Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Joseph McCabe: Fighter for Freethought (Reviewer’s Library No. 4) by Isaac Goldberg

More marketing than biography
In the early twentieth century, one of America’s most successful publishing enterprises was run out of the little town of Girard in southeastern Kansas. There Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius printed thousands of titles in his Little Blue Books series. Hundreds of millions of copies of these small, inexpensive paperbacks were sold at newsstands and through mail order. In addition to literature and knowledge of general interest, Haldeman-Julius also published books on topics that were radical for his time, such as socialism, atheism, feminism, and sex education. The most prolific writer in Haldeman-Julius’s stable of authors was Joseph McCabe, who covered all of the above subjects and more. McCabe was a former Catholic priest who lived for 12 years as a monk before leaving the church and rejecting Christian dogma. Even before he met Haldeman-Julius, McCabe became a champion of rationalism and established himself as one of the most outspoken opponents of the Catholic church and organized religion.

Though not a Little Blue Book, Joseph McCabe: Fighter for Freethought is the fourth volume in another series of Haldeman-Julius publications, Reviewer’s Library. The text is only 43 pages long. The author is Isaac Goldberg, another likeminded Haldeman-Julius regular. Goldberg doesn’t provide a biography of McCabe but rather a laudatory critical essay. Goldberg has never met McCabe or interviewed him; he has only read some of McCabe’s works and doesn’t appear to have done much research on the man. There is some coverage of McCabe’s career in the clergy and his reasons for defecting to atheism, but the biographical content stops there. The rest of the text is mostly Goldberg’s thoughts on McCabe, but Goldberg ends up talking about Goldberg just as much as he talks about McCabe. Goldberg uses McCabe’s life and works as a springboard to elaborate on freethought issues and anti-religious views. Because of the time period, there is also much discussion about the rise of fascism and authoritarianism, with vehement criticism of Hitler and Mussolini but mixed messages concerning Stalin.

The text is written in a somewhat casual style that’s aimed at habitual readers of Haldeman-Julius publications. It reminds one of the columns Stan Lee used to write in Marvel Comics that offered a look inside the “bullpen,” making readers feel like they were part of a club. Goldberg’s prose reads more like a magazine editorial than a book. This tone allows Goldberg to work in plugs for Little Blue Books and praise for Haldeman-Julius that would be inappropriate in a more formal treatise.

The best thing this booklet has to offer is a bibliography of McCabe’s published works. The list of titles is five pages long, includes around 175 entries, and teaches you more about McCabe’s writing career and scope of thought than anything Goldberg has to say. It covers not only McCabe’s publications with Haldeman-Julius but his entire published output up to 1936.

The book closes with one piece of McCabe’s writing, but the choice of essay is questionable. It’s a book review on a series of publications by (who else?) Haldeman-Julius. This, along with the 21 pages of advertisements, makes it clear that the Reviewer’s Library is little more than a marketing vehicle to promote sales of Haldeman-Julius publications. I learned surprisingly little about Joseph McCabe from this book that bears his name, but I am glad that I at least found a decent (though partial) bibliography of his work.

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