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Proletarian paperbacks: the Little Blue Books and Working-Class Culture.

In December of 1934, Louis Adamic published an article in the Saturday Review of Literature entitled: What the Proletariat Reads: Conclusions Based on a Year's Study Among Hundreds of Workers Throughout the United States." Responding to the Left's ardent interest in "Proletarian Literature," Adamic rather cynically concluded that "the overwhelming majority of the American working class does not read books and serious, purposeful magazines. In fact, the American working class hardly reads anything apart from the local daily and Sunday newspaper and an occasional copy of Liberty, True Stories, Wild West Tales, or Screen Romances" (Adamic 1934, 321-22). The article received a number of responses, the most pointed of which came from Robert Cantwell, who had published his proletarian novel, The Land of Plenty, earlier that year. Writing in The New Republic, he argued that recent figures from public libraries show an active working-class readership who cannot afford the cost of "serious" literature (1935, 274-76). Nevertheless, he conceded Adamic's point: Mass market publishers do not provide "serious and purposeful" reading matter to the working class.

As the argument in the East Coast magazines continued, the Haldeman-Julius publishing house in Girard, Kansas, celebrated the printing and sale of its two hundred millionth Little Blue Book (Herder 1975, 199). Although these five-cent pamphlet editions of literary classics, socialist treatises, and original essays were a ubiquitous presence in working-class homes and farms during the 1920s and early 1930s, they have long suffered from scholarly neglect. Adamic's own omission of the Haldeman-Julius Company might be explained by the failure of his first literary venture, a Little Blue Book entitled Yugoslav Proverbs that sold badly enough to be removed from the catalogue of titles (Bushnell 1986, 178). (1) Yet more contemporary labor and cultural historians who lack his personal involvement have often been of like mind in their considerations of the relationship between the working classes and mass culture. Faced with a dearth of class-conscious cultural articulations, scholars often echo a variant of American Exceptionalism, and declaim the quietistic and homogenizing forces of the culture industry on the American working class. Yet in doing so, they tend to discount the multivalent ways in which the working class has used mass culture in their struggles to maintain agency even as they adapted to the normative influences of a mass production society.

A recent and notable exception to this scholarly trend is Michael Denning's work on the nineteenth-century dime novel, in which he argues for a "contested terrain" of working-class mass culture, somewhere between "forms of deception" and "expressions of a genuine people's culture" (Denning 1987, 3). This useful paradigm is equally applicable to the Little Blue Books, which share with their predecessors a complex and shifting relationship to working-class social and political formations. There is little doubt that Emanuel Haldeman-Julius's project of "education for the masses" rode the wave of that great inter-war mania for self-improvement, a phenomenon Warren Susman has correctly seen as part of the shift from working-class republicanism to a much more amalgamous "culture of abundance" (Susman 1984, xix-xxx). Yet equally important is the particular way in which the Little Blue Books negotiated that shift. Through the broad scope of their subject matter, they brought a heterogeneous mixture of literary culture, self-help, indigenous socialism, and freethought into the homes and lives of farmers and workers who as often as not found themselves on the margins of modernity, held rapt by the glow of "electric light towns," but left out of the economic boom of the post-war years. (2) The history, the content, and even the format of the Little Blue Books provide a valuable sense of the cultural desires of a generation on the borders between production and consumption, tradition and technology, poverty and abundance.

There is little doubt that part of Haldeman-Julius's success in reaching this kind of working-class audience came from his history as a journalist with the pre-war socialist press. Unlike other culture popularizers, who descended from the groves of academe, Haldeman-Julius came from a Jewish working-class background. The son of an immigrant bookbinder, he long associated his own success with his youthful experiences reading dime novels and working for mass publication presses. After stints with The Call and The Western Comrade, Haldeman-Julius was brought to Kansas by Louis Kopelin to help with the floundering socialist giant, The Appeal to Reason (Scott 1978, 156-58). The paper had suffered since the suicide of its editor, J. A. Wayland, who had somewhat autocratically used the periodical to spread his own particular brand of prairie socialism throughout the Midwest, the Great Plains, and the rural South. By the time Haldeman-Julius and Kopelin bought the Appeal in 1919, the paper was battered by the onslaught of the Palmer Raids and the Espionage Act, red scare reactions to the Russian Revolution and the strength of the U.S. Socialist Party. Still suffering from an ambivalent stand on World War I and its editors' wavering faith in the socialist project, the Appeal undertook one last campaign, to fight for Eugene Debs's release from prison (Graham 1990, xi; Shore 1988). (3) In what was either a portent of things to come, or a cynical advertising ploy, Haldeman-Julius announced the publication of his first piece of pamphlet literature, Oscar Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol, on the page after the February 22, 1919 headline, "Swear that You Will Not Let Gene Debs Rot and Perish in a Prison Cell."

