The Henry Ford of Literature
September 4, 2008 2:00 AM   Subscribe

How One Nearly Forgotten 1920s Publisher's “Little Blue Books” Created An Inexpensive Mail-Order Information Superhighway That Paved The Way For The Sexual Revolution, Influenced The Feminist And Civil Rights Movements, And Foreshadowed The Age Of Information.

When Emanuel Haldeman-Julius drowned in his backyard swimming pool, on July 31, 1951, he was popularly regarded as a has-been... Denounced as a communist in national newspapers and investigated by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, he had recently lost a federal tax evasion lawsuit and was facing time in jail. Amid the cold war atmosphere of the time, schoolchildren whispered that Haldeman-Julius had actually been assassinated for being a Soviet spy; adults speculated that his death was a suicide... It was an odd ending for a man who, in just over thirty years, had become one of the most prolific publishers in U.S. history, putting an estimated 300 million copies of inexpensive “Little Blue Books” into the hands of working-class and middle-class Americans. Selling for as little as five cents and small enough to fit in a trouser pocket, these books were meant to bring culture and self-education to working people, and covered topics ranging from classic literature to home-finance to sexually pleasuring one’s spouse.
posted by amyms (29 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
Thank you.
posted by ZaneJ. at 2:20 AM on September 4, 2008

Long or not, that's a fantastic link.
posted by Malor at 2:42 AM on September 4, 2008

"You can have it any color you like, as long as it's blue."
posted by daniel_charms at 3:27 AM on September 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

The "prolific publishers" link to Jessica Amanda Salmonson's essay is also gold, especially if you poke around at her site. Slight derail: She reviews a lot of movies, many of them things you're unlikely to have heard of, let alone seen. She also edited What Did Miss Darrington See?, an excellent collection of out-of-the-way supernatural short stories, and Amazons!, a classic anthology of heroic fantasy. A true cult writer, whose fans bond over knowing who she is and what she does, I'm totally excited to see her linked here, amyms!
posted by cgc373 at 4:11 AM on September 4, 2008

In addition to promoting political progress in African-American communities, Little Blue Books targeted the complacency of their white American readership, noting, “We burn Negroes at the stake… fan into flame hatred and dissension, and then cover it all up with the solemn avowal that we are a Christian nation.” A few years after Haldeman-Julius published these words in a pamphlet called Is Progress an Illusion?, a number of high-profile lynchings moved him to assemble and publish the first anthology of African-American poetry to be widely distributed in the United States.

What a fascinating article. Great post, amyms, thanks.

Love this:

“I’m a radical, but I hate radicals,” he wrote. “I’d forget the revolution over a glass of wine.”
posted by mediareport at 5:04 AM on September 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

This is fantastic!
posted by notsnot at 5:18 AM on September 4, 2008

As a teenager, I was a huge fan of Salmonson's Anthony Shriek, still available in a grimy used bookstore near you! She's awesome, and bears no responsibility for any unfortunate life choices I may or may not have made due to exposure to this novel at a critical time in my personal development.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 5:55 AM on September 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Somewhere at home I have a brief bio of Haldeman-Julius published in the same form-factor as his books. I picked it up years ago at a Factsheet 5 party (so long ago that Mike Gunderloy was still the publisher). It's always hard to keep track of because it's so damn small, but I'd be seriously bummed if I ever lost it because it's such an amazing story. (And a great souvenir of another great almost un-sung catalyst, Factsheet 5 itself.)

People like him (or like Mike Gunderloy, for that matter) -- "events" like his company -- have fascinated me for a very long time. They seem huge at the time and objectively make a huge difference in the world (tens of thousands of people learned important things they wouldn't have learned without him), and yet I've never actually met anybody who's heard of him.

These people, institutions, events that make a huge difference but are unknown a generation later -- they're amazing to me. It seems to me it's a clear error to say that we learn they didn't matter because no one chooses to remember them, but that seems to be the way we're going in a Wiki-world, "Wisdom of Crowds" future.
posted by lodurr at 6:12 AM on September 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Fascinating. I won't get a chance to read most of this until later, but this is very interesting. It is surprising that few of these have been scanned or typed in and made available online. Gutenberg has only a few titles. Perhaps I just haven't looked hard enough though.
posted by caddis at 7:16 AM on September 4, 2008

I found a bunch of these a few years ago and always wondered what the story was behind them. Thanks for posting this.
posted by wittgenstein at 7:39 AM on September 4, 2008

Awesome, awesome post.

I think my favorite part was how he changed the titles of certain books to improve their sales.
posted by padraigin at 8:29 AM on September 4, 2008

Whoa, a fannish link in here!

Been a while for me... having been gafiated since the mid-80s or so. Someone ought to do a FPP about fandom. "Ah, sweet idiocy..."
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 8:38 AM on September 4, 2008

These people, institutions, events that make a huge difference but are unknown a generation later -- they're amazing to me.

Yet all live on beyond our deaths. I might relate something to my son from something I read at Metafilter. Twenty years later he might say something to his kids, not remembering where the thought comes from, and so on.

He sold so many books to so many people, his influence lives on well past his obscurity, simply because the generation that he helped mold, in whatever small way, then goes on to influence the next generation, and so forth, even though the original source of this influence becomes long forgotten.

