Monday, December 29, 2008

The Sensational World of Drug Paperbacks

By Stephen J. Gertz, Feral House. Posted December 27, 2008.

Famed for their campy kitsch, gloriously bad writing and outlandish misinformation, drug paperback books embodied seductive cultural taboos.

Dope Menace: The Sensational World of Drug Paperbacks by Stephen J. Gertz (Feral House, 2008).

The following is an excerpt from Stephen J. Gertz's new book, Dope Menace: The Sensational World of Drug Paperbacks (Feral House, 2008).

In 1952, Congressman Ezekiel C. Gathings (D-Arkansas) convened a House Select Committee to investigate the proliferation of literature he considered a pox on contemporary American society, taking particular aim at paperback books which he believed were specifically marketed to the above demographic group.

Attacking "the so-called pocket-size books, which originally started out as cheap reprints of standard works, [but which] have largely degenerated into media for the dissemination of appeals to sensuality, immorality, filth, perversion, and degeneracy," the Committee devoted much of its attention to paperbacks that contained the use of illegal drugs as thematic material.

Welcome to that world, a universe of paperback books -- mass-market-sized, larger digest and trade-paper format -- that because of their dramatically high print runs and broad distribution into multi-various retail outlets, exposed Americans to drugs and drug use in a far more influential manner than hardcover volumes, which were released in small print runs and distributed through bookstores only. And paperbacks were the only medium to do so in a lasting, material way: Film depictions of drug use and trafficking had been banned by Hollywood's Production Code (a.k.a. The Hays Code) in 1930, radio was by nature evanescent, and newspapers generally disposed of within 24 hours. As such, drug-themed paperback books provide the richest, most direct record of American pop culture's fascination, repulsion, fears, realities, perceptions, fantasies, paranoia, facts, hopes, follies and fallacies regarding psychoactive drugs during the beginning, rise and crest of what has been characterized as "America's Second Drug Epidemic."

This did not occur in a vacuum. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, when drug smuggling routes had been re-established -- having been completely disrupted during the war with narcotics distribution and use in the U.S. declining to their lowest levels in the century -- and addiction to heroin and use of marijuana began to return with slow, steady drive, another phenomenon became manifest: the saturation of the marketplace with mass-market paperbacks, which began in 1939 with a hugely successful experiment by Pocket Books that yielded over 1.5 million copies sold of 34 reprint titles at 25 cents each.

By the early 1950s many social critics and latter-day Catos were becoming alarmed. Other publishers had entered the field, and many reprints and new, original paperbacks were not of the finest literary quality. "Some of these books [are] filled with sordid, filthy statements based upon sexual deviations and perversions" Gathings reported. Further, the Gathings Committee stated, "other paper-bound books dwell at length on narcotics and in such a way as to present inducements for susceptible readers to become addicts out of sheer curiosity. As an example of how this subject is handled by current books, one need only read Marijuana Girl by N.R. de Mexico (Universal Publishing & Distributing Corp.). A more appropriate title would be: A Manual of Instructions for Potential Drug Addicts. It even has a glossary of the jargon used by dope peddlers and their customers. The noble motives ascribed to the author on the back cover, and quoted below, are not manifest in the book he wrote.

"Quotes below are on the back cover of Marijuana Girl, the book in question:

"This extraordinarily valid book does more than reaffirm the reputation of the author as a literary stylist and a shrewd, blunt commentator on our social scene. It tells the real story behind the lurid newspaper headlines -- the crime investigations -- the reports, official and unofficial -- all screaming of the spread of dope addiction among children today!"

"Even the evil effects of drug addiction are made to appear not so very unattractive by artful manipulation of the imagination. While the analysis of this book has been directed chiefly to its narcotic phase, that should not be construed as implying that it is not replete with lewdness and vulgarity."

Uh oh. Sex and drugs, the marriage of which has traditionally aroused the ire and righteous indignation of concerned citizen-moralists. And aroused the fascination and curiosity, if not fetishistic fervor, of the general public. Popular culture is Dionysian in nature: of the appetites, instincts and senses. The public bought these books in numbers that will astound.


See more stories tagged with: dope menace, drug paperbacks, stephen j gertz, feral house

Author Stephen J. Gertz is a well-regarded authority on antiquarian books, author of "Dope Menace: The Sensational World of Drug Paperbacks (Feral House, 2008)," and contributor to Feral House's Sin-A-Rama, an award-winning visual history of sleaze paperbacks from the sixties.

No comments: