Every summer for the last few years, our family has spent a good chunk of the summer in Missoula, Montana. Each time, I take a day and travel about thirty miles west on I-90 to the little one-street town of Alberton (pop. 418) to visit the Montana Valley Book Store. Housed in an old frame building with a store front straight out of the 1900s, the store holds over 100,000 books–mostly hardbacks upstairs, with paperbacks only in the basement. It’s also–amazingly–open 365 days a year.
There is a long set of trays with relatively recent books that leads from the door to the cash register, but in general the inventory dates from the 1920s to the 1960s. Its stacks run floor to ceiling and are always worth at least a few hours of careful browsing. My favorite section is the basement, which is a treasure trove of old paperback fiction. I find it’s harder and harder to find bookstores that have more than a handful of paperbacks from earlier than the mid-1980s, so it’s a real pleasure to pick through the basement, where there’s only a handful of paperbacks newer than that.
This time, I made a point of pulling many of the titles I didn’t recognize and comparing the publication dates of the original and the paperback edition. Back in the heyday of pocket-sized paperbacks, when Pocket Books, Dell, Avon, Signet, Bantam, and other publishers were pumping out a relentless flow of releases, grabbing a dusty title from the past and slapping a gaudy cover on it was a quick and cheap way to pad out a catalog. Perhaps no other company was as fond of this practice as Popular Library, which didn’t have the advantage of being tied to a major publisher with an active line of new hardcover titles to draw upon. And sure enough, my excavations dug up a number of interesting Popular Library artifacts.
The earliest title, Johnny Bogan by Leonora Baccante, published by Popular Library in 1959 with a typically suggestive cover, dates from 1931. It’s the story of two young people struggling between their desires and social mores (this was a time when pre-marital sex was still a largely taboo subject) and ends with a rape and then a murder. When first published, by Vanguard, the book received pretty positive reviews. One reviewer called it, “the finest novel I have read this year,” and the New Republic’s reviewer wrote, “Her technical method is vigorous and sure, her projection of character, especially that of Johnny, is admirable in its honesty and veraciousness [veracity?], and there is no trafficking with sentiment in a theme in which opportunities for it are endless: she accomplishes, neatly and precisely, what she sets out to do.” Johnny Bogan appears to have been the only book she ever published, although there are notices that Vanguard was going to release a second novel, Women Must Love in 1932.
The next, going in chronological order, is Samuel Roger’s Dusk at the Grove, which won the Atlantic Monthly’s $10,000 Prize in 1934 for best English-language novel of year–the first American novel to do so. At the time, the award was the biggest in the publishing business, but the list of prize winners could easily be added as another of this site’s Sources (does anyone remember the 1936 winner, I am the Fox by Winifred Van Etten? Or 1940′s winner, The Family by Nina Fedorova (also reissued by Popular Library in the 1960s)?). Opinion among contemporary reviewers, however, was mostly unanimous that Roger’s book well deserved its prize. “There should be little complaint, however, with the judges who picked Dusk at The Grove for this year’s $10,000 Atlantic Prize Contest. The still waters of this quiet novel run deep. Author Rogers deals sparingly with what his people do, more with what they say, most with what they think,” wrote Time magazine’s reviewer. The New Frontier rated it “… too good a book to be known as “‘a prize novel.’”
Dusk at the Grove follows the lives of the Warings, a family of no great means, through a series of scenes set at “The Grove,” their summer house in Rhode Island, between the years 1909 and 1931. Rogers relies heavily but apparently effectively on use of the stream of consciousness technique–indeed, one reviewer wrote that he had taken the technique as far as anyone could go with it. The story ends with the sale of “The Grove” to avert a bankruptcy, but Rogers seems to have taken an open attitude toward such changes: “I cannot help having still faith in life,” thinks Linda, the Waring’s daughter, even as she reflects on how much she regretted leaving “The Grove” as the end of each summer neared. Dusk was Roger’s third novel. He went on to publish five more, of which Lucifer in Pine Lake (1937), a study of an egotistical college professor (Rogers taught French at the University of Wisconsin for many years) was the best received.
Next in line is Clyde Brion Davis’ The Annointed, from 1937. I wrote about Davis’s second book, The Great American Novel, in one of the earliest posts on this site. Davis was a pretty prolific novelist through the 1930s and 1940s, but his work has utterly dropped from site. This is a real shame, as he’s one of the most likeable writers you’ll ever come across. A veteran newspaper reporter, he’d seen enough by the time he took up fiction to have a very clear-eyed view of human nature, but he was just too generous and optimistic a soul to let his cynicism cut too deep. Reviewing The Annointed for the New York Times, Robert van Gelder called it one of the two best first novels he’d ever read (the other was Humphrey Cobb’s Paths of Glory, which I see finally made it in the ranks of the Penguin Modern Classics last year). And the New Republic‘s reviewer wrote, “There is a Mother Goose-like combination of naivete and shrewdness to the book, a simplicity of style, an acuteness of characterization and observation”–a good summation of Davis’ approach in general. The Annointed was often compared to one of the 1930′s biggest best-sellers, Hervey Allen’s Anthony Adverse. While both books told the story of young men who got into a series of adventures at sea and on foreign shores, Davis managed to fit his into about one-sixth the number of pages.
Last on the list is Elizabeth Charlotte Webster’s Ceremony of Innocence, which was first published in South Africa as Expiring Frog (not a title that even the folks at Popular Library would have taken on) in 1946. The book was selected for the Afrikaanse Pers prize (along with Daphne Rooke’s first novel, A Grove of Fever Trees). Webster was not South African, however: born in Scotland, she was living there for health reasons. To no avail, sadly–she died just two weeks after receiving the award and several months before the book