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Trysh Travis, Ph.D. Candidate
American Studies
Yale University


1996-1997

I apologize once again for my tardiness in sending this letter to you. Rest assured that my delay in no way reflects any bad feeling about my work in the Princeton archives; it's merely a sign of the chaos of life away from the mellow precincts of Mudd library.

I applied for the Princeton Library Research Fellowship in order to use the archive of the Council on Books in Wartime. The Council's wartime efforts to promote reading as an essential element in a democracy indicate the self-conscious role that trade book publishers assumed for themselves in mid-century American culture; I explore this role at length in my dissertation, "Reading Matters: The 'Serious' Reader and the Rise of Mass Culture, 1930-1970. "

The book industry's contribution to American cultural life has been largely overlooked. This is in part due to disciplinary blindness, ("who cares about publishers? they're just a bunch of functionaries-- it's the writers who really make culture happen!") augmented by a lack of archival resources ("where's the evidence that publishers were important?!"), which in turn reinforces the existing disciplinary blindness ("if publishers were important, archives would exist to document their work!"). My dissertation argues that, contrary to this set of suppositions, the publishing industry at mid-century conceived of itself as a literary community entrusted with guarding American culture and democracy. My hypothesis was formed in part when I learned about the work of the Council; it was confirmed many times over while I worked in the Princeton archive.

Unlike many contemporary book trade organizations, the Council kept careful records of all their doings. This suggests they were quite self-conscious about the importance of their work-- both within the context of the war effort and within the evolving profession of publishing. Looking at the meeting minutes of their Board of Directors, Executive Committee, and the various sub-committees allowed me to see how different kinds of publicity strategies (both for reading as a leisure activity in general and for specific books) evolved, matured, and died. Within the different promotional strategies conducted through radio and film, book fairs, speakers, reprints, posters campaigns, etc., I could see different sectors of the trade weighing in on larger questions of industrial modernization: vertical integration, mass production and distribution, use of market research, etc. This crucial part
of the business of publishing is usually lost to history, since the traces it leaves (memos, minutes,  drafts of press releases, etc.) are distinctly unglamorous.

In addition to retrieving this evidence of how the nuts and bolts questions of book promotion were worked out by Council members, I also learned a great deal about the professional culture of the book trade: individual publisher's ideas about certain books, about promotion in general, about what were desirable new audiences and how (or whether) to cultivate them, about the use of other media to promote reading, and, most important, about the merits of different kinds of reading practices (i.e, 'escape' vs. 'serious' reading). Determining that this set of evaluative criteria exists, and figuring out its nuances is important for understanding canon formation-- that is, for figuring out how publishers' prejudices, along with those of critics and scholars, influence what counts as 'literature.' In addition, retrieving the intricacies of this professional culture complicates the often static notion of 'bias' that accompanies so much discussion of canon formation. I looked at the arguments that different Council members had over what titles were good, over what the public needed to hear about the War and about reading, over which public they wanted to reach and what methods they should use to do it, and over how they could maintain autonomy even as they worked with the government. Few of these arguments were resolved unanimously; both the politics and the aesthetics of the book men who made up the Council were contradictory and often ambiguous. These findings seem crucial to my project of breaking down familiar and often simplistic arguments about white male cultural hegemony and the links between culture industry workers and products and capitalism as a social force.

Finally, one of the richest parts of the Council archive is its collection of soldier letters written in response to the Armed Services Editions. Records of ordinary people's reading experiences are extremely difficult to come by. This cache of several hundred letters is a valuable resource for seeing a cross-section of an historical reading public describe the ways in which they read and the pleasures they took from different kinds of books. While any group of fan letters (and these would fall into that category) is a self-selected and unscientific sample, that fact in no way diminishes the usefulness of these letters. Without claiming to be representative, they are highly suggestive of the variety of reading practices common at the time, and document the wide register of appeals that books made to their public. Most interestingly, the fact that Council members have gone through and highlighted these letters for excerption in some kind of (unrealized) promotional effort reveals how publishers thought of their readers, and what aspects of reading they wanted to claim as their own. The purple pencil marks that amend the soldier letters are an extremely rare instance of dialogue across what Robert Darnton has called the communications circuit of the book.

It would be hard for me to find fault with the Council archive as it exists at Princeton. Council members were quite meticulous both about what they kept and about what they expunged. There are hints in various places of purged correspondence (especially about the Council's blue collar rival, the Book Mobilization Committee), but it is clear that these gaps were created by Council members, not by careless handling of the documents at Princeton. I found the collection to be meticulously maintained and organized, with an excellent finding aid. I was given abundant, comprehensive, and friendly assistance by the gracious and intelligent staff at Mudd Library. My only wish is that Mudd's related collections, especially the Franklin Book Program, Inc. Archives, were processed and available for cross-referencing. The Council worked in an artificially discrete time frame, which makes it a tidy entity for research. Yet towards the War's end much of their activity was focused overseas; many of their projects for the publication and distribution of English-language books were picked up by larger, ongoing organizations, and it would've been very useful to mark the points of connection and cross-over.

While Columbia's Publishing Archives are more extensive than Princeton's, I believe that the book trade organizations whose documents are housed at Mudd are an equally important part of twentieth-century American book history. It was my pleasure to work among them, and I look forward to doing so again.
 


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