The Little Blue Book project emerged then, quite literally, into the space left by the Espionage Act's suppression of the radical press. Finding pamphlet publishing safer and more profitable in the conservative political climate of the post-war years, Haldeman-Julius turned over more and more of his presses to the less explicitly political Blue Books, eventually abandoning the crippled Appeal in 1922 (Graham 1990, 288). The transition from socialism to education for the working-classes was not, however, as abrupt as historians of the Appeal have depicted. Along with Wilde's poem and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, early Blue Books included a pamphlet edition of the Soviet Constitution, Daniel DeLeon's Socialism vs. Anarchism, a collection entitled Great Proletarian Poems, and several original items by Upton Sinclair and Clarence Darrow. Sinclair and Darrow are perhaps the most notable authors published in both the Appeal and the Little Blue Book series, but the Blue Books continued to feature Appeal writers throughout the 1920s. And at all points along its publishing history, radical literature comprised at least a quarter of its offerings (Bushnell 1986, 176). (4) Haldeman-Julius added to these titles an eclectic mixture of classics in the public domain. Thomas Paine and Friedrich Nietzsche mingled with George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. Realists, Naturalist and romantic radicals were featured prominently, although there were no discernible rules of inclusion. Thus, while one can still read the political and cultural imperatives of the old Appeal in the list of titles, this is a progressivism shorn of any grand hope of a "cooperative commonwealth," discrete pictures of a just society lacking the Appeals synthetic vision of a socialist future.

Whatever the detriments of this retreat from organized socialism, the lack of orthodoxy opened a space for a heterogeneous set of political offerings. Ever the champion of views that were marginalized, progressive, and potentially marketable, Haldeman-Julius published a wide spectrum of radical thinkers who might otherwise have lacked a mass audience during the politically conservative 1920s. Feminist and Wobbly member Margaret Sanger provided illegal and much sought after information on birth control in a Blue Book innocuously rifled, What Every Girl Should Know. Communist Anna Louise Strong reported glowingly on the Soviet Union in a half dozen different titles. Responding to the rash of lynchings and encouraged by his correspondence with W. E. B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson, Haldeman-Julius published one of the first anthologies of African-American poetry (Scott 1978, 176). Mike Gold, James Farrell, and a number of other radical writers had early publications in Little Blue Books. And the anti-immigration movement elicited responses like The Truth about the Deluge and Is the U.S. Immigration Law Beneficial?, Haldeman-Julius's attempts to encourage the rebirth of tolerance and cultural pluralism. The most ink was probably spilt, however, in venomous attacks on the bigotry of organized religion--Haldeman-Julius's cause celebre. In the aftermath of the Scopes Trial, the Girard plant worked overtime to churn out hundreds of thousands of copies of Little Blue Books like How Preachers Go Wrong and Bertrand Russell's Why I am Not a Christian.

As the popularity of the Little Blue Books grew in the mid-1920s, the radical essays and literary reprints were augmented with an increasingly large selection of self-help manuals. Haldeman-Julius took pride in offering his readers everything from How to Build Your Own Greenhouse to How to Conquer Stupidity. Reviewing the first five hundred Blue Books, offered as a set under the slogan "The University in Print," H.J. Mencken observed that, "In the midst of much capital stuff there is an admixture of unutterable drivel." Annoyed by such works as How to Develop a Strong Will, he commented, "It is not agreeable to think of a poor man laying out his money for such garbage, and then solemnly digesting it. He'd be much better occupied asleep in the sun" (1922, 142). Tens of millions of "poor men" disagreed--sales figures show a steady interest in Blue Books that promised accessible, compact, and useful knowledge. William Durant's phenomenal best seller, The Story of Philosophy, sold briskly in its original, multi-volume Blue Book form. Spanning from Plato to Dewey, it assessed systems of philosophy on the basis of their usefulness in daily life. Like similarly structured Blue Books on scientific and technological thought, Durant's works rendered seemingly exotic information into a manageable, applicable "outline" format. (5) Noting the evidence that various formulations of instrumental knowledge sold the best, Haldeman-Julius explained, "The worker who has left school at an early age to assume his burden in the world of industry grabs a Little Blue Book on Science or History as a famished man grabs a plate of food. He has an impatient, hungry mind.... He educates himself and enjoys it" (1925, 4). Letters from enthusiastic readers and orders averaging 35 books per mailing support Haldeman-Julius's claim. During an era when rapid urbanization and the advent of mass production technology created new questions and dilemmas for workers and small farmers, the self-help Blue Books spread the promise of information to readers unable or unwilling to participate in other, more expensive, educational forums. In fact, sales figures show that many of the most successful titles promoted self-teaching. How to Teach Yourself to Swim, for example, far out-sold the same book listed as How to Swim. Working-class readers continually indicated their preference for modes of self-reliant learning in the face of the growing professionalization of expertise (Haldeman-Julius 1974, 36-64).

