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Re-Covering Modernism: Pulps, Paperbacks, and the Prejudice of Form (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 46, Number 3-4, Spring-Summer 2009
pp. 613-616 | 10.1353/jjq.2008.0035

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The cover of a 1950s paperback edition of Charles-Louis Philippe's Bubu of Montparnasse, a tale of tortured passions and twisted prose, features a provocative, cigarette-smoking dame in a low-cut top and hip-hugging skirt slit thigh-high. Bubu's explicit sex appeal is just a part of the book's marketing strategy, however; to her left, in bold yellow type, reads "Preface by T. S. Eliot." This surprising imprimatur offers Bubu's publishers another marketing hook, suggesting that both erotic titillation and literary excellence can be purchased in this handy paperback for a mere 25 cents.

You can read more about Eliot, Bubu, and other strange bedfellows in David M. Earle's Re-Covering Modernism: Pulps, the Paperbacks, and the Prejudice of Form, a work that tours the underworld of modernism: the hundreds of pulp-fiction magazines that dominated newsstands from the teens through the 1940s and the millions of cheap, dimestore paperbacks that replaced them in the 1950s. Much of this vast terrain is uncharted and inaccessible—ephemera written quickly and churned out on cheap paper for rapid mass consumption and ready disposal. For scholars, pulps and paperbacks have been deemed insignificant and unworthy of study, if not downright seedy. As Earle points out, "our increasingly sophisticated understanding of modernism is still reductively based upon the material forms that … early literary historians thought worthy of archiving: the little magazine, manuscripts, and first editions, rather than reprint magazines and literary digests, reprint and circulating library hardback editions, pulp magazines, and paperbacks" (3). He seeks to redress this oversight by providing a history of the neglected subculture of middle- and lowbrow material forms.

Earle argues that modernism was productively entangled in this popular subculture from its advent, but in the process of canonization, an "Elite" and "Monolithic" coterie came to dominate literary histories, which pitted a few modernist geniuses against the teeming, pulp-consuming masses (4). Although the much-vaunted opposition between modernist and pulp fare served as an effective marketing tool, it did not rest upon any clear-cut division in authorship, readership, content, or even form. Modernists such as Eliot, Joyce, Djuna Barnes, William Faulkner, and D. H. Lawrence published in the pulps, and famous pulp-fiction writers such as S. S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright) and Max Brand (Frederick Faust) began their careers as aspiring modernist editors and writers (23, 104-05). Although the pulp readership vastly outnumbered the audience for avant-garde little magazines and was more predominantly working-class, the pulps were a guilty pleasure for Faulkner and Gertrude Stein, among other modernists (109). In turn, pulps and paperbacks made modernist authors attractive and accessible to working-class readers. The Snappy magazine even had a regular section called "Torrid Tomes," which "highlighted modernist books for their racier sections" (190). Like little magazines, the pulps marketed themselves against mainstream, middlebrow "slicks" such as Vanity Fair, the Saturday Evening Post, and Better Homes and Gardens, which they deemed tepid and effeminate—an attitude that helps explain the hypermasculinity and virulent misogyny that often surface in both modernist and pulp publications (65). Modernist and pulp writings also share thematic concerns: the thrill and dangers of technology; the alienation of the individual against the corporate or state behemoth; "urban bleakness"; "the horrors of war"; and social disintegration (104). Admittedly, whereas modernists champion formal experimentation, the pulps adhere to the formulaic. Yet even the formal distinctions break down when we consider that Joyce, Faulkner, and Richard Wright used the pulps as symbols and imaginative resources. In Joyce's "An Encounter," for example, the narrator "looks to dime novels as an imaginative means to escape Dublin life, inspiring his actual 'adventure'" (84). The pulps also proffered a rich linguistic wellspring for modernist experimentation. The kind of slang mastered by Robert Leslie Bellem, who penned such sentences as "I glued my glams on her blonde loveliness," provided rich fodder for Joyce's linguistic mixing in Ulysses (72). And Harry Stephen Keeler, author of the putative longest mystery ever written in English, The Box from Japan (765 pages), wrote books with "philosophical resonance, stylistic inscrutability, and a sophistication of plot structure that rivals Ulysses" (141, 145).

Despite its anti...



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