The Ambrose Bierce Site

the AMBROSE BIERCE site

AMBROSE BIERCE AND
THE LITTLE BLUE BOOKS
by Don Swaim

Once upon a time, a young Philadelphian named Emanuel Julius, who was caught up in the radical politics of the early twentieth century, journeyed to tiny Girard, Kansas (pop. 2500), to write for a socialist weekly, Appeal to Reason. There, he met a banker's daughter, Marcet Haldeman. They married and Julius adopted his wife's maiden name to become Emanuel Haldeman-Julius. Emanuel, borrowing from his wealthy wife, purchased Appeal to Reason and turned it into a mail-order publisher of tiny, cheap paperbacks selling an estimated five-hundred million over four decades.


Haldeman-Julius
photo: Smithsonian Institution

cartoon of Haldeman-Julius by
Hans Stengel, The New Yorker

A storied beginning with a sad and somewhat mysterious ending.

Operating a press that pumped out forty-thousand books each workday, and by sizing the books at a mere three and a half by five inches in stapled wrappers and limiting the page count to sixty-four, Haldeman-Julius was able to reduce the price from a quarter to fifteen-cents to a dime to a nickel. Because the covers were blue, mostly, they became known as Little Blue Books. Title Number One was the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Number Two was The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde.


Women working at Haldeman-Julius printing company.
[photo: kansasmemory.org]

To the average American, hungry for dirt-cheap culture, education, literature, and titillation, Haldeman-Julius supplied a need. His titles ranged from The Art of Kissing to The Communist Manifesto to Elementary Plane Geometry Self Taught to What Every Married Woman Should Know. Authors ranged from Alexander Pope to Nietzsche to Dostoevsky to Jack London. Plus hack work by free-lancers to whom Haldeman-Julius paid $50 for each 15,000 words.

The company became the world's preeminent mail-order business with franchise stores in several major cities and sales from vending machines. Haldeman-Julius also published packages of books aimed at readers lacking high school or college training, with such ads as "Would You Pay $2.98 for a High School Education?"



Emanuel and Marcet were active partners, and both wrote for the Blue Book series. One of Marcet's books was titled Marcet Haldeman-Julius's Intimate Notes on her Husband. She also co-edited a standard-sized magazine, the Haldeman-Julius Monthly.

Rolf Potts, in an extensive article in The Believer, September 2008, quotes H. L. Mencken as saying "the editing and printing [of the books] show all the usual Socialist incompetence... It is not agreeable to think of a poor man laying out money for such garbage..." But Potts also cites a McClure's magazine article noting that Haldeman-Julius had been called "The Henry Ford of Literature, "the Book Baron," "Voltaire from Kansas," and "the Barnum of Books."

Enter Ambrose Bierce.


Bierce

While their lives overlapped—Bierce born in 1841, Haldeman-Julius in 1889—they were not acquaintances. Aside from their religious ambivalence, it is fair to say that their politics, Bierce a sometimes stuffy libertarian and Haldeman-Julius a liberated left-winger, would have kept them far apart even if they had been contemporaries.
Bierce had vanished into Mexico in 1913 by the time Haldeman-Julius got around to publishing his first Bierce title, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and Other Stories, Number 1054, in 1926, the others within the following year. In all, there were ten Bierce Little Blue Books.

Because they were reprints, although some of the material came with fresh titles—such as Tales of Ghouls and Ghosts, Tales of Haunted Houses, and Fantastic Debunking Fables—Bierce's biographers and bibliographers have generally ignored the books. None is listed in Vincent Starrett's Bierce bibliography, the first such bibliography, published in 1929, three years after Haldeman-Julius's initial Blue Book, nor in the Bibliography of American Literature (BAL), the encyclopedic guide to some 300 American authors through 1930.

The exception is Ambrose Bierce: An Annotated Bibliography of Primary Sources by S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Greenwood Press, 1999, the most authoritative compendium of Bierce titles compiled to date.


Joshi says he found the Bierce Blue Book titles in the New York Public Library catalogue, which has an extensive collection of Haldeman-Julius publications. The books were entirely legitimate publications of the day, he says, and any bibliographer needs to take note of them. I might add, however, that the publications are flimsy, printed on cheap stock, the pages often brown and brittle, and the covers faded—not unlike the early comic books. Esthetically, they are unsatisfying, but, amazingly, the ones I have examined are still readable.