I had never heard of these little blue books, yet I'm certain that I've been influence by them.
posted by eye of newt at 8:40 AM on September 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Great post about an important subject I knew nothing about—this is why MetaFilter exists.
“American readers are thorough in their quest for knowledge,” Haldeman-Julius wrote. “They place no taboos of their own on anything which may inform them or help them to understand the world and themselves. One of these days Mr. Average Man may resent being deprived of a book he wants to read, just because some self-styled Superior Man says it won’t be good for him.”
. . .
Emanuel preferred light, witty conversation to intense socialist discourse. “I’m a radical, but I hate radicals,” he wrote. “I’d forget the revolution over a glass of wine.”
This guy's my new hero. Thanks.
posted by languagehat at 8:48 AM on September 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

Haldeman-Julius was following in the footsteps of Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) who was also quite a character--the "Sage of Roycroft" published both inexpensive mail-order pamphlets and beautifully bound Arts and Crafts collectible books.

Hubbard distributed hundreds of thousands of books and magazines--most of which he wrote himself, and the most famous of which is A Message to Garcia--each month to his loyal subscribers all over the US.

So, no, Haldeman-Julius didn't "create" the mail-order philosophy publishing industry; he took the industry created by Hubbard to its next level.

And this is one of the things that drives me nuts about The Believer--the editors there don't have much of a sense of history. Also, Oscar Wilde's poem was not called The Ballad of Reading JAIL, for Christ's sake.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:18 AM on September 4, 2008

So, no, Haldeman-Julius didn't "create" the mail-order philosophy publishing industry; he took the industry created by Hubbard to its next level.
And this is one of the things that drives me nuts about The Believer--the editors there don't have much of a sense of history.

Perhaps you missed this part:
Little Blue Books were not the first literary effort aimed at the working class. A decade prior to Haldeman-Julius, Charles H. Kerr & Co. of Chicago published a seventy-two-title “Pocket Library of Socialism,” volumes of which were sold at political gatherings. In the 1870s, a series called “Bohn’s Library” aimed to bring non-Bible literature into working-class homes. Indeed, populist literary publishing in the United States may well date back to the early 1840s, when new papermaking machines allowed newsweeklies like New World and Brother Jonathan to cheaply serialize novels in broadsheet form.
posted by languagehat at 9:27 AM on September 4, 2008

Fascinating and well written article -- thanks for putting this post together. Apparently Haldeman-Julius's publishing empire was the antecedent to both Loompanics and Amazon, but this is the first I'd heard of him.
posted by mosk at 9:31 AM on September 4, 2008

I think my favorite part was how he changed the titles of certain books to improve their sales.

I for one can't wait to get a copy of Great Pirates And Their Deeds
posted by mannequito at 9:33 AM on September 4, 2008

Thanks for this.
posted by Divine_Wino at 9:47 AM on September 4, 2008

Wonderful link, sweet fix.
posted by Dumsnill at 9:49 AM on September 4, 2008

languagehat, I did indeed read that part. It talked about other low-cost publishers of social texts, but omitted Haldeman-Julius's direct antecedent and model, Elbert Hubbard, who pioneered the mail-order philosophical/social/cultural low-cost library.

Which is kind of like writing an article about Henry Ford and talking about Marc Brunel but not Eli Whitney.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:09 AM on September 4, 2008

Fascinating article, thanks!
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:02 PM on September 4, 2008

Very cool post.

A Message to Garcia

I worked for a man who handed you a copy of that book when you were hired--he had a crate full--with the full expectation that you would come to realize that doing whatever you were told, no questions, no matter the cost, was the most important thing you could do.
posted by maxwelton at 12:26 PM on September 4, 2008

Great post amyms.

Thanks for the education. Yeah, his death sure seems fishy in light of the note and his enemies.

Free online, Short Works, by Marcet & Emanuel Haldeman-Julius

Cool to be still able to buy Blue Books on AbeBooks.

Boy, is this one still relevant: America's Fakirs and Guides: Surveying the Leaders and Misleaders of Our Day (Little Blue Book Number 1288)
posted by nickyskye at 12:45 PM on September 4, 2008

god i love the believer
posted by es_de_bah at 3:06 PM on September 4, 2008

I like his "maybe suicide" note.

“If you want to insult a dog let me smell your highball.”
posted by bradth27 at 4:29 PM on September 4, 2008

Simply brilliant. Thank you.
posted by Lucy2Times at 9:39 AM on September 5, 2008

Like languagehat I now have a new hero. Thanks amyms.
posted by Kattullus at 11:14 AM on September 6, 2008

A very interesting article, but it does present a rather high-minded view of H-J as socialist, freethinker and purveyor of high culture to the masses. Daniel Raff's paper (pdf) on the Book-of-the-Month Club suggests there may be another side to the man:

For some representative traces, see the equestrian photograph of Haldeman-Julius in the Inland Printer article, and the closing paragraphs of that text, replete as it is with references to the life of a gentleman farmer owning multiple farms, a herd of full-blooded Holsteins, and a positively manorial residence on the home farm whose subordinate structures included a children's playhouse 'done on a colossal scale', complete with a play-garage, and also, for Haldeman-Julius's own retreats from the tumult of family life, a summerhouse 'spacious, cool, and beautifully appointed, with a noble library upstairs where that big farmhouse chimney is'. Haldeman-Julius had been born poor, and he pretty clearly didn't mean to die that way. The original financial resources came from the inheritance of his wife, a well-to-do county-seat niece of Jane Addams whom he seems to have treated poorly both personally and financially.

As for all this stuff about H-J 'creating an information superhighway that paved the way for the sexual revolution' .. no, I don't buy it. In many ways he seems a very traditional figure; I can picture him as an enterprising printer-publisher in eighteenth-century Grub Street, peddling bottles of Daffy's Elixir and cheap editions of Aristotle's Masterpiece.
posted by verstegan at 12:55 PM on September 6, 2008

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