Saturday, November 1, 2014

Paula Rabinowitz's "American Pulp"

Paula Rabinowitz is professor of English at the University of Minnesota. Her books include Black & White & Noir: America’s Pulp Modernism, and she is the coeditor of Habits of Being, a four-volume series on clothing and identity.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street, and reported the following:
From page 99:
America’s True Crime Story is the crypt holding the corpse and haunting the recesses of every space of America. Like the Wolf Man’s magic word, it needed an adept caseworker, one attuned to voices, to (un)cover it, one who could speak as “we” to “you.” Wright… sensed how much the mobilization of desire through religion, advertisements, Hollywood movies, radio broadcasts, and screaming tabloid headlines describing the “Python Killer” who “killed six men…drugged ’em and then smothered ’em to death with pillows when they was sleeping” or “Tiger Woman,” or “the Cat Killer,” or “the Canary Girl, the one who had the sweet voice and killed all her babies” served to forge urbanity. These dangerous women, like the “thrill guys, Loeb and Leopold,” offered a violent vision of betrayal and defiance, perverse though it may be, to norms of behavior by pretty women, sweet-voiced mothers, or well-heeled college students (Lawd Today 117-119). These stories were steps on the road (or pathway as Wright says in his 1938 notes) linking folk culture to popular culture, the popular to the political.
The 99th page comes about halfway through the third chapter of my book on mid-twentieth-century paperbacks. Chapter 3, “Richard Wright’s Savage Holiday,” is the first of a series of case studies of authors, genres, publishing venues, readers and censorship cases that trace the outline of a “demotics of reading”—the mashup of high and low, word and image that opened new ways of knowing to millions of Americans—typical of paperback culture. This chapter examines Wright’s phototextual book from 1941, 12 Million Black Voices, as enmeshed simultaneously within the documentary culture of the New Deal, on the one hand, and True Crime and other pulp magazines, on the other. Although the chapter is focused on Wright’s large-format hard-cover volume co-produced with Edwin Rosskam for Viking, thus seemingly far removed from the cheap 25-cent paperbacks found in candy stores, page 99 demonstrates my argument that mass cultural forms and the political sensations they elicited were complex interfaces within the vernacular modernism of the era. Richard Wright had claimed that reading pulp was a central force in his trajectory from a boyhood in the Jim Crow South to becoming the leading Black writer of his generation and he insisted that this experience was widespread among “folk Southern Negroes,” instilling “restlessness” and a desire for movement “forward.” Wright’s effort to document the voices and images of Black Americans through a medium indebted to pulpy crime magazines was also a deeply political move that required profound probing into recesses of history because the “true crime” of America was, like Poe’s purloined letter, hidden in plain sight: the legacy of slavery and racism crushing its black citizens and perverting its white ones. As Wright used case study to help make sense of his migration experience, I turn to the psychoanalytical theories of Maria Torok and Nicholas Abraham whose close reading of Sigmund Freud’s case study of the “Wolf Man” revealed that within systems of thought were buried “crypts,” secrets which they claim may be accessible through unlikely means: the voice and its “magic word.” For Wright, tabloid news of urban gangsters paved the way for young African Americans to define themselves as race rebels. As such, like so much of the pulpy material I survey, sensationalistic plots and lurid covers opened up new avenues of expression by and for youth, gays, minorities and artists.
Learn more about American Pulp at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue