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AMERICAN PULP: HOW PAPERBACKS BROUGHT MODERNISM TO MAIN STREET’
By Paula Rabinowitz
Princeton University Press, $29.95
By GLENN C. ALTSCHULER
Paperback books began to reach mass audiences in the United States in the 1930s. During World War II, the federal government delivered more than 140 million paperback books, designed to fit neatly into the breast or hip pockets of fatigues or navy blues, free of charge to overseas servicemen and women.
And with the end of the paper shortage in the late 1940s and 1950s, sales of fiction and nonfiction paperbacks proliferated.
According to Paula Rabinowitz, a professor of English at the University of Minnesota, paperbacks pointed to and reflected the democratization of literacy — the process by which modernism (“as high literature and also as a mass consumer practice”) spread across the United States — and the emergence of new forms of identity and community, based on class, race, gender and sexuality. In “American Pulp,” Rabinowitz, an avid collector, follows “the pulping of everything” during its “golden age,” when paperbacks (which were made from lower grade paper than newsprint and destined to disappear) left their mark on theaters of war, congressional committees investigating obscenity, the courts and on the thoughts and feelings of the ordinary people who bought, read, traded and discarded them.
Rabinowitz highlights the important role of shocking and titillating paperback book covers (several of which are reproduced in “American Pulp”) in attracting customers. She focuses on books that were awash in murder, violence, adultery and prostitution. And on authors, including Richard Wright, Margaret Mead, Ann Petry and Patricia Highsmith, who “anatomized racism,” anticipated the civil rights movement, “served up counter-narratives to the grand story of the nation,” stimulated Cold War anxieties about nuclear annihilation, “unraveled” realism and “legitimated” lesbian desire. Through familiar — and tawdry — tales, often drawn from the headlines, she writes, paperbacks brought home “the vast social chaos” ushered in by two world wars and a depression.
The choice of topics and themes in American Pulp is idiosyncratic and subjective. Rabinowitz does not explain her principles of selection. She does not distinguish between pulp fiction, reprints of hardbacks and paperback originals. She pays little attention to best-sellers — Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer books come to mind — that did not play a role in spreading modernism, while lavishing attention on modernists, like Jorge Borges, who are, shall we say, an acquired taste. And she sometimes assumes what she cannot know: how readers responded to a word, an allusion and an argument.
Rabinowitz suggests that paperbacks moved beyond pulp, “at least visually,” in the 1960s. Publishers retooled for different markets, including college students, whose numbers were increasing dramatically, and trade editions. And “the sensation these objects presented receded as their cost increased.” Although the latter claim is somewhat less persuasive, she may well be on to something. That said, it might be useful and instructive for Rabinowitz to weigh in on the phenomenon of the gothic romance, a genre that has occupied prime real estate in the physical and virtual space of bookstores for decades, and allowed Fabio, who adorned so many covers, to make a darned good living.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.