Motivation and Reception of Over the Top by Arthur Guy Empey: an editor’s explanation

We’ve talked a little bit before but, as with many books, there is still a question as to why the book was created and how the book was received.

Why do you think Empey wrote this book?

After his service in the war, Empey wrote a series of short stories for publication in newspapers and magazines but was soon convinced to publish his material as a book. As Empey’s Over the Top went to press, he changed his introduction from an encouragement to get Americans to join the Allies to a rousing explanation of why they should fight a war for the survival of the West.

With such a strong motive, can you tell us a little about how was the book received when it was originally written?

Sure. Over the Top immediately became a best-seller, selling somewhere around one million copies during the 18 months that the United States participated as a combatant in World War I. Over the Top turned Empey into an overnight celebrity. He and his book were mentioned or featured numerous times on the front page of the New York Times and other papers across the nation.

Many surviving copies of the book have multiple owner’s names written in the flyleaf, suggesting that some copies were passed around as recommended reading. Many of those who expected to serve in the trenches in Europe purchased copies of Over the Top and even wrote home from France recommending that their families read it.

For many Americans, the book was their window to the war as it was easily understood and enjoyed by a wide audience. It was certainly an important influence on public knowledge of trench warfare while the war raged on.