This stress on instrumental knowledge and self-help is, perhaps, what most differentiates the Little Blue Books from other contemporaneous efforts to popularize culture. Such middlebrow ventures as the Book-of-the-Month Club and the "Great Books" collection aimed their sights at a growing middle-class audience who wanted the distinction of cultural capital without the effort associated with earlier models of education. Cultural experts promised these customers guidance in the precarious process of selecting books for permanence and display (Rubin 1992). Haldeman-Julius insisted, however, that literary classics and self-help pamphlets could each appeal to working-class readers solely by virtue of the value of their information. He reveled in the thought that because of their price and their humble appearance, no one would buy them as show pieces or as a "cultural fetish" (1974, 11-2). In an unpublished note he predicted that,
 If you can make the low brow believe that Ibsen, Wilde, Shaw,
 Emerson, and other rather forbidding personalities are human beings
 a very human appeal--they will buy very readily, because the name
 nothing.... They do not buy by the name of the author but by the
 and the suggestion that material in the book will interest them.
 (Haldeman-Julius n.d., Jane Addams Collection)

That Shakespeare and Poe could keep pace with seemingly more accessible self-help offerings did not debase literature, but rather demonstrated its continued vitality in a modernized world and among the increasingly literate working classes.

Haldeman-Julius often contended that the aura of exclusivity surrounding the literary classics and the costs of mass production printing worked in tandem to monopolize culture among the privileged few. To have its desired liberatory effects, knowledge "must be put into circulation--flung upon the four winds--dispatched on a mission of real culture into the highways and byways of life" (Gunn 1924, 57). This feat of circulation depended, however, as much upon the advent of certain technological improvements as it did any application of populist ideology. Although the Appeal had occasionally had runs of a million copies or more, the old job presses were incapable of turning out Blue Books at a rate commensurate with demand. Perhaps more importantly from Haldeman-Julius's perspective, they were unable to make the venture profitable at 5 cents a copy. The acquisition of an advanced cylinder press in 1924 allowed 40,000 Little Blue Books to be printed in an eight-hour period, but required a uniform 3 1/2 x 5" format and a length limited to a maximum of 15,000 words (1974, 222-39). The irony that such lofty goals as a "democracy of literature" should require such rigorous standardization was not lost on critics who rather ingloriously dubbed Haldeman-Julius the "Henry Ford of Book Publishing" (Bushnell 1986, 176).

The title was, of course, fitting even if the sentiment behind it was a bit injudicious. To Haldeman-Julius and millions of readers, the Little Blue Books symbolized free inquiry, alike in format but opposed to the standardization of public opinion and the routinization of factory life. Blue Books like his own What the Ford Five-Day Week Really Means and Clarence Darrow's The Open Shop levied harsh criticism explicitly at the anti-union tactics of the industrial restructuring known as "Fordism. "Yet protestations aside, Haldeman-Julius dearly shared with Ford and GM the knowledge that business profits would increasingly depend upon manufacturing products within the price-range of the largest mass of consumers. Asked about the success of the Little Blue Books, Haldeman-Julius once tellingly commented:
 The reason is apparent. Here are books that are so cheap that the
 worker can afford to buy them; they are short, so that he can
 easily spare
 the time to read them; they are convenient in size, so that he can
 carry them
 in his pocket to be read on the way to work, during lunch hour,
 any time
 that he has a few minutes unoccupied. (Haldeman-Julius 1923, 55)

