousands of copies of a single book that were sold by the large publishing companies like Penguin or Random House, but for a slender, self-published volume of anti-war poetry, it was a resounding success. “These are the years of destruction,” Everson said. “We offer against them the creative.”41 

The twenty-two-year-old young man who turned up in a gloomy hotel in Redding in July of 1945 didn’t look like a troublemaker. He was “very big, very handsome, very calm.”42  But after two years of unpaid labor in C.O. camps, two years of frustration with the Civilian Public Service and the Office of War Information, a part of him was also very angry. So when he hitched a ride to San Francisco in the truck of a sailor and his wife, he got into a fight.

“And for what reason are you a consci- conch- conchie- objector?” demanded the sailor when Adrian explained that he was on leave from a C.O camp.

“Mostly personal and philosophical reasons.”

“What’s this philo- philos- philosophical stuff?”

“The way I think life, and particularly my own life, should be lived.”

“You know this war isn’t being fought on those principles,” the sailor snapped.

“Yes,” Adrian answered, “I am sure of it.”

The sailor jerked the wheel around, pulled into a lumber mill yard and threw open the door. “Get out. Well, I’ve put in my time over there and this yellow—”

Adrian started to say, “If only I could make you understand—”

“I ought to run you over, you son of a bitch,” the sailor spat, and drove away. But a few minutes later, the same truck came up the road where Adrian was standing with his traveling thumb up, hoping for a new ride. The sailor saw him and swerved so close that Adrian had to hurl himself out of the way of the oncoming truck.43   

A week later, Adrian walked out of Camp Angel, got on a train headed East, and went AWOL. The FBI picked him up seven months later in Philadelphia, but the charges against him were dismissed44  and the C.P.S. officially recorded that Worker 011409 left the service on July 18th, 1945.45  Like most of the Fine Arts members, he eventually made his way back to San Francisco, where he founded the Press in Tuscan Alley.46

After the war, Adrian never relearned how to keep quiet. His neighbors called the cops on him because he stayed up all night playing the clarinet with his friends and typesetting programs for their wild, edgy theater productions.47  His printing press spoke for him, too, churning out books both beautiful and obscure. Twenty years later, he published The Design of Books, a classic in the field of printing and typography. In the introduction, he wrote that between the poles of big publishing houses like Penguin and handmade one-of-a-kind manuscripts “is a world of books, each of which demands individual treatment, the creation of a distinct personality from the richness of its subject matter.”