Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Publisher for the Masses: Emanuel Haldeman-Julius by R. Alton Lee

The man behind the Little Blue Books
Many would be surprised to learn that in the early twentieth century, the tiny town of Girard, Kansas, was, as historian R. Alton Lee proclaims, “the literary and publishing Mecca of the United States, and thus the international center of Western civilization.” That claim may be a stretch, but not a very big stretch. In 1915, Jewish Philadelphian Emanuel Haldeman-Julius moved to Girard to take over the Appeal to Reason, America’s most widely circulated socialist newspaper of all time. The appeal of the Appeal was on the decline, however, which gave Haldeman-Julius the impetus and opportunity to experiment with his own radical ideas of publishing. His big brainchild was the Little Blue Books, a line of inexpensive publications, designed to bring useful knowledge and quality literature to readers of all classes, that spawned thousands of titles, hundreds of millions of copies sold, and a variety of subjects so broad as to constitute a self-proclaimed “university in print.” In his 2017 book Publisher for the Masses, Lee provides a biography of this exceptional and enigmatic publishing mogul.

I have read many of the sources listed in Lee’s bibliography, so the story of Haldeman-Julius’s life was familiar to me. At first it didn’t seem like Lee was going to dig deep enough to make this biography worthwhile. The first few chapters seem to be taken entirely from Haldeman-Julius’s autobiographies, My First 25 Years and My Second 25 Years, so why not just read those? In subsequent chapters, however, Lee does dig deeper into the archival record. He has clearly perused the Haldeman-Juliuses’ correspondence and many of the myriad editorials Emanuel wrote for his multiple periodicals. From these Lee uncovers enough lesser-known details to enlighten even well-read fans of Haldeman-Julius. In particular, this biography provides a great deal of insight into the Haldeman-Juliuses’ marriage (Marcet Haldeman-Julius was an active partner in her husband’s enterprises) and the financial problems faced by the couple during the Great Depression. Lee may hail Emanuel the publisher as a heroic figure, but this book is not a unilateral exercise in hero worship. Emanuel the husband and father was not quite the knight in shining armor, and Lee doesn’t let his subject off the hook for his less praiseworthy qualities and actions.

This book could have used a better edit by the University of Nebraska Press because there are several noticeable errors, and not just typos, of which there are quite a few. One sentence is repeated verbatim at the end of two paragraphs within a page of each other (pages 77-78). Haldeman-Julius’s book A Trip to Plutopia is erroneously titled A Trip to Utopia (p. 96). His book The Big American Parade is described as a novel, when in fact it is a nonfiction book of cultural criticism (p. 143). Someone named Fagnani is quoted without any indication of who he might be (p. 141). Maybe he was just some random reader of the Little Blue Books who wrote a fan letter to Haldeman-Julius, but if that’s the case then say so.

Despite such flaws, Publisher for the Masses is likely the best one-volume biography written about Haldeman-Julius thus far. Kansans, socialists, freethinkers, autodidacts, and other fans of the Little Blue Books who may have only a passing knowledge of Girard’s great publishing entrepreneur will certainly get an admirably comprehensive education on the man’s life from this book, without having to hunt down and read through all the obscure articles and dissertations heretofore written about him. The wide-reaching radical publishing industry in Girard, Kansas, is an episode of American history that merits better recognition. Haldeman-Julius has long deserved an engaging biography for contemporary readers, and Lee has delivered one with this book.
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