To Haldeman-Julius, the standardized production of Little Blue Books meant that "democracy in literature" could finally be a profitable venture. To millions of working-class readers, however, the Little Blue Books' standardized format embodied a democracy of a different kind. Their size and length promised access to a world of culture that previously required not only the wealth to buy books, but the leisure time to read them. Unlike most other forms of working-class mass culture, their effectiveness and popularity derived from their ability to provide cultural alternatives to an increasingly routinized existence within the very confines of the increasingly systematized day. Reviews and letters almost unanimously recount visions of serendipitous reading, of brief moments of education taken out of a day structured largely by mass transportation and mass production. Alexander Woollcott in The New Yorker observed that Haldeman-Julius must feel "the crusader's pride" when, in a subway, "he sees a workman settle back on his strap and reach automatically to the pocket where he keeps his Little Blue Book" (1925, 8). The proletarian writer Jack Conroy first read London, Dreiser, Gorky, and Bellamy in Blue Book editions while on the picket lines of a 1922 railroad strike (Wixson 1985, xii). And a telegrapher from Wyoming wrote in a letter published in the Haldeman-Julius Weekly on March 10, 1928 that, "The Little Blue Books, being pocket-size, furnish me with a means to employ my spare moments to advantage.... Large, cumbersome books are difficult to transport and cannot be kept constantly at hand to catch these exclusive idle moments" (2).

Letters like these, peppered as they are with phrases such as "employ my spare moments to advantage," help to contextualize the Little Blue Books historically and give us a sense of their place in the lives of the workers and farmers who read them. Many readers wrote to Haldeman-Julius personally to ask for specific advice; others wrote to comment on the usefulness of one or another title. A prison inmate sent a note with the explanation,
 You haven't had an order from me in six months because I've been
 in jail
 for running a still in Tennessee. When I got sentenced, the jury
 around and the judge said, "that's the finest bit of coppersmithing
 I've ever
 seen. "And I owe it all to the Little Blue Books. (Wyden 1948, 63)

While most letters were not as comedic, they often echoed the same story of populist self-reliance holding out against a world of growing regulations and corporatism. Much of the correspondence is full of tones of optimism that sound almost foreign to modern ears. Even after the crash of 1929, readers showed confidence in the potentialities of the future and the possibilities for economic progress. In 1969, a one-time reader reflected on this bygone era of faith. The Little Blue Books, he wrote, "belong to a time when we still believed that reading 'the classics' or the 'greatest minds' or the no-nonsense how-to-succeed manual would somehow lift us above the crowd, off the farm, out of the factory" (Butler 1969, 23).

Many readers hoped, however, for more collective forms of social advancement. Although they are almost never credited for their political influences, the Little Blue Books played a large part in the education of many Midwestern, Southern, and Prairie radicals. Tillie Olsen read through a number of socialist titles and fondly remembers her first encounters with many literary classics in Blue Book form. According to her, agrarian and labor activists, who lacked her socialist home-life, often traced their politicization back to Little Blue Book reprints (1993). After W. E. B. Du Bois recommended the Little Blue Books in The Crisis, they also became common tools of self-education and radicalization within African-American communities. Langston Hughes and Claude McKay were strongly influenced in the 1920s, as were countless other, less famous activists (Du Bois 1931, 102). (6) The Little Blue Books must surely take their place next to the other, often forgotten, institutions and publications that bridged the gap between the pre-war and depression era generations of collectivist political dissent.

Anecdotal evidence can finally only intimate the impact of a particular form of mass culture on its audience--and conclusions are therefore always tentative. Nevertheless, the common themes expressed in letters and memoirs give a picture of a working-class engagement with mass culture somewhat at odds with most scholarly conceptions. Rather than describing organic working-class and agrarian communities homogenized out of existence by mass consumption, these remembrances show how a significant portion of the working classes struggled to maintain their identity and agency even as they adapted to a more common cultural world. The more traditional values of self-reliance and self-education did not merely give way to consumerism and the "culture of abundance." They often lived on, combined with newer values and associations in a way that allowed for collective, class-conscious political responses to continuing economic and social hardships.


(1) Unless otherwise noted, all subsequent information on titles and title removals is derived from a master-list helpfully provided by Dr. Gene DeGruson, Curator of Special Collections, Pittsburg State University Library.

