American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street

Paula Rabinowitz. Princeton University Press, 2014. 300 pages + Acknowledgments and Notes. $29.95.

By John McWilliams

Sometime around 1950 the word “pulp” became, for the publishing world, a verb as well as a noun and an adjective.  The cheap 25 cent paperback, brought to the United States via England’s Penguin in 1939, was rapidly taken up by American Penguin, then by Pocket Books, Avon, Bantam, Dell and other houses, but chiefly by New American Library, whose Signet Books (“Good Reading For the Millions”) riffed Penguin’s Pelican Books by adopting the “Cygnet” logo. All of us who were ten years old or older in 1950 will remember pulp fictions well; they were available at most any kiosk, railway station or small town drug store.  One quarter and it’s in your pocket, perhaps for later, surreptitious reading. 

As Rabinowitz observes, pulps were built on plot cliché’s of violence and sex. Although pulps were fueled by “pent-up desire or keyed-up anger” within both readers and characters, they were ultimately “meant for the trash can”(34,35).  Later editions of successful pulp fictions were often timed to coincide with the appearance of the Film Noir movie version bearing the same–or an even more racy–title.  Whether rendered in the movie or the novel, life on the dark wet city streets turns into a story of “True Crime,” as retailed by the crime magazines as well as the films.  In many pulps, criminal darkness also poisons the family and the marriage bed, sending the protagonist, often female, on a journey elsewhere. Although the Dick gets the Dame and run off with the Dough, “True Romance” sometimes prevails at novel’s end.   The book covers designed to sell pulp novels were as important as the text: the cover art of James Avati, ”the Rembrandt of Pulp,” often featured a lurid femme fatale in her slipped slip, outlined against a dark background (24). It was widely accepted in the trade that bestselling pulps depended on the 3 D’s (death, depravity and determinism) and the three s’s (sex, sin and smoking guns).  New American Library accepted no pulp fiction manuscript over 180 pages.  “Newsstandwise” became a recognized adverb in editorial lingo (36). 

These formulas are now widely known and have been intensively studied both in academic monographs and in histories of the book. Rabinowitz describes and explains the appeal of pulp with massive knowledge, deft wit, engaging anecdotes and a sharp eye for informative ironic detail. Her subtitle indicates, however, that she intends to emphasize neglected qualities of pulp fiction that complicate our remembered responses to pocket book sleaze (“an ache of recognition, a whiff of distaste” 17). Among the books of presumably high literature that were republished in pulp format for popular consumption during the forties and fifties were the following:  Henry James’s Daisy Miller, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, John Hersey’s Hiroshima, Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World, The Diary of Anne Frank, Robert Penn Warren’s Night Rider, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and three novels by William Faulkner.  Evidently, “Good Reading for the Millions” did not exclude quality; instead, it enhanced adolescent and adult desire to read while providing discomfiting glimpses into unknown modern worlds.  

In its 1948 heyday, writing a new pulp for today’s fictional market meant exploiting the reader’s fascination for making public the forbidden abominations that mask desire, whether for money (bribery or theft), for sex (gay or adulterous) or for control of others (through crafty intelligence and force of will).  To republish Hemingway, Faulkner and Margaret Mead in the format of pulp fiction was, however, quite another matter.  Rabinowitz does not assume that pulping famous works by Mead and Hemingway was merely a publisher’s sop to literary respectability.  Nor does she assume that eclectic pulp publishers could detect no differences between the fictions of Erskine Caldwell and William Faulkner, between Mickey Spillane and Ernest Hemingway, or between Ann Petry and Mary McCarthy.  Instead, Rabinowitz demonstrates that publishers were primarily interested in a writer’s immediate accessibility, whether highbrow or lowbrow, “classic” or “trash.”   Rabinowitz’s purpose is not to discriminate, which is a treacherous endeavor, but to demonstrate how writers and publishers of pulp were continually crossing borders, mingling kinds of texts that Van Wyck Brooks, T.S. Eliot or even Alfred Kazin would have regarded as separate because incompatible. 

Instances of border crossings are the controlling concern of Rabinowitz’s middle chapters. Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices is analyzed as a hybrid of photo-journalism, the True Crime magazine, and emerging Black protest, as well as literary Naturalism in the traditions of Dreiser and Dostoevsky, whom Wright so much admired.  “Armed Services Editions” (ASE) published wartime reading books for GIs that would total 1,180 titles and 123 million volumes, including Plato, Emerson, and Moby-Dick, as well as Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber, and Lloyd Douglas’s The Robe, which remained the ASE’s three most requested titles. The sensationalist plots of two of Ann Petry’s novels serve the common ground between a Harlem exposé and a police report, while emphasizing interracial sex, rape, and murder.  Petry’s little-known second novel, Country Place, to which Rabinowitz gives extended consideration, reveals the dark sexual underside of the seemingly idyllic New England town in ways that foretell Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place (lowbrow) and, somewhat later, John Updike’s Couples (highbrow). The first American printing of Borges’s great labyrinthine parable “The Garden of Forking Paths”—itself half detective story, half spy story—was arranged by Ellery Queen. Rabinowitz follows these chapters with inquiries into censorship hearings (Lady Chatterley’s Lover), into Congress’s 1952 Gathings Hearings into pornography, and into the emergence of lesbian fiction through the pulps. 

American Pulp is a book of facts and informed sociological insight, not literary theory. Despite references to Barthes, Bakhtin, and Foucault, Rabinowitz refrains from deconstructing pulp, a method that would surely have led to absurdities of abstract overreading. Her last chapter stops short of any general conclusion. Passing literary insights abound, however. Among them is the recurring suggestion that American pulp fiction, so often criticized as a decadent form of Realism, is better understood as an outgrowth of modernist Surrealism in literature, painting and film. The pulps provided the surreal distortions of men’s and women’s dreams, millions of them. Rabinowitz convincingly argues that “pulp works to unravel realism through the hyperreal immediacy of voices speaking vernacular.”

John McWilliams (ΦBK, Princeton University, 1962) is a professor of humanities at Middlebury College and a resident member of the Beta of Vermont chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.