AMERICAN PULP: HOW PAPERBACKS BROUGHT MODERNISM TO MAIN STREET
By Paula Rabinowitz
Princeton University Press. 416 pages. $29.95 / £19.95. ISBN 978-0-691-15064-4
Reviewed by Jim Burns
I’m looking at two paperbacks I’ve taken from my bookshelves. One is called The Pocket Reader and was first published in June, 1941, with its seventeenth printing in June, 1945. The other is The Pocket Companion with a first printing in March, 1942, and a fifth in June, 1943. There may have been further printings of both books after the dates I’ve mentioned. They were published by Pocket Books, one of the earliest in the field on the other side of the Atlantic, and their contents were first-rate mixtures of poetry, fiction, and factual writing from a wide variety of authors. John Steinbeck, Walt Whitman, Somerset Maugham, Shakespeare, Thomas de Quincey, H.G. Wells, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and others too numerous to list here, are in these substantial (around five hundred pages in each) collections. It’s significant, I think, to look at the dates when the books came out. The Pocket Reader was published by Pocket Books of Canada, and its back cover has the slogan, “Share this book with someone in uniform.” Canada was, of course, caught up in the Second World War in June, 1941, as was the United States by March, 1942, when The Pocket Companion appeared from Pocket Books, with an address in New York.
The point to be made from the above details is that there was a rapid rise in the demand for cheap books which could be easily carried and read whenever there was a free moment from the demands of military service, factory and office work, and the general pressures of a society functioning within a war economy. Pocket Books were not the first to make available cheap editions of the classics and Penguin in Britain had, in many ways, launched the paperback revolution. But 1939 had brought disruption to the flow of Penguin books to the United States, so publishers there soon sprang up to cater for an audience eager to read. Pocket Books didn’t only publish anthologies like those I’ve referred to, and they had an extensive list of paperback editions of books like Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice, as well as crime novels, collections of poetry, and plays. It might not be too exaggerated to propose that the war almost created a wider readership than had previously existed. I suspect that crime novels, westerns, humour, and the like, probably sold more than Emily Bronte or Jane Austen in wartime circumstances, but that is not to say that individual readers didn’t find their tastes broadened by being introduced to classics in paperback form.
Paula Rabinowitz reminiscences about her own interest in what she refers to as pulp, i.e. novels printed on sub-standard paper and not meant to last, though my two Pocket Books publications are still in reasonable condition. Others, like a Signet edition of Henry Miller’s Nights of Love and Laughter that I picked up when I was in the army in Germany in 1956, now have loose pages and other signs of age and use. Rabinowitz, coming along later, says that she initially looked for the pulp paperback versions of books of a writer like William Faulkner, and that she wasn’t then interested in what she describes as “Pulp meant to be pulp, true trash.” What she wanted was “the special thrill that came from seeing Nathaniel Hawthorn’s name on a cheesy cover, the pleasure of seeing the more revered writers brought low, sitting right next to John O’Hara or worse, covers with cellophane peeling, pages yellowing just the same.” I’ve got to admit that I bristled a bit at what I take to be an unnecessary slight on John O’Hara. I scan his paperbacks on my shelves and see what I think are a couple of perfectly good novels and more than a few collections of short stories, many of which are still worth reading. He was certainly a better writer than, say, March Hastings whose novel, Three Women, is discussed by Rabinowitz in a later chapter without any adverse comments on its literary qualities which are quite negligible. To be fair to Rabinowitz, she is dealing with it in a context in which literary qualities are not of key importance. People sometimes buy novels because they seem to be about a subject that they’re interested in, or that they want to know more about, or for a variety of other reasons. I’ve read a number of pulp novels about jazz, for example, not because they’re well-written but because I happen to be a life-long fan of the music, and anything about it arouses my interest. With March Hastings, Rabinowitz makes a persuasive case for suggesting that her book could have acted as a kind of guide to a world (lesbianism) that some women wanted to experience but didn’t know how to go about it. Pulp novels were distributed through outlets (drug stores, etc.) not normally used by hardback publishers, so were easier to obtain than more-expensive editions. This inevitably led to calls for bans on the kind of often sensational covers that were used to draw attention to the books, even if the contents were relatively innocuous.
Eye-catching covers weren’t only used for books which might attract because they were about gays, lesbians, juvenile delinquents, or other groups outside conventional society. Rabinowitz reproduces the cover of a 1952 Cardinal edition of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles which has a woman in a low-necked dress being carried by a man who is looking lustfully at her. And the cover also says that it’s a “classic novel of a woman’s unwilling fall from virtue.” The cover of my 1950 Avon edition of James T. Farrell’s Yesterday’s Love, a collection of his short stories, shows a half-dressed woman talking on the telephone while a man’s disembodied face smiles knowingly at her. Denys Val Baker’s A Journey with Love, a novel he couldn’t get published in Britain, came out from Crest Books in 1956 and showed a couple locked together by the sea while we’re told that the writing can be compared to Lady’s Chatterley’s Lover for its explicitness. One of my own favourites is the 1963 Belmont edition of Robert McAlmon’s There was a Rustle of Black Silk Stockings, which focused on a pair of female legs though they weren’t clad in black silk stockings. The book was described as a scandalous “lost novel” by “the master of the Hemingway-F. Scott Fitzgerald circle.” McAlmon had indeed been in expatriate Paris in the 1920s, but the book was actually a reprint of Distinguished Air (Grim Fairy Tales), a collection of three stories originally published by Contact Press, Paris, in 1925, and with an extra story added. I was delighted that someone had reprinted the stories, even with the lurid cover, because the original edition was impossible to find at a price I could afford. A forty cents paperback (bought in England for a couple of shillings) allowed me to read the stories. A few years before, in the 1950s, I’d discovered William Faulkner and many others in Signet paperbacks available in German shops, all at a price that I could find from my soldier’s pay.
What paperbacks were doing, and besides those with covers meant to suggest that the contents contained something daring, exciting, even forbidden, was circulating literature that would normally have been only available to a limited readership. This didn’t just apply to fiction, and as paperback publishing developed, more-adventurous publishers brought out history, philosophy, science, and other subjects in paperback form. But fiction was the main focus. Reading American Pulp I was frequently tempted to refer to the bookshelves to find my copy of Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm (Cardinal, 1956, from my army days again), Maxwell Bodenheim’s Ninth Avenue (Avon, 1951), and, though not fiction, the splendid 1960 Belmont, The World’s Love Poetry. I’m not suggesting that Rabinowitz mentions, let alone discusses, any of these titles, but it’s impossible for me to look at her book without them coming to mind, along with numerous others I have. And I’m deliberately excluding all the Penguins I own on the grounds that they were published in Britain.
The sheer volume of paperbacks “democratised reading, allowing even poor and young people access to book ownership,” says Rabinowitz, and this did lead to problems in the 1950s when various enquiries began into the nature of what was being published. Sex was obviously a major cause for concern, and the covers attracted hostile attention even if the would-be censors hadn’t actually read the books involved. A lot of the worries about the books seemed to arise from their easy availability and low price. There were reports of groups of teenagers clubbing together to raise the money to buy paperbacks which, it was alleged, could lead them into crime and/or sexual promiscuity. Rabinowitz, briefly charting the different periods of book censorship from the nineteenth century into the twentieth, points out that the committees which investigated what was being made freely available “returned again during the Cold War. It was tied to efforts to control the masses.” She says that the 1952 Gathings hearings into paperbacks “centred on questions of access……through concerns about where sales of these cheap books occurred.” And she goes on to declare: “What is consistent across the centuries is a fear of mass literacy, of books being read by inappropriate readers, but the twentieth-century censorship cases concerned more than demotic reading; they centred on the marketplace and how a book might be seen in public and then transported into the private space of home.” Discussing particular cases of attempted censorship, and specific appearances before committees looking into paperback publishing, Rabinowitz notes how similar tactics to those employed by Senator McCarthy were used to hector witnesses who attempted to defend certain books or speak in favour of the widespread distribution of paperbacks generally. There were even suggestions that what so-called undesirable publications represented was part of the communist conspiracy to undermine democracy in America and sap the moral fibre of the people.
Rabinowitz largely focuses on some of the better-known writers marketed in paperback form and sometimes affected by, if not actual censorship, attempts to denigrate their books on moral grounds. She doesn’t really delve into the wider world of pulp fiction, for example, though there are several references to Mickey Spillane whose crime novels were popular in the 1950s (British readers might think of Hank Janson and his books which used to be passed around among teenagers during the same period.) But there were dozens of others, and reference to a book like Geoffrey O’Brien’s Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir will produce a long list of writers such as Charles Willeford, David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Fredric Brown, and Orrie Hitt, who often wrote directly into paperbacks and were never likely to win plaudits from most critics and/or literary academics. Well, not until recently when their books have been re-issued and written about in glowing terms. Some of them were, in fact, talented writers, though erratic because of the pressures they were under to produce books quickly and within certain frameworks. I have a particular fondness for writers like Gil Brewer and Ed Lacy, and especially for R.V. Cassill, a well-established academic who, early in his career, produced several literary novels but could also turn his hand to pulp novels with titles like Dormitory Women, A Taste of Sin, Lustful Summer, and The Wife Next Door (“They met like two comets in the night –the bored and restless man, the lush and willing woman.”). The cover of my Gold Medal 1959 copy of the latter shows a dark-haired woman in a slinky nightdress pouting into the distance. The picture and the blurb might well have attracted the attention of bored suburban males who fantasised about some of their neighbours’ wives. It’s a personal opinion, but I often thought that some of Cassill’s pulp writings were more interesting (better written?) than his literary work, though he was a very good writer of short stories. Before leaving him it’s worth noting that his 1955 Ace publication, Left Bank of Desire, with its attractive woman sprawled seductively on a bed and a blurb saying “They pursued pleasures forbidden even in Paris,” was the kind of thing likely to outrage would-be censors. Paris, and anything French, was associated in their minds with unusual sex and other forms of deviant behaviour.
I’ve moved around Pulp America, deliberately picking out certain topics and admittedly often focusing on areas of the subject that interest me. Paula Rabinowitz does, however, explore more themes than I’ve suggested. There is, for example, a chapter on lesbian pulp which shows how it could, in its early days, help to break down the barriers that prevented some women from discovering their true sexuality. Styles of dressing and behaving might be explored in the novels in ways that would provide a form of liberation for those without direct experience of lesbian life. It’s interesting, too, to see how Greenwich Village is used as a place where the usual behavioural conventions didn’t necessarily apply and one could dress and act largely as one wanted. Bohemianism was a way out of the stifling restrictions of the everyday and the demands that society imposed on individuals and especially women. Earlier, I referred to March Hastings’ Three Women, which is frankly not a particularly good novel, but does develop a story where a young woman, ostensibly destined to marry her steady boyfriend and settle down to a life of domestic routine, finds her true self when she meets the man’s aunt, a lesbian artist who lives in Greenwich Village. There are complications, with the boyfriend having to be dropped, and a third woman involved, but love conquers all in the end. The writing tends towards the routine and it’s difficult to accept that the book would have survived had it not been for an upsurge of interest in its theme in later years (it was first published in 1958) and a kind of underground reputation that grew up around it and similar titles. But the same could be said of many pulp novels, no matter what subject they dealt with.
Rabinowitz has a chapter on the way in which black writers like Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright fared in the pulp paperback market, and another on the manner in which paperbacks were made available to servicemen in the Second World War. Hundreds of thousands were distributed free of charge, and she quotes one soldier commenting that Plato, Emerson, Lamb, and Thackeray were on the list of available titles, along with Zane Grey, crime writer Dorothy B. Hughes, and Howard Fast who wrote popular historical novels, and a few years later would run into trouble with anti-communist investigators and spend time in prison for refusing to co-operate with them. “Books are Weapons in the War of Ideas” said the slogan on a poster distributed by the Council on Books in Wartime, but some ideas were clearly more welcome than others once the war ended. I have to admit that I much preferred reading chapters like this, and another where Rabinowitz offers a fascinating analysis of Vera Caspary’s Laura, rather than the one about Jorge Luis Borges and his appearance in a 1948 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, where she seems to need to be seen strutting her academic stuff. On the other hand, my lack of a positive response may be due to my unfamiliarity with Borges generally.
The main thrust of American Pulp, that paperbacks made modernism available and known to a wide public, is true enough, and the range of publications in print became astonishing. I suppose paperbacks are taken for granted now, but for those who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s they were a source of much pleasure, as well as information. There was opposition to them, both in the United States and the United Kingdom, or at least to those which seemed to be promoting sex and sleaze and violence. But there were numerous other paperbacks, factual as well as fiction, which surely helped to develop many people’s minds. I can’t claim that I totally educated myself from paperbacks, though they certainly helped me in many ways. And I always considered myself lucky to have been stationed in Germany for two and a half years in the 1950s because American paperbacks were then in the shops there, whereas they weren’t in Britain. I got to read Faulkner, Steinbeck, Henry Miller, Erskine Caldwell, James Jones, Norman Mailer, and many others, while enduring the tedium of guard duties.
Paula Rabinowitz has written a fascinating book with much in it to interest anyone curious about aspects of publishing in the 1940s and 1950s. It has a striking cover, ample notes, and some fascinating illustrations. I did notice a few minor misprints – the excellent crime novelist Dorothy B. Hughes comes out as Dorothy P. Hughes at one point, and Penguin as Penquin, - but perhaps it’s nit-picking to mention them?