(2) "Electric light towns" was a popular phrase used by prairie farmers to refer to urban centers (Buhle 1990, 7-13). See also Buhle (1987, 81, 96). The best synthesis of revisionist economic history of the period is probably Stricker (1983, 5-33). According to Stricker's figures 40% of American families lived on or below the poverty line during this "affluent" decade.

(3) Neither Graham nor Shore finds much value in Haldeman-Julius's editorship or his later publishing ventures.

(4) The most concise publishing history is probably Johnson and Tanselle's bibliographic essay (1970, 29-78).

(5) For a history of Durant's work analyzed within the context of the outline craze see Joan Shelly Rubin's excellent study of middiebrow culture, (1992).

(6) John Gunther comments on the influence of Little Blue Books on AfricanAmerican intellectuals in his Inside U.S.A. (1951, 292).

Works Cited

Adamic, Louis. 1934. "What the Proletariat Reads: Conclusions Based on a Year's Study Among Hundreds of Workers Throughout the United States," Saturday Review of Literature, 1 December, 321-22.

Buhle, Mari Jo. 1990. "Agrarian Radicalism." In Encyclopedia of the American Left, ed. Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas. NewYork: Garland Publishing Inc.

Buhle, Paul. 1991. Marxism in the United States: Remapping the History of the American Left. New York:Verso.

Bushnell, Judith. 1986. "Haldeman-Julius Company." In The Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 48, American Literary Publishing Houses, 1900-1980. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research.

Butler, Patrick. 1969. "Would You Spend $2.98 for a College Education?" Saturday Review, 12 April, 23.

Cantwell, Robert. 1935. "What the Working Class Reads," The New Republic, 17 July, 274-76.

Denning, Michael. 1987. Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America. New York:Verso.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1931. "Books," The Crisis, 3 March, 102.

Graham, John, ed. 1990. "Yours for the Revolution" The Appeal to Reason, 1895-1922. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Gunn, John. 1924. The Man and His Work. Little Blue Book #678. Girard, Kansas: Haldeman-Julius Publishing Company.

Gunther, John. 1951. Inside U.S.A. NewYork: Harper and Brothers.

Haldeman-Julius, E. 1974. The First Hundred Million. 1928. Reprint. New York:Arno Press.

--. 1925. Editorial. Haldeman-Julius Weekly, 21 February, 4-5.

--. 1923. Miscellaneous Essays. Little Blue Book #460. Girard, Kansas: Haldeman-Julius Publishing Company.

--. n.d. Jane Addams Memorial Collection, Hull House, University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. File 122. (Quoted in Stuart McConnell,"E. Haldeman-Julius and the Little Blue Bookworms: The Bridging of Cultural Styles, 1918-1951." Prospects 11 (1986): 61).

Herder, Dale Marvin. 1975. Education for the Masses: The Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books as Popular Culture during the Nineteen-Twenties. Ph.D. diss., Michigan State University.

Johnson, Richard Colles, and G. Thomas Tanselle. 1970. "The Haldeman-Julius 'Little Blue Books' as a Bibliographical Problem." Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 64:29-78.

Mencken, H.J. 1922. Review of The University in Print, ed. by Emanual Haldeman-Julius. Smart Set, August, 142.

Olsen, Tillie. 1993. Personal Interview. San Francisco, California. 29 September.

Rubin, Joan Shelly. 1992. The Making of Middlebrow Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Scott, Mark. 1978. "The Little Blue Books in the War on Bigotry and Bunk." Kansas History 1.3:155-76.

Shore, Elliot. 1998. Talkin' Socialism: J.A. Wayland and the Radical Press. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press.

Stricker, Frank. 1983. "Affluence for Whom?--Another Look at Prosperity and the Working Classes in the 1920s:" Labor History 24:5-33.

Susman, Warren. 1984. Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century. NewYork: Pantheon Books.

Wixson, Douglas C. 1985. Introduction to The Weed King and Other Stories, by Jack Conroy. Westport, Connecticut: Lawrence Hill & Company.

Woollcott, Alexander. 1925. Untitled Review. New Yorker, 20 June, 8.

Wyden, Peter H. 1948. "Book Baron." Liberty Magazine, November, 63-64.

Schocket teaches American Literature at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He has published on class and literature in Representations, the PMLA, and American Quarterly.
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Author:Schocket, Eric
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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