Alumna discusses historical significance of novel
On Thursday, the American Studies department hosted Paula Rabinowitz ’74, who discussed her 2014 book American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street and the historical significance of book covers.
Prof. Stephen Whitfield (AMST) began the event by introducing Rabinowitz, who graduated from Brandeis with a bachelor’s degree in American Studies and is a professor at the University of Minnesota. “Professor Rabinowitz … has gone on to a distinguished career in the field of American Studies, particularly feminist studies, and critical scholarships having to do primarily with literature,” said Whitfield.
Rabinowitz briefly read from her book’s preface, which examines the popularity of books in recent years. Due to the increasing popularity of reading devices such as the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook, and noting that Amazon announced it had sold more eBooks than hardback books in the summer of 2010, “books were surely dead,” Rabinowitz wrote in the preface.
Rabinowitz’s research focused on pulp fiction in archives across the United States, which included the paperback novels that gained popularity after the Great Depression. She visited libraries dedicated to pulp, such as the Fales Library at New York University, the G. Nicholas Collection at the University of Minnesota and the George Kelley Paperback and Pulp Fiction Collection at the University of Buffalo.
Rabinowitz noted the difficulty of maintaining the collection of pulp fiction at the library of the University of Buffalo. Nevertheless, she said, books have a lasting lifespan and continue to stay, regardless of technological advances.
According to Rabinowitz, the covers often play a significant role in an individual’s decision to read the book, true to the expression about judging a book by its cover. “All these covers are ‘read the book by its cover’ or ‘buy the book by its cover,’” Rabinowitz said of the covers she showed the audience. There is something “categorically different about reading eBooks than by holding a book.”
Rabinowitz also presented images of paperback book covers from the 1930s and ’40s to express the diversity of the medium and notable controversial covers. Rabinowitz used Robert Jonas—an American illustrator famous for his work at Penguin Books—as an example, showing the audience his signature styles of the “broken window or key hole style, wherein you are inside [the location] and you’re looking [at the painted scene] through the distance.” Guy Pene du Bois, a 20th- century modernist, Rabinowitz said, would frequently feature images of women reading in his art.
“[The] dynamic of public reading by women is part of … a modern sensibility that allows women to be alone in public,” Rabinowitz said.
American Pulp highlights writing with a popular appeal, which “kind of level[ed] out a playing field of who read what,” Rabinowitz said, noting that the books would be packaged and sold in kiosks, drug stores, candy stores and department stores. According to Rabinowitz, the availability of these books represented the increasing popularity of reading and storytelling.
The paperbacks would represent the high culture of war, gender relations, changing sexual relations and changing racial relations, she told the audience.
“These books were meant to be read,” Rabinowitz said, also discussing how even Congress and Hollywood would pay attention to the novels that allude to high culture issues.
Rabinowitz also discussed how printing methods began to change in the early 1960s, noting publishers’ decisions to create trade paperback books, which were similar in size to hardcover books. Additionally, she said, the changes in tastes and formats of books and the rise of vintage press and anchor books contributed to paperback sales. Nevertheless, certain marketing characteristics remained the same, Rabinowitz said, using Edmund Wilson’s novel, Memoirs of Hecate County as an example. The State of New York banned Wilson’s book, which prompted marketers to promote the book with the tagline, “Banned in the state of New York!” Although there was no image on the cover, the book still sold well, partly due to the interest generated by its ban.
It is “always good to have your book banned if you want to sell it,” Rabinowitz joked.
Rabinowitz is also the author of the works Black & White & Noir: America’s Pulp Modernism, They Must Be Represented: The Politics of Documentary and Labor and Desire: Women’s Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America.