In high school in the late fifties I began reading popular adult fiction as a way, I suppose, of learning about being a "grown-up." I amassed a collection of paperbacks, most of which were lost over the years after I left home. Around my 40th birthday I began picking up old copies of the paperbacks that had meant so much to me - at thrift shops, garage sales, and used book stores. Now I'm a confirmed, if amateur, small collector of vintage paperbacks, which combine my interest in illustration and literature, not to mention good, old-fashioned sleaze.
Here are a few of my favorites. Click on the thumbnails to see larger versions of the covers.
Some Came Running by James JonesSignet 1959 (Abridged).
This 1959 edition is my all-time favorite paperback.
I read it as a freshman in high school and Jones' portrayal of small-town midwestern life knocked my socks off. His long-awaited second novel after the hugely acclaimed From Here to Eternity, it was panned pretty universally by critics. I still think it's a great example of mid-century "mainstream American male realism."
At the time (age 15) I was occasionally dating a girl who was my first fairly consistent romantic interest. I was very interested in "making out" but was too scared to try anything. The young lady was equally shy. In the fine generosity of spirit common to some boys of that age, I blamed her for our lack of intimacy. I had been reading Some Came Running in which the hero unsuccessfully tries to score with a woman who appears to be frigid. He decides in a sudden (mistaken) revelation that she is avoiding him because she is actually a nymphomaniac. I was a bit unclear on all this, and one day when my mother said, "I see you haven't been dating Stella lately," I retorted, "Oh, her, she's a nymphomaniac."
So much for learning about "real life" from fiction. My mother's response is not recorded.
The Signet edition was abridged (the hardback was 1266 pages), released to coincide with the movie version, illustrated on the back cover. It was directed by Vincent Minelli and starred Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Shirley Maclaine in an early role - her association with the Rat Pack probably dates from this film.
Knock On Any Door by Willard MotleySignet, 1959
When as a teenager I bought (or stole) paperback books, I had missed the golden age of mass market paperbacks, generally considered to have run from the late thirties to the fifties. This site is a tribute to Signet's editions from around 1950 to 1960.
Signet brought out several fat 75-cent novels in the late fifties, which I devoured. They were to me the hottest thing in fiction, often war novels, or tough slum kid coming-of-age novels. Knock On Any Door was the first of the latter that I found and, again, it absolutely enthralled me. I read it five or six times - the story of Nick Romano who wanted to "Live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse." Interestingly enough the author, Willard Motley, was black, though his Italian-American anti-hero did not reflect it.
Though I was unaware of it then, these "Signet 75's" were new editions of the earlier Signet Double Volumes (50 cents), which were printed with a double spine, presumably to give the impression of a hell of a bargain. Here is the 1950 edition of "Knock On Any Door" with a great James Avati cover - in every way superior to its later reprint.
The Young Lions by Irwin ShawSignet, 1958
Another block-buster of popular realism that I inhaled, re-reading it several times. My first experience of a "big" war novel, to be echoed by many others. So many of my notions about life were formed by such fiction, for better and often for worse! I don't think Shaw holds up today as well as James Jones for sheer intensity.
The top book is the later edition that I read as a kid, with the earlier Double Volume below it. Also made into a great movie with Brando, Montgomery Clift and Dean Martin (was he in all these movies?).
The Studs Lonigan Trilogy by James T. Farrell.Signet, 1958 (with a new introduction by the author)
Great coming-of-age epic of a Chicago street punk, originally written as three novels in the early thirties. It's a biting critique of the young Studs' shallow, self-obscessed character and his inevitable, chilling decline. I never actually finished Studs but read parts of it many times and was very impressed by it.
Farrell was one of the giants of American Depression realism in the thirties and beyond. Signet published many of his titles over the years, always with covers by James Avati. Here is the first Signet edition of the first volume of the Studs trilogy, Young Lonigan, from around 1949.
Maggie Cassidy by Jack KerouacAvon Books, 1959
This is a paperback original of a sweet coming-of-age novel, set in Kerouac's home-town of Lowell, Massachusetts. The manic idiocy of the young male characters roaming the streets of Lowell was completely infectious. Kerouac's rendition of the French Candian slang of the time and place included a frequently repeated epithet: "Zeet!" My friends and I parroted it in our small Ohio town, chirping "Zeet! Zeet! Zeet!" as often as it occurred to us to do so, and also adapting it into our own terms, such as "You stupid zeet!" or "You zeety sonofabitch!"
On The Road by Jack KerouacSignet, 1959
I absorbed the excesses of Kerouac's On the Road whole hog, as only a sheltered, repressed surburban teen could do - in his imagination. Beat culture had been commodified by this time. We snuck out at night to go to coffee houses (The Low Spot, a basement joint near the Ohio State campus, was one) and wore boat-neck shirts. Jane Carber and I went to a 1959 Halloween party, both dressed as beatniks. Little did I know that the vaguely imagined indulgences of beat literature - "kicks," "free" love, dope - would dog my tracks for over a decade, providing me (and millions of other non-conformists) a way of trying to deny my middle-class upbringing. Zeet!
To a God Unknown by John SteinbeckDell, with a Map Back
In collecting paperbacks nothing delights me more than finding a popular edition of a work of "literary merit," sporting a lurid cover. This one is blue-chip.
Dell's Map Backs were famous on the back covers of their mystery novels. Steinbeck's story here is not what you'd call a mystery, but why not stretch a point?
Brave New World by Aldous HuxleyBantam, 1952
First paperback edition of a classic. The Adam and Eve motif is a good excuse for nudity.
Butterfield 8 by John O'HaraAvon, 1952
This is a nice edition of another of my favorite "adult" novelists when I was a teenager. By the fifties O'Hara was writing block-buster novels about the upper classes of the northeast, complete with steamy (for the time) sex. It was an O'Hara novel (From the Terrace) that gave me the notion to apply to an Ivy League college. The hero of the novel, Alfred Eaton, went to Princeton, so of course that was my first choice. I was sorry to be turned down by Princeton, but relieved at my acceptance to second-choice Yale. Come to find out years later in an O'Hara biography that he was disappointed to the end of his life that he hadn't attended Yale. Thanks for the inspiration, Mr. O'Hara!
The Applegreen Cat by Frances CranePopular Library, cover by Rudolph Belarski
No display of vintage paperbacks would be complete without Rudolph Belarski, the great pulp cover artist. The pulps of the thirties and forties depicted only two kinds of women - (1) beautiful and about commit mayhem, and (2) beautiful and about to have mayhem committed upon. Or, as in this case, both.
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