American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street

American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street

by Paula Rabinowitz


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"There is real hope for a culture that makes it as easy to buy a book as it does a pack of cigarettes."—a civic leader quoted in a New American Library ad (1951)

American Pulp tells the story of the midcentury golden age of pulp paperbacks and how they brought modernism to Main Street, democratized literature and ideas, spurred social mobility, and helped readers fashion new identities. Drawing on extensive original research, Paula Rabinowitz unearths the far-reaching political, social, and aesthetic impact of the pulps between the late 1930s and early 1960s.

Published in vast numbers of titles, available everywhere, and sometimes selling in the millions, pulps were throwaway objects accessible to anyone with a quarter. Conventionally associated with romance, crime, and science fiction, the pulps in fact came in every genre and subject. American Pulp tells how these books ingeniously repackaged highbrow fiction and nonfiction for a mass audience, drawing in readers of every kind with promises of entertainment, enlightenment, and titillation. Focusing on important episodes in pulp history, Rabinowitz looks at the wide-ranging effects of free paperbacks distributed to World War II servicemen and women; how pulps prompted important censorship and First Amendment cases; how some gay women read pulp lesbian novels as how-to-dress manuals; the unlikely appearance in pulp science fiction of early representations of the Holocaust; how writers and artists appropriated pulp as a literary and visual style; and much more. Examining their often-lurid packaging as well as their content, American Pulp is richly illustrated with reproductions of dozens of pulp paperback covers, many in color.

A fascinating cultural history, American Pulp will change the way we look at these ephemeral yet enduringly intriguing books.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691173382
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 09/06/2016
Pages: 408
Sales rank: 1,180,662
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Paula Rabinowitz is professor emerita of English at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of Black & White & Noir: America's Pulp Modernism.

Read an Excerpt

American Pulp

How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street

By Paula Rabinowitz


Copyright © 2014 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-6529-1


Pulp: Biography of an American Object

There is real hope for a culture that makes it as easy to buy a book as it does a pack of cigarettes.

—Eduard C. Lindeman, New American Library advertisement flyer (1951)

The growth of paper-bound books has been, in simple fact, a giant stride forward in the democratic process.

—Freeman Lewis, president of the National Conference of Social Welfare

Scenes of Reading

During my research at the archives of the New American Library at New York University, I found a letter from a grateful reader describing how he'd stopped by the neighborhood candy store on the way home from choir practice to pick up a pack of cigarettes, grabbed a book along with the newspaper, and discovered, hours later, that he had spent the entire afternoon immersed in reading. Many other readers wrote in with similar stories. They wanted to let the publishers and authors know how much readily available cheap books meant to lonely readers in the middle of the last century, and they wanted more of them.

In another archive, at the Winston Churchill Library in Cambridge, England, I found the remnants of a journal kept by an escaped prisoner of war, or perhaps he was a deserter from the French Foreign Legion, jailed in Casablanca. The journal, entitled "Diaries of Fedor Minorsky (alias Theodor Harris [son of noted Orientalist Vladimir Minorsky])," details the escaped prisoner's long trek across North Africa, including the reading matter he somehow managed to find while making his away across the barren Rif and Atlas Mountains. With loving detail, he retells the stories found in a pulpy American magazine and one book, Christopher Morley's 1925 novel, Thunder on the Left, which he picked up somewhere. His writing veers into a sort of purple prose, on one hand, and modernist stream of consciousness, on the other, depending on which of the two texts this British officer was reading and rereading during his trek. His accounts recorded in his journal might be seen as an inversion of James Thurber's 1939 New Yorker story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (made into a movie in 1947 starring Danny Kaye and remade in 2013 with Ben Stiller in the lead), where the henpecked, suburbanite editor of paperback adventure tales imaginatively inserts himself into the books' plots and vicariously lives the life of swashbuckling adventurer. This officer actually was living dangerously. Elsewhere, in another archive at Boston University housing Meyer Levin's papers, I found letters from Levin's wife, the recently deceased writer Tereska Torrès, whose scandalous autobiographical novel, Women's Barracks, precipitated a congressional hearing. These letters recounted the various suits and countersuits provoked by Levin's novel Compulsion, about the notorious "crime of the century"—the murder of a teenage boy by University of Chicago students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb—and his dispute with Otto Frank over Levin's dramatic adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank.

Books are intimate objects, and reading verges on the illicit, even as it is encouraged by parents and schools. The paperback revolution sparked a certain form of reading—what I call demotic reading—as it lured readers with provocative covers at an affordable price into a new relationship with the private lives of books and so with themselves. In the creation myth of the founding of modern paperbacks, Penguin Books by Allen Lane, recounted on the back of the lined notebook with a reproduction of the Penguin cover of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, which I bought at an independent bookstore in Berkeley to use while doing archival research, we learn that wanting something to read triggered this new commodity, a revival of a nineteenth-century form fallen out of fashion. Written in the flip and confidential prose of Penguin back-cover biographies, the tale goes as follows:

He just wanted a decent book to read ... Not too much to ask, is it? It was in 1935 that Allen Lane, Managing Director of Bodley Head Publishers, stood on a platform at Exeter railway station looking for something good to read on his journey back to London. His choice was limited to popular magazines and poor-quality paperbacks—the same choice faced every day by the vast majority of readers, few of whom could afford hardbacks. Lane's disappointment and subsequent anger at the range of books generally available led him to found a company—and change the world.... The quality paperback had arrived—and not just in bookshops. Lane was adamant that his Penguins should appear in chain stores and tobacconists and should cost no more than a packet of cigarettes.

