Paperback Pornography: Mass Market Novels and Censorship in Post-War America

Article excerpt

The year 1952 was an historical one in the history of American book publishing. A special committee of the U. S. House of Representatives (the Gathings Committee) formed for the express purpose of investigating the influence of paperback books on American society. Never before or since in the history of the book in the United States has a specific format been singled out for this degree of scrutiny; but perhaps never before had one been seen as a serious threat to public morality. The House investigation followed in the wake of diverse and vocal censorship efforts designed to counter the perceived threat of paperback novels, with their suggestive cover art and titillating stories.

At any other time in modern American history, protests against paperbacks might not have gained sufficient momentum to expand beyond localized censorship efforts. In the volatile political and social climate of post-War America, however, threats to the established order were taken with unprecedented seriousness. In little more than a century, paperback novels had gone from a democratizing element in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, providing reading material to anyone who could afford their nominal price, to a subversive influence in the mid-twentieth century, for much the same reason.

While several histories of American book publishing have commented on this era of censorship, none have actually examined the texts investigated by the Gathings Committee. This article will explore censorship activities of the early 1950s, with particular emphasis on the Gathings Committee investigation, and will look closely at several of the texts cited in the committee's report. Despite provocative cover art, this author suggests that the texts ultimately reinforced rather than challenged traditional notions of sexual propriety.

The mass-market paperback novel, introduced in the United States in the late 1930s, was not an original concept in publishing. The first American paperbound books were printed over a century earlier (Schreuders 31). Technological innovations facilitated the production of inexpensive books. Improvements in paper production, typesetting and printing methods coincided with the popular education movement of the 1820s and 1830s. One provided the means and the other a motive for the production and distribution of inexpensive reading material for the masses, thus ushering in the "First Paperback Revolution" in America. By the end of the Civil War, over four million paperback reprints had been sold in the United States. Their success ultimately might have undermined the regular book publishing industry, had not changes in copyright law in 1891 curbed the paperback reprint business (Between the Covers 68).

For the next four decades, the paperbound publishing industry in the United States was defunct. In the late 1920s, the country's economic crisis fostered a resurgence of interest in inexpensive printing practices and once again led to experimentation with paperbound publishing. The first effort that produced sustained success came in 1939, when Robert DeGraff launched the publication of his Pocket Books, beginning the second paperback revolution in America. What made the Pocket Book so unique and successful was more than its portable pocket size, its low price (twenty-five cents), or its range of quality fiction titles. Pocket Books used distribution methods unlike those of regular hardcover publishers. DeGraff, who had worked in the newspaper industry, saw potential there to reach a much broader audience than through traditional book outlets. Pocket Books sold on newsstands, in drug and department stores, in cigar stores, and other places where newspapers and magazines sold. In Columbus, Ohio, for example, there were six outlets where people could shop for hardcover books. Consumers could purchase Pocket Books, however, at over 218 locations around the city. While DeGraff was not the first publisher to use newspaper distribution channels to sell books, he was by far the most successful (History 68). …