Modernism On Main Street

American Pulp Scan

A 4.29.19 Inside Higher Ed article by Scott Jaschik (linked via Literary Hub) reports on Stanford University’s announcement that it will no longer support the school’s university press, which pulls in an impressive $5 million a year and publishes some 130 books annually, but still needs additional support from the university. Citing a smaller anticipated payout from the institution’s endowment, Provost Persis Drell announced and end to the press’ $1.7 million supplemental annual funding. That endowment, by the way, is worth more than $26 billion. $26 billion. I suppose all schools are watching their budgets more carefully now that film and television stars may be unable to grease the admission wheels for their privileged broods.

Jaschik’s article caught my eye because I’d just finished two books this week (always have more than one going at a time), one a university press title. Now, university press books can be a mixed bag, and it pays to skim them carefully before racing to the cashier. Topics can be diluted by rampant pedantry, and already dense text might be colored by pontificating professorial authors’ insistence on putting their own Marxist, feminist, deconstructivist or other ‘ist’ spins on otherwise interesting subjects. But none of that was the case with University of Minnesota professor Paula Rabinowitz’ excellent American Pulp – How Paperbacks Brought Modernism To Main Street (2014, Princeton Press).

Clearly, Paula Rabinowitz loves vintage paperbacks. Her fixation traces back to pre-teen years reading ‘grown up’ paperbacks swiped from her mother’s nightstand. No, not Harold Robbins, Mickey Spillane or Jacqueline Susann. Rabinowitz vividly recalls a sixth grade summer spent in her backyard with Doctor Zhivago. In fact, her particular interest in vintage paperbacks – as avid investigator, collector, reader and scholar – are the many classics and serious literary books the post-WWII publishers put out alongside the hundreds (make that thousands) of bloody mysteries, westerns, science-fiction and sundry seamy novels that can only be labeled ‘vintage sleaze’. Rabinowitz is especially intrigued by the evolution of serious and sometimes controversial literature, originally published in handsome pocketbooks with simple cover art created by leading graphic designers, which morphed into new editions sporting lurid cover illustrations that were right at home beside the hard-boiled dicks, serial adulterers and six shooter horse operas.

American Pulp was a perfect follow up to Richard Lingeman’s The Noir Forties that I’d recently finished (link below). Both books zero in on a tumultuous period in American history to probe how entirely new (or at least reinvented) media crept into the mainstream and reshaped pop culture, fine arts and society, from race relations to gender roles, sexual identities and more. Rabinowitz quotes a 1951 New American Library pocketbooks ad: “There is real hope for a culture that makes it as easy to buy a book as it does a pack of cigarettes”. In the case of Rabinowitz’ subject —the post-WWII paperback book – it’s particularly ironic that this seismic shift in Americans’ reading habits occurred precisely as the TV age began. Rabinowitz argues that 1940’s – 1960’s paperbacks didn’t simply mirror evolving social mores, but actually shaped them, providing crucial guideposts for the cultural underground, sexual liberation, gay women and men, anti-establishment rebels and others. And most importantly, not just in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, but in Peoria, Oshkosh, Missoula and every little burg across the country. The books’ cover art often played vital roles in conveying the subtle cues and subliminal messages to intended audiences, and Rabinowitz explores this in depth. So it’s intriguing that American Pulp’s own cover isn’t lifted from a vintage paperback. No McGinnis, Maguire, Avati or DeSoto here. The book uses “Portia In A Pink Blouse”, a 1942 painting by Guy Bene Du Pois, depicting ‘Portia’ holding a paperback edition of her own novel.

Actually, the book is filled with illustrations, including a number of vintage paperbacks you don’t often see and some must-see period newsstand shots. And, it’s readable from beginning to end. But fear not! If you forget you’re reading a scholarly tome, this just-under 400 page hardcover devotes nearly a fourth of its page count to notes and appendices. So, it’s a university press book, all right. Just a very readable one, and a good one for any fan of postwar pop culture to check out.

Still, lets hope that Stanford University comes to its senses and funds its portion of the 125 year-old Stanford University Press. The last thing we need is another institution reallocating precious resources to athletic programs and costly capital campaigns while their core learning functions wither.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/04/07/the-noir-forties/

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