This 75th Anniversary's Been Overlooked. It Shouldn't Be.


Paula Rabinowitz is the author of AMERICAN PULP: HOW PAPERBACKS BROUGHT MODERNISM TO MAIN STREET and Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Literature. She is a Professor of English at University of Minnesota, where she teaches courses on twentieth-century American literature, film and visual cultures, and material culture.

Seventy-five years ago, paperback books returned to the United States with the brandname Pocket Books, which began publishing its mass-market paperbacks, sold at a quarter each, with ten titles, among them: Frank Buck’s Bring ‘Em Back Alive, Bambi by Felix Salten, James Hilton’s Lost Horizon and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Returned, because nineteenth-century printers often bound books in paper, yet the practice had all but disappeared during the early part of the twentieth century. It may seem odd to commemorate the advent of cheap pulpy books instead of the far more significant anniversary: the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact on August 23, 1939. But the saga of cheap paperbacks’ arrival on American soil is intimately tied to the Second World War and its aftermath in a number of ways, deriving from and contributing to wartime innovation, necessity, mobility and censorship.

Modern paperbacks were the Depression-era brainchild of English editor Allen Lane, who developed Penguin Books in 1935 in order to provide high-quality literary works as cheaply as a pack of cigarettes. Publishing on such a massive scale depended on huge supplies of paper, which, once Britain declared war on Germany, was sharply curtailed in the UK. But the US still had an abundance of trees and paper mills and whether Lane’s assistant, Ian Ballantine and others, stole the idea, as E.L. Doctorow remembers in Reporting the Universe, or Lane shipped the enterprise overseas with Kurt Enoch and Victor Weybright (as he recalled in his memoir The Making of a Publisher), the new medium appearing on drugstore racks, bus stations and corner candy stores, became a kitschy icon that indelibly altered American tastes and habits during the mid-twentieth century. Within a few months of their initial arrival, paperbacks were everywhere. Despite the ubiquity of radio and the Hollywood banner year of 1939, when Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz swept into movie theaters with lush colors, books were the mass media of wartime America. The advent of color assured a renewed love affair with the movies, even as the 1939 World’s Fair in New York marked the introduction of television, the next frontier in mass communications, which would come into its own in the 1950s. But the ability to own a book, one printed by the millions, connected Americans to new ideas in science, economics, art—not to mention new sensations about reading and the self and each other.

These new objects, emblazoned with lurid cover art and risqué tag lines, were priced to sell and, once the US entered the war, were imprinted with an admonition to send the volumes overseas to servicemen. War spurs technological breakthroughs, usually in weaponry or communication; paperbacks were part of this process, a new technology that transformed both the battlefield and home front. Books, unlike other mass media, such as the radio or movies, were tangible things that could be purchased and, like a salami from Katz’s Delicatessen, then sent “to your boy in the army.” Paperback books participated directly in the war effort when publishers and booksellers banded together to produce the Armed Services Editions—millions of books distributed free to the Army and Navy, which left a legacy that influenced a generation of Japanese and Italian scholars to study American literature when they found these handy yellow-covered books or their companions, the Overseas Editions, among their grandfathers’ war surplus (the ASE books could not be brought back the US so were dumped overseas). Books are always causing trouble; even this patriotic gesture ran afoul of Congressional attempts, through amendments to the 1944 Soldier’s Voting Act, to limit the use of certain words in publications distributed to troops that might appear to sway their political opinions.

By the 1950s, after paperback publishing exploded to encompass many imprint houses and augmented reprints with PBOs (paperback originals), the books’ provocative covers—which had been a crucial design elements meant to spur sales but also to bring vernacular modernist visual culture into private life—sparked police departments to impound books and Congress to investigate “Current Pornographic Materials” (during the 1952 Gathings subcommittee hearings), including paperbacks. What had been allowed to proliferate during the Second World War, when millions were in uniform and social mores superintending men’s and women’s behaviors loosened considerably, needed to be reined in during the Korean War and the Cold War.

Paperback book publishers had long been aware of real and potential censorship efforts mounted in the United States most notably, the 1933 case, United States v. One Book Called “Ulysses.” Its 1934 appeal decision by Augustus Hand declared that the book must be “taken as a whole,” so that even patently “obscene” portions “relevant to the purpose of depicting the thoughts of the characters … are introduced to give meaning to the whole.” This decision was aimed at the literary merits of the work and its “sincerity” of portraying characters, but because the law was aimed at “one book,” the book itself, as a total package from cover to cover, might be considered “as a whole.” Paperback publishers exploited the pulpy aspects of their product, with louche and debauched cover art attracting visual attention; but the covers rigorously conformed to the Ulysses decision ruling: each depicted a scene found within the book—even if only in a few words. The paperback was a complete work consisting not only of words but art as well.

This handy package, arriving on American shores in the midst of war’s horrors—offering its owners a “complete and unabridged” work, easily carried in pocket or pocketbook, complete with a visually compelling cover—helped usher readers into new sensations through art, science and literature. As objects that circulated along with their owners during and after WWII, they brought modernism to Main Street.   

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