Dale M. Herder
Michigan State University
Haldeman-Julius, the Little Blue Books,
and the Theory of Popular Culture
Most American readers who came of age during the years between the First and Second World Wars will find the subject of this paper to be familiar. But to younger people, particularly the generation of "war-babies" upon whose shoulders are just now beginning to fall the responsibilities of our tumultuously changing society, Emanuel Haldeman-Julius and his Little Blue Books might as well have never existed. For although the Little Blue Books are still being produced for sale in limited numbers, their heyday was in the nineteen-twenties and thirties.
It is difficult for the modern young person, whose atomic and space-age values have been molded by rapid communications devices such as radio, telephone, and television, to comprehend that one man, operating in an out-of-the-way place such as Girard, Kansas, with little more than an idea and a printing press, could possibly have had broad influence on his parents' generation. E. Haldeman-Julius himself, however, never seriously doubted his impact; in the early nineteen-thirties he stated that he had, with his series of little pocket books, "done more to bring education to the masses than any other individual since the invention of printing."1
Along with an increasing number of social and intellectual historians this writer is of the opinion that a direct but as yet unexplored route to the American Mind is to be found in the recently claimed territory of popular culture. It is the purpose of this paper to briefly introduce Haldeman-Julius and his Little Blue Books to the modern popular culturalist, and to suggest some tentative conclusions about what is perhaps the first theory of popular culture to be articulated by an American in the twentieth century. This discussion is part of a proposed book-length exploration of the Little Blue Books as a vehicle of popular culture.2
For the sake of those whose memories do not go back as far as the ‘twenties, just what were the Little Blue Books, and who was this fellow with the hyphenated name? The Little Blue Books of the inter-war years were small 31/2 x 5-inch paper-covered booklets published in Girard,Kansas (1920 population, approximately 2500). The books were printed in standardized lengths of 32, 64, 96, and 128 pages, in order to meet the rigid requirements of the presses in the Girard publishing plant. Begun in 1919, the books in the pocket series were at first covered in paper of different colors, but by mid-1921 were being produced in the familiar plain blue exterior that made their name a household word across the United States. At the outset, when the series consisted of only a limited number of reprints of famous literary classics, the books sold for 25 cents each. As the list of titles grew, however, and as public response to the series became more enthusiastic, the cost of the Little Blue Books dropped from 25 to 15 cents, then to 10 cents, and eventually to a nickel. On one of two rare occasions Haldeman-Julius even lowered the price to a rock-bottom of three cents per book. But his low profit margin (1/5 of a cent per book) could not tolerate such a small return for any extended period, and he was forced to stabilize the price of his product at the famous five-cent figure that eventually helped him to establish the largest mail-order book publishing house in the world.3 The Little Blue Books were consciously directed at "Mr. Average Man." Through them, for a nickel, he could buy works by Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Shakespeare, Dumas, Rabelais, Goethe, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Sophocles, Euripides, Marcus Aurelius, and many, many more.
During the thirty-two years that Haldeman-Julius personally directed his "University in Print," an estimated five hundred million Little Blue Books representing more than two thousand different titles poured forth from his factory on the southeast Kansas plains. Such a staggering sales figure has little meaning for most of us until it is compared with the sales accomplishments of other American best sellers. Benjamin Spock’s Pocket Book of Baby and Child Care, for example, is the most popular book ever published in the United States, with nineteen million copies sold. Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place, with more than nine million copies sold, is America’s best selling novel.4 (Certainly this comparison of "apples" with "oranges" should not be pushed too far: the sales characteristics of a series including 2000 titles are considerably different than those of two individual best-selling books.)
