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Posted January 31, 2010
For years, readers have celebrated the World War II generation, which is not surprising. The members of this generation certainly lived- and continue to lead- dramatic lives. They grew up during the Roaring Twenties, endured the Great Depression, defeated fascism, and built suburban America. However, there is a temptation now to romanticize them, a perception that is not accurate.
The fact that Gone But Not Forgotten- written by former serviceman William E. Austin- does not toe this line makes it especially compelling. It offers warts-and-all depictions of his contemporaries. Austin's autobiography begins in Cedartown, Georgia, at the time a community racked by poverty and unemployment. To make ends meet, many residents begin making and distributing moonshine. Inadvertently, this industry produces high levels of violence into the community. It becomes commonplace. Austin himself adopts violence; throughout most of his book, he is fighting other people, sometimes with deadly weapons. Only during the middle of his life would Austin renounce his violent activities.
For a time, his fortunes improve. His family moves to Columbia, South Carolina, where jobs are plentiful. During this brief period, Austin's family prospers. This was short lived. Austin's father begins to miss Cedartown, and, eventually, he takes his brood back to this depressed area. It was a fateful decision. The Great Depression began, the family sank again into grinding poverty, and his father retreated into alcoholism. Austin soberly relates that his home was often devoid of food. In one astounding passage, a ravenous Austin begins to eat glass.
As a young man, he joins the army, in part to escape poverty. There, he finds stability and a measure of self-respect. In the Pacific, he becomes a valued soldier. Nevertheless, he displays some disturbing characteristics. Like his father, he begins to drink heavily. He becomes a womanizer as well, and frequently fights with his fellow soldiers. Then, his military career abruptly ends: he contracts malaria and is sent back to Cedartown.
For a time, he continues to display self-destructive tendencies, even though he finds himself a wife and starts a family. Then, down on his luck, he adopts Christianity. Austin's emphasis on religion during the last one-third of his book actually makes the narrative suffer somewhat. He romanticizes this phase of his life although he now faces many problems as an older person. The first two-thirds of the book- in which Austin describes his life as a lusty rogue- possess a vitality that the final third does not.
Gone But Not Forgotten has imperfections. For one thing, at a scant 128 pages, the book is too short. Still, the book is highly recommended. Austin's honesty is commendable, and throughout his work, he comes across as being likeable, genuine, resilient, at times touching, and frequently funny.
---Jonathan Maxwell, author of Murderous Intellectuals: German Elites and the Nazi SS