- Complete and Unabridged
BY PAULA RABINOWITZ
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014
And so we come to what is really what we write what we write is really a crime story.—Gertrude Stein, The Geographical History of America
This extended moment of print media digitization and retreading over what counts as cultural education while assigning pedagogical status to figures from Bill Gates to Brad Troemel and beyond welcomes Paula Rabinowitz’s acute materialist history of the American paperback book, American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street. In American Pulp, Rabinowitz, a longtime English professor, political activist, and feminist-materialist historical theorist, picks up from memories of her mother’s bedside table heaped with paperback books from which she borrowed and devoured Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago to relieve an early summer’s boredom. She goes on to trace that sort of intimate reading experience into a story that templates reading practice onto a market revolution that annotated American social life from the Great Depression to postwar decentralization.
In this journey that interlaces retail, marginalization, and aesthetics with Marshall McLuhan’s conception of “interface,”1 Rabinowitz wisely does not attempt a sweeping chronicle of American cultural change from 1939 to 1960. That project that would echo one of her [End Page 189] more ambitious best-selling paperback authors such as James Michener rather than the pulp subjects she revitalizes. Instead, she employs a strategy more resembling that used by Walter Benjamin in his classic work, “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” which she cites throughout her text. She contextualizes pulp as material (inexpensive, grainy, “pulpy” paper) in keeping with her literary studies, such as Labor and Desire: Women’s Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America in particular. American Pulp’s reading thus functions to summon the pulp novel phenomenon as a revolutionary social form rather than as a series of documents demanding analysis.
Rabinowitz’s wide lens allows her to frame her discussion in terms of what the paperback revolution helped to capacitate: the popularization of public reading, which allowed for flaneur-esque private subjectivity in public spaces. This demotizing of literacy agitated both the marketplace and the practices of everyday life. Here, books became cheap, but not always easy: they allowed an accessible forum for African American voices to discuss the toll of racism on everyday, not excluding sexual, life; they provided “survival literature” (187) and some relief to proto-lesbian or simply dissatisfied women; offered trenchant commentary on the Cold War and US policy; and pushed the limits of censorship. But possibly above but including all else, they brought people to books that they most likely would not have otherwise even considered reading and to people who lived far from libraries, bookstores, or schools: after all, every town has a drugstore. Rabinowitz’s reconception of the demotic as allowing reading in previously unread spaces and across class boundaries (parsed in her title’s coda, Modernism to Main Street), proves crucial to her rethinking of cultural education as a revolutionary force that exceeds academe.
Following this last point, and as is appropriate both to this volume’s title and for a history that culminates with the first graduates who benefited from the GI Bill, American Pulp asserts a place for these “pocket books” as marketing sleaze and high modernist fiction on the same carousels and often packaged in the same lurid cover art (267). This observation, illustrated by sumptuous color cover reproduction plates, lends Rabinowitz’s text some genuine humor, as in her recounting of Robert Jonas’s B-movie-style cover art for the George Garnow’s physics text The Birth and Death of the Sun, John Faulkner’s bawdy cornpone pulps on the sale rack next to his brother William’s novels, [End Page 190] and the saucy covers of Emile Zola’s Nana and Nana’s Mother, all posed to appeal to horny servicemen.
The story begins by tracing the popular dime-store novel’s story to two of the its primary market innovators: the English publishing executive Allen Lane, who founded Penguin Press in 1935, and the American Robert De Graff, who launched Pocket Books...