Although he was known by the time of his death as the ~Henry Ford of publishing," the Little Blue Book Man had a less than auspicious beginning. Born Emanuel Julius in 1889 in a Philadelphia tenement building, the young man grew up surrounded by books and Socialist tracts that had been produced by his bookbinder father. He left school and the Jewish-Russian home of his parents at the age of 13 to find his way in the world. After working as a theatre usher, a bellboy in a girls’ school, and a copyholder in a proofroom of a Philadelphia newspaper, he joined the Socialist Party in Philadelphia. At twenty he went to New York City to seek his fortune as a free-lance writer. His efforts eventually landed him a position as a reporter on the New York Call, a Socialist daily. In 1912 he went to Milwaukee, where he worked with Carl Sandburg as a reporter for another Socialist sheet, Victor Berger’s Leader. From there he moved to Chicago and Los Angeles, where he worked for short periods on other radical papers until he returned to New York to become drama critic and Sunday editor of the Call. Finally, in 1915, he went to Girard, Kansas, to help the Appeal to Reason, a national Socialist paper whose peak circulation of 600,000 had declined rapidly after the suicide of its editor, Francis Wayland, the year before. At the time of Emanuel Julius’ arrival in Girard the chief editorial writer for the Appeal to Reason was Eugene V. Debs, the famous Socialist labor leader who in 1920 received more than 900,000 votes for the Presidency while a prisoner in the Atlanta Penitentiary.
William J. Fielding, probably best known as the author of the "Rational Sex Series" in the Little Blue Books, has suggested that Emanuel’s experience in New York served as fertile soil for the roots of the Little Blue Books and the philosophy which prompted their publication. During his tenure as reporter and editor for the Call he worked side by side with such important Socialist and labor leaders as Clement Wood, Morris Hillquit, August Claessens, Jacob Planken, Louis Kopelin, and James O’Neal. It was during this period that he absorbed New York’s cosmopolitanism--its theatre, opera, lecture platforms, and the transplanted cultural niceties of most European and Asiatic countries. He was later able to bring to Girard the outlook of an internationalist--the view of a cultured man of the world.5
In 1916 Emanuel married Marcet Haldeman, a niece of Jane Addams (of Hull House fame) and the daughter of a well-to-do local physician in Girard. Marcet, a capable writer in her own right, had been an aspiring young actress in New York before returning to her hometown in Kansas to take over the managemert of a bank willed to her by her mother. As a consequence of the current wave of women’s rights enthusiasm and Marcet’s personal desire not to lose her established identity with the New York crowd she had just left, the marriage resulted in a merger of names--Haldeman-Julius. The couple collaborated in running ther publishing business, operating a 160 acre farm, and writing a number of novels and books of non-fiction. Marcet died in 1941 after having borne her husband a daughter and a son; a year later Emanuel married Sue Haney, who had been his secretary. In the summer of 1951 Emanuel was found dead at the age of 62 in his private swimming pool in Girard. The cause of his untimely death was variously ascribed by the news media to accidental drowning or heart attack but it was rumored in some circles that he had committed suicide as a result of a six-month Federal sentence he had recently received for income-tax evasion.6
Emanuel’s son, Henry, who has shortened his last name to "Haldeman," took control of the Blue Book business in 1954. Plagued by various difficulties ranging from censorship suits to shifts in public taste since the advent of television, Henry has managed to continue publication and sale of a limited number of the Little Blue Books on a part-time basis. But the volume of production and sales from the now somewhat dilapidated Girard factory is only a trickle compared to what it was during the heyday of the twenties when his father claimed, through his efforts to bring the light to Main Street, that he had a certain spiritual kinship with Diderot and Voltaire.7
The idea for the Little Blue Books grew out of a personal experience of Emanuel when he was a fifteen year old boy in Philadelphia. There, on a freezing winter day, he picked up a ten-cent pamphlet edition of Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Jail. Walking across the street with the pamphlet in his hand, he sat down in a park on a cold bench and read the classic poem straight through. He became so absorbed in the ballad that, despite the fact that his hands were blue, his nose was numb, and his ears were as hard as glass, he never noticed the cold. "When I walked away," he said later, "my heels hit the stones with sharp clicks. Never until then, or since, did any piece of printed matter move me so deeply. I’d been lifted out of this world--and by a 10 cent booklet. I thought, at the moment, how wonderful it would be if thousands of such booklets could be made available easily and inexpensively whenever one wanted to buy them."8
Fifteen years later, when Haldeman-Julius bought the Appeal to Reason printing plant in Girard (his wife advanced him $25,000, and the terms of the agreement called for payment in full of the $50,000 balance in a year’s time), he worked to make his publishing dream a reality. On the very same January day in 1919 that he signed the papers making him owner of the Appeal plant, he reached into his desk and brought out two pamphlets--Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Jail (the same edition he had picked up on that cold winter day in Philadelphia) and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, another of his favorite literary works. He marked them for the press, and told his linotype operator that this work was for a new series of booklets rather than for the paper. Those booklets became numbers 1 and 2 of his Appeal's Pocket Series, and started him on the road to success.
The two little paperbound books were offered at 25 cents each to the 175,000 subscribers of his weekly Appeal to Reason. The books sold so rapidly that Haldeman-Julius immediately moved to publish a series of 50 established classics, including Dickens, Coleridge, Goldsmith, Burns, Hugo, Balzac, Maupassant, Ibsen, Lincoln, Jack London, Washington Irving, Clarence Darrow and Robert G. Ingersoll. Within five days from the time he offered these 50 books for a total cost of $5.00, five thousand readers took him up, and insured the success of his venture. A second group of 50 titles soon followed, and by the end of his first year as a publisher he was able to pay off not only the $25,000 which had been advanced him, but the $50,000 balance due on The Appeal plant as well.
It was suggested a moment ago that Haldeman-Julius’ pre-Girard career had a strong influence on the philosophy which led to the actualization of the Little Blue Books. What is significant here is not so much the factors influencing such a philosophy, but rather that the philosophy did indeed exist . . .and that it actually manifested itself in a highly successful medium of popular culture.
There is no doubt whatsoever that E. Haldeman-Julius had a sophisticated and well thought-out philosophy of popular culture. To a certain extent his personal philosophy of life overlapped his philosophy of popular culture, but the combination of the two was complementary rather than antagonistic. Particularly significant for American intellectual historians--who traditionally scrutinize the connective tissue between thought and action--is the fact that the Little Blue Books were explicitly conceived of "as an agency of popular culture" prior to their first publication in 1919.9
Emanuel Haldeman-Julius’ philosophy of popular culture shared much of his generation’s faith in the potential of man. During the first twenty years or so of Emanuel’s life the enlightened and secular outlook of late nineteenth century America continued to hold considerable sway. Not only radical Socialists with whom he intimately connected, but even clergymen such as Henry Ward Beecher were increasingly convinced of the validity of such nineteenth-century scientific discoveries as biological evolution. Haldeman-Julius saw mankind at the turn of this century as having only recently merged from the intellectual darkness of the Middle Ages. Reflecting his world-renowned dislike for religion, he repeatedly stated that the Church during the Middle Ages had maintained its members in a state of mental serfdom by not allowing knowledge to become popular (widespread) among the masses of the people. In a surprisingly McLuhanesque sense, Haldeman-Julius saw the invention of the printing press as a mind-liberating revolution that worked to dispel the popular fear and the popular ignorance.10 This faith in potential of twentieth-century man, combined with his Socialist and working class background, led him to hypothesize that the average man was a potential buyer of good books. Haldeman-Julius believed that the "middle-brow" American could and probably would read good literature if it was presented to him in a size small enough to be carried in his work-trouser pocket and at a cost low enough that he could afford.
Haldeman-Julius was a crusader; it was his goal to do what he could with his army of Little Blue Books to "strike a blow" for the freedom of the human mind in what he saw to be "the liberation war of humanity." Simply and directly, he understood the most effective antidote for popular fear to be the popularization of knowledge--the dispersion of culture (knowledge) to the masses in a manner that was real, intimate and effective. Haldeman-Julius’ own definition of "popular culture" would have combined several terms: to him "popular" meant a combination of "useful/desireable/widespread," while "culture" was best interpreted as a combination of "knowledge/refinement/civilization."
