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Reviewed by:
  • Publisher for the Masses: Emanuel Haldeman-Julius by R. Alton Lee
  • James J. Connolly
R. Alton Lee, Publisher for the Masses: Emanuel Haldeman-Julius. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017. 280 pp. $29.95 (cloth).

In "View of the World from Ninth Avenue," Saul Steinberg's famed 1976 New Yorker cover, we are presented with a Manhattan-centered provincialism in which Middle America is a bit of empty space just beyond New Jersey. R. Alton Lee's Publisher for the Masses offers something close to the inverse, declaring tiny Girard, Kansas, to be "the literary and publishing Mecca of the United States, and thus the international center for Western civilization," between 1920 and 1950 (xi). His claim rests upon a thorough account of the life and work of Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, the socialist editor and publisher of the Little Blue Book series, a wildly popular collection of cheap, pocket-sized books. It is easy to be dismissive of Lee's bold claim. But he is certainly right to contend that Haldeman-Julius's work as a publisher from his home base in southeastern Kansas warrants far more attention than historians have given it, both for its impact on American reading experiences and as an illustration of the decentered character of the era's print culture.

Born in 1889 to a Russian-Jewish couple who had emigrated from Odessa and ended up in Philadelphia, Emanuel Julius (he later added his wife's surname) grew up a streetwise kid and a bit of a loner. Relying heavily on Haldeman-Julius's memoirs, Lee provides a pastiche of his childhood environment that included street peddlers, marbles games, election nights, [End Page 205] and—as he got older—saloons and brothels. Emanuel left school early, after which two attractions came to define his life. The first arose when he was teenaged copy holder at the Philadelphia Press and Record, which spurred an interest in journalism and publishing. The second was socialism, to which he was introduced by outdoor speakers and in reading rooms.

While still in his teens, Haldeman-Julius left for New York City, from which he would embark on a peripatetic journalistic career that found him writing for socialist publications across the country. While working as a bellboy at a girls' school, he published an article about Mark Twain in the wake of the novelist's death. The piece brought him to the attention of Louis Kopelin, the editor of the New York Call, who hired him as a reporter. There he encountered an array of prominent radicals while earning a name for himself as a left -wing journalist. Victor L. Berger, the first socialist elected to the U.S. Congress, soon hired him to write for the Milwaukee Leader, where he worked next to a young Carl Sandburg. He followed his editor, Chester M. Wright, to the Chicago World and then to the Los Angeles Citizen. Eventually splitting from Wright, who became editor of the Call, Haldeman-Julius became owner and editor of the Social Democrat, a weekly, and the Western Comrade, a monthly, in 1914. These perches gave him entry into west-coast socialist circles. Eventually, Wright invited him back to New York to write for the Call. Still only twenty-five, he returned as a seasoned journalist and a well-connected socialist figure.

Haldeman-Julius stayed in New York for just a year before moving to Girard. The little Kansas town was home to Appeal to Reason, the preeminent socialist publication in the U.S. It had relocated there from Kansas City when its publisher, Julius Augustus Wayland, sought a more affordable place to publish his weekly. Louis Kopelin, its editor, brought Haldeman-Julius there, and the two eventually became co-owners of the paper. The latter settled in town and married Marcet Haldeman, who was the daughter of a local banker, the niece of Hull House co-founder Jane Addams, a former actor and dancer, and a free thinker. The two settled into an unconventional marriage, living financially and sexually independent lives within a tempestuous relationship.

Although he remained sympathetic to socialism, Haldeman-Julius proved more entrepreneur than ideologue. He and Marcet purchased majority interest in...