Ambrose Bierce Little Blue Book titles

1.   #1054 An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and Other Stories 1926 (Joshi/Schultz A-25)
2.   #1055 The Horseman in the Sky and Other Stories 1926 (J/S A-26)
3.   #1056 The Devil's Dictionary (abridged edition) 1926 (J/S A-31A)
4.   #1075 Tales of Ghouls and Ghosts 1927 (J/S A-27)
5.   #1080 Tales of Haunted Houses 1927 (J/S A-28)
6.   #1081 Fantastic Debunking Fables 1927 (J/S A-11A)
7.   #1086 My Favorite Murder and Other Stories 1927 (J/S A-29)
8.   #1098 Extraordinary Opinions on Commonplace Subjects 1927 (J/S A-30)
9.   #1099 A Cynic Looks at Life 1927 (J/S A-31)
10. #1100 Iconoclastic Memories of the Civil War, Bits of Autobiography 1927 (J/S A-32)


Collectors of Little Blue Books exist, but for a completist, if there are any, the task must be enormous. My job was simple. I needed to locate just the ten Bierce titles related to this article, decades following their availability by a nickel from vending machines.


Little Blue Books vending machine, 1939. [photo: haldeman-julius.org]

In all, Haldeman-Julius published some 2,300 Little Blue Book titles between 1923 and his death in 1951. Roughly, some 200 titles were issued each year. There were other Haldeman-Julius book series as well, such as the People's Pocket Series, Five Cent Pocket Series, The Appeal's Pocket Series, etc.



Luckily, there is an invaluable online Haldeman-Julius database, which details every title by number, author, how to date them, historical notes, collector resources, and photos. It can easily be searched.But dating the Little Blue Books is maddening. One can check the numbers chronologically, of course, but some titles were republished over the years.


Haldeman-Julius often placed copyright dates on the books, but in Bierce's case a copyright of, say, 1911 refers to the year the material appeared in Bierce's twelve-volume Collected Works, which were published by Walter Neale between 1909 and 1912. The plates of the Collected Works were acquired by the publishing house of Boni and Liveright, which is why it is often credited on the Blue Book copyright page. In some instances there is no date on the copyright page.

According to a detailed article by Jake Gibbs, Dating Little Blue Books, the wrappers during the period the Bierce titles were published (1926-1927), contained a large issue number on the front cover, possibly a sans-serif typeface, and two staples binding the pages. Between 1941-1951 there was a single staple, and after 1951 the words "edited by E. Haldeman-Julius" were removed from the covers. Originally, the back covers were blank, and usually colored blue.

Most of the Bierce titles appear to conform, although some of the covers have faded to brown. A 1950s reprint of The Devil's Dictionary, No. 1056, lacks Bierce's name on the front cover. At least one title, Tales of Ghouls and Ghosts, No. 1075, has a slick pictorial cover unlike the standard Little Blue Books, suggesting it was republished.

A librarian at the University of Buffalo wrote that because millions of the Little Blue Books were sold, they have no significant value. Others would disagree. In fact, the ephemeral nature of the books may deem them rarities. Near the end of his life, Haldeman-Julius said with some accuracy, "It may even go so far as to say that I changed the reading habits of America and created millions of new readers for the book publishers who followed me."

The Haldeman-Julius story ends badly.



Haldeman-Julius family. [photo: The Believer]
Potts, in The Believer, relates that Emanuel and Marcet, both alcoholics who had two children, divorced although they continued to live together until Marcet was claimed by cancer in 1941. A dedicated leftist, Haldeman-Julius was harassed by the FBI and the IRS. In 1951, he was sentenced to six months in prison for tax evasion, but while free on appeal was found by his second wife dead in his swimming pool at his Kansas home. Suicide? Murder? Natural causes? Almost enough mystery to rival that of Bierce who vanished without a trace in Mexico thirty-eight years before Haldeman-Julius's death.

Both Bierce and Haldeman-Julius are long gone, but their names and work live on, in part because of The Little Blue Books.




References

Haldeman-Julius.Org. http://www.haldeman-julius.org
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.
Johnson, Richard Colles and G. Thomas Tansell. "The Haldeman-Julius 'Little Blue Books' as a Bibliographical Problem," The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, Vol. 64, 1970.
Joshi, S. T. and David E. Schultz. Ambrose Bierce: An Annotated Bibliography of Primary Sources, Greenwood Press, 1999.
Palmer, W. P. "Emanuel Haldeman-Julius and the Education of the Poor of America," paper, IPS-USA Conference, New York, July 2006.
Potts, Rolf. "The Henry Ford of Literature," The Believer, September 2005.

Don Swaim is the author of The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce: A Love Story
to be published in 2016 by Hippocampus Press, New York.

© 2015 by Don Swaim



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