According to the epistemology of Haldeman-Julius, knowedge was not to be valued merely for its own sake, as a sterile adornment. Like Aristotle, he perceived the summum bonum--the highest good--of mankind to be happiness. And happiness, the paperback king saw it, was to be achieved primarily through self-betterment, through knowledge of one’s weaknesses and potential. Knowledge, therefore, was of extrinsic rather than intrinsic value. It was a means to an end. It was to be used in the role of civilizer, as "the foe of all the stupid and evil forces that mar and threaten life." Unless it was understood to be a human factor, knowledge was worthless:
If it does not vitally affect conduct, if it does not deepen the emotions, broaden the outlook, give one a more ordered and meaningful relation to life, it is a dull and heavy encumbrance. . . . The educated man who lacks the vital spark that is the heart of culture is not very different under his mental disguise than his totally unlearned brother. He may be equally the victim of prejudice and self-interest and bitter, ungenerous emotions. Quite often one finds that he merely utters the common prejudice in more sophisticated language.11
Knowledge was to be valued for its effect upon man’s day-by-day thinking, upon his individual and social being.
It seemed to Haldeman-Julius that knowledge had come down through the centuries as the mysterious trade of elite scholars and professors. Although it would be totally incorrect to portray Haldeman-Julius as "anti-intellectual," it would be remiss not to point out that he was uncompromising in his indictments of "highbrow" men of learning who sought to mystify the common man and hold themselves entirely apart from humanity. In 1929, while debating the question "Can Knowledge Be Made Popular?" (Little Blue Book No. 1335) with a well-known historian named C. Hartley Grattan, Haldeman-Julius argued that "it is not a mark of greatness, but of narrowness and weakness, to sit in an ivory tower and let the world go by unheeded, indifferent to what the crowd thinks and does." "What the crowd thinks and does," he continued,
has been and is very vital to thinkers, and to liberal minded citizens, especially when they have felt the enormous fist of the ignorant, intolerant mob in their faces. What the crowd does and, correspondingly, what the crowd thinks, checks or advances, as culture is isolated or made popular, the degree of freedom and civilization that we can enjoy. To make knowledge popular is to make life as a whole freer and more intelligent. From the viewpoint of the scholar and thinker, even though he believes that the masses can never reach his lofty level of learning, I should say that the popularization of knowledge is an obvious policy of self-defense. Popularization, if it does nothing more, creates an atmosphere favorable to culture: it brings respect for the scholar and freedom for his work-- while it means also that scholarship has a greater responsibility and must meet a wider test of usefulness.12
Haldeman-Julius was convinced that knowledge that is shut up in the schools and libraries, and that is the special pursuit of professional scholars, will not produce very lively results. To have any effect he said, "it must be put into circulation--flung upon the four winds--dispatched on a mission of real culture into the highways and biways of life."13 Only through this general circulation of knowledge could life be protected from mass ignorance and individual self-scheming.
The essence of Haldeman-Julius’ philosophy of popular culture, then, in simple, clear, unimpeachable form, was to multiply the number of intelligent people and thus increase civilization and improve the happiness of mankind. His message was knowledge. His medium was the "University in Print"--his Little Blue Books.
1E. Haldeman-Julius, Little Blue Book No.1366, How to Become a Writer of Little Blue Books. (Girard: Haldeman-Julius Company, approximately 1934), p. 1. [-> main text]
2This article, in somewhat altered form, is part of my proposed Ph.D. dissertation in American Studies at Michigan State University. A further article-length treatment of other aspects of the Little Blue Books will be included in a future publication by the Popular Press. [-> main text]
3William J. Fielding. "Prince of Pamphleteers," Nation (May 10, 1952), p. 453; E. Haldeman-Julius, The First Hundred Million. (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1928), p. 332 (hereafter FHM). [-> main text]
4Although exact sales figures do not exist, interviews with Mr. Gene DeGruson, curator of the Haldeman-JuIius Collection at Kansas State College, and with Henry Haldeman, son of E. Haldeman-Julius, indicate that the figures I am presenting are more accurate than any previous published lower estimates; New York Times (June 14, 1964), p. 84: Saturday Review (April 12, 1969), p. 23; Newsweek (February 19, 1968)., p. 98. [-> main text]
5Fielding, p. 453; for further biographical information see Albert Mordell’s compilation, The World of Haldeman-Julius (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1960), Andrew Cothran’s unpublished doctoral dissertation, "The Little Blue Book Man and the Big American Parade" (University of Maryland, 1966), and Haldeman-Julius’ two-volume autobiography (Big Blue Books No. B-788 and B-814), My First and Second 25 Years (Girard: 1949). Gene DeGruson is currently writing a biography of Haldeman-Julius, The Paper Giant, in collaboration with Mrs. Sue Haldeman-JuIius, the publisher's widow. [-> main text]
6Time (August 15, 1960), p. 39; Time (August 13, 1951), p. 87; Newsweek (August 13, 1951), p. 57; Publisher's Weekly (August 11, 1951), p. 564; New York Times, op. cit.; A native of Pittsburg, Kansas (only 14 miles from Girard), told this writer that he and many of his friends "knew" that "the old atheist had killed himself. . . ." [-> main text]
7New York Times, op. cit.; Louis Adamic, "Voltaire From Kansas," Outlook and lndependent: An Illustrated Weekly of Inquiry (June 25, 1930), p. 283; Victor Willard, "Bringing the Light to Main Street," Sunset Magazine (January 1926), p. 37. [-> main text]
8My First 25 Years, pp. 12-13. [-> main text]
9For a discussion of Haldeman-Julius’ idea of popular culture, see John W. Gunn's Little Blue Book No. 678, E. Haldeman-Julius--The Man and His Work (Girard: 1924), p. 7. On p. 34 of the same Little Blue Book Gunn makes the following statement: "I was working with Haldeman-Julius when he first thought of a series of little books, as an agent of popular culture; I helped read proof on the first little books, saw the idea take definite shape, gradually expand in scope and purpose, and grow to a good, healthy size." [-> main text]
10MarshaII McLuhan, spokesman for the Age of Electric lnformation, speaks of the "Gutenberg Revolution" as having imposed a linear, sequential pattern on human communication (Understanding Media, New York: Signet Books, 1964, especially pp. 155-162). While Haldeman-Julius was less aware of the psychic significance of Gutenberg's invention than McLuhan obviously is, the two men agree almost perfectly in their assessments of the social significance of typography. FHM, p. 61; Little Blue Book No. 1335, "Can Knowledge Be Made Popular? A Debate. C. Hartley Grattan vs. E. Haldeman-Julius (Girard: 1929), p. 17. [-> main text]
11FHM, pp. 27-28, 36, 46; Gunn, pp. 28, 41; "Debate with Grattan," p. 31. [-> main text]
12Gunn, p. 40; "Debate with Grattan," pp. 29-30, 23. [-> main text]
13Gunn, p. 57. [-> main text]
SOURCE: Herder, Dale M. "Haldeman-Julius, The Little Blue Books, and the Theory of Popular Culture," Journal of Popular Culture, vol. IV, no. 4, Spring 1971, pp. 881-891.
On this site:
"The Little Blue Books as Popular Culture: E. Haldeman-Julius' Methodology" by Dale M. Herder
"The Little Blue Books in the War on Bigotry and Bunk" by Mark Scott
The Village Atheist (Excerpts) by E. Haldeman-Julius
Emanuel & Marcet Haldeman-Julius: Guide to Web Resources & Bibliography
Intellectual Life in Society, Conventional and Unconventional: A Bibliography in Progress
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