Lane's experience as a reader was essential to the origins of the quality paperback, which, under his tutelage, was conceived as an alternative to the "poor-quality paperbacks" then on sale. His signature look—" dignified but flippant"—combined the sober tripartite two-toned cover with the playful penguin sketched from life at the London zoo.

The concept and the brand migrated to the United States after war broke out in Europe. In fact, paperbacks were stolen, some say, by Ian Ballantine and Robert de Graff, both of whom had worked at Penguin in the 1930s and carried the idea across the pond. Other stories assert that they were brought by Allen Lane to Kurt Enoch and Victor Weybright to become New American Library (NAL), because in the United States vast resources of paper meant books could still be widely printed during wartime. In America, the books remained for sale in train stations, newsstands, and candy stores, but the covers were transformed. They often imitated the sensational covers displayed on movie and true detective and romance magazines, but occasionally also hinted at the new art movements percolating in the wake of Europe's mass destruction, as did Robert Jonas's cover for the 1947 Penguin edition of Henry James's Daisy Miller (plate 1). And the logo was subtly altered: birds were forbidden (Penguin had a lock), so the clever founders of NAL hit on Signet as a sly allusion to that ugly duckling. This being America, after all.

A lowly yet somehow revered object, the paperback book exemplifies a modernist form of multimedia in which text, image, and material come together as spectacle to attract and enthrall a recipient, its audience, its reader. This medium was designed for maximum portability and could move seamlessly from private to public spaces. Guy Pène du Bois, a midcentury modernist art critic and painter derivative of Edward Hopper's style, like many of his contemporaries—especially photographers John Vachon, Walker Evans, Jack Delano, Russell Lee, and Esther Bubley—was fascinated by the act of public reading and by the materials and circumstances that enticed readers (figures 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, and 1.5). The image of the woman reading in private had long been a subgenre of portraiture in Western art, but these modern artists captured a moment when silent, solitary reading entered public spaces. These artists noticed the flood of magazine covers displayed in public newsstands that brought an array of images and type styles into view, fleetingly glimpsed while passing by; but sometimes—as when Allen Lane needed something to read on his train—capturing the eye, arresting the step, and landing in someone's hands when the buyer found a seat, to completely absorb her. Reading in public offers an uncanny experience as one slips into the private world of the book while also remaining vigilant, for example, if one is on the train so as not to miss one's stop or have one's purse picked. The public reader is always at once immersed and on guard (plate 5).

Often Pène du Bois's paintings depict scenes of reading where two or more women are seated together, strangers on a train most likely, each absorbed in her own book, isolated within its world, yet linked by the shared act of reading. But one of Pène du Bois's paintings, Portia in a Pink Blouse, now hanging in the Indianapolis Museum of Art, merits special mention (plate 6, top). Since the sixteenth century, in both Europe and Asia, the relationship of woman and book has been so widely depicted as to be almost a genre of painting, perhaps simply because it gave models something to do during long hours of sitting. In Portia in a Pink Blouse, however, this iconic relationship is altered. A woman sits at a café table, capped by a black hat with a mesh veil covering her face, staring into space away from a bouquet of pink and blue flowers that dominates the frame. Although she is not reading, a book is at the center of this portrait; she is saving her place with her finger as she looks off, out of the picture frame, to her left. The book is a paperback, an NAL paperback to be exact, judging by the layout of the cover with its title and author clearly legible: Portia wrote this book, which means she is at once a somewhat upscale writer (NAL only published reprints) and a popular one at that (NAL usually produced runs of a single title in the hundreds of thousands). She is on display along with her wares.

The painting is intriguing for any number of reasons: its pink color scheme; its evocation of the film noir femme fatale obscured by a black veil; and its tableau still life of flowers, table, and book with text, a nod to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso, and the entire corpus of café images by them and others. The table looks Parisian, and Pène du Bois—born in Brooklyn to natives of New Orleans and having traveled to Paris in 1905 and again in the 1920s—has positioned Portia amid emblems of modernism: a woman alone in public, seated at a table that might have once been used by Édouard Manet's Absinthe Drinker or any of the dissolute women seated beside him. (A few years after creating this portrait, Pène du Bois returned to New Orleans to paint women at an absinthe house.) But most important, she is the author of a paperback, which dates the image—to the 1940s. War is on, but her preoccupations are elsewhere; she is Portia LeBrun, the poet, author of the book entitled All Is Crass or maybe All Is Grass, it is hard to tell. The painting was completed in 1942, the year Orson Welles was filming The Magnificent Ambersons, based on Booth Tarkington's novel, and was given to the museum by the author's wife: Mrs. Booth Tarkington. But, as a review in the New York Times indicates, she had commissioned a portrait in 1939—the year Penguin came to Americe—so perhaps it was the first painting of this modern object, the pocket-size paperback. In fact, Portia's been pulped.

Pène du Bois had already painted a portrait of Portia in 1939. In this painting, she sits properly upright in a chair, facing directly out from a canvas dominated by dull oranges, browns, and burnt sienna, primly dressed in a rust-colored, man-tailored suit. By 1942, Portia has become a louche woman, no longer seated inside a domestic space but on the prowl in her garish pink and black—colors that would dominate the covers of pulp during the next decade. Her right hand is hidden within the open pages of the book, which is propped up by her left hand. It is as if she is fingering its pages, much as Sigmund Freud saw Dora doing with her Schmuckkasten; Portia's masturbating in full view. Pène du Bois was known for his derivative paintings of high-society patrons; thus he was hardly the populist Edward Hopper was (see his 1943 painting Hotel Lobby [plate 6, bottom ], also in the Indianapolis Museum of Art, where a lone woman sits in an armchair, legs stretched before her shod in elegant pumps with ankle straps, reading a magazine across from an elderly couple, and watched by the clerk, who lurks in the shadows). Its architecture focuses on the erotics of the woman reading in public, her legs, sheathed in silk stockings, claiming attention. Hopper's public space is actually far more claustrophobic than the private hotel room where another woman sits reading in 1934 Chicago (J. Theodore Johnson, Chicago Interior, plate 7, top), but both hint at interiority and loneliness. So this 1942 portrait, commissioned by a friend, of a woman writer seated with her paperback, impatiently searching for someone, is more than a paean to the idle rich, which was the painter's hallmark; it is a hymn to modern life—where a woman alone can sit in public on display, like a pulp cover beckoning from a rack, and read a book, her book, an advertisement for herself. Of course, women were not the only public readers; it was widely assumed that pulp fiction's target readership was male. But this easy transit between public and private, where the portable book, the pocket book, as the earliest American brand was called, could move from inside the home to inside the pocket or pocketbook and then be pulled out at any free moment, seems especially emblematic of modern femininity. In fact, Hopper's original conception of Hotel Lobby foregrounded a man reading, but as the work came to fruition, he refigured the lone reader as a young woman, a more fitting avatar of the modern urban subject.

The distinctions between what could be read in private or in public were not obvious. Moreover, pulps' global invasion was not a simultaneous occurrence; their incursion into readers' homes varied across nations. As Pritham K. Chakravarthy recalls from her 1960s childhood in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, the serialized fiction that was read at her proper home—with stories yanked out and hardbound for summer reading—were not the racy fare she and her friends imbibed on the school bus from other more sensational magazines read by the driver: "I remember when this story [En Peyar Kamala by Pushpa Thangadurai] was being serialized in the mid-seventies. The journal was kept hidden in my mother's cupboard. The subject matter was deemed too dangerous for us young girls. Since I was not allowed to read it at home, naturally, I read it on the school bus. Thanks to Natraj [the driver]." This true crime tale of a kidnapped Tamil girl working in a Delhi brothel (where another native Hindi-speaking prostitute spent her free time reading Hindi pulps) was enormously popular, running for weeks. Since at least the 1930s, when pulp achieved massive success in India thanks to increased literacy, available printing, and the influence of the "British penny dreadful" and "American dime novel," a female readership of popular fiction predominated. Women's reading of fiction has long elicited various social anxieties—about female idleness and the commercialization of literature. By 1933, Sudhandhira Sangu was dispensing "The Secret of Commercial Novel Writing":

1. The title of the book should carry a woman's name—and it should be a sexy one, like "Miss Leela Mohini" or "Mosdhar Vallibai."

2. Don't worry about the storyline. All you have to do is creatively adapt the stories of [British penny dreadful author C.W.M.] Reynolds and the rest. Yet your story absolutely must include a minimum of half a dozen lovers and prostitutes, preferably ten dozen murders, and a few sundry thieves and detectives.

3. The story should begin with a murder. Sprinkle in a few thefts. Some arson will also help. These are the necessary ingredients of a modern novel.

4. You can make money only if you are able to titillate. If you try to bring in any social message, like Madhaviah's The Story of Padhmavathi or Rajam Iyer's The Story of Kamalabal, forget it. Beware! You are not going to lure women readers.


Excerpted from American Pulp by Paula Rabinowitz. Copyright © 2014 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

1 Pulp: Biography of an American Object 1

2 Pulp as Interface 40

3 Richard Wright's Savage Holiday: True Crime and 12 Million Black Voices 82

4 Isak Dinesen Gets Drafted: Pulp, the Armed Services Editions, and GI Reading 109

5 Pulping Ann Petry: The Case of Country Place 131

6 Señor Borges Wins! Ellery Queen's Garden 159

7 Slips of the Tongue: Uncovering Lesbian Pulp 184

8 Sci-Unfi: Bombs, Ovens, Delinquents, and More 209

9 Demotic Ulysses: Policing Paperbacks in the Courts and Congress 244

CODA The Afterlife of Pulp 281

Acknowledgments 301

Notes 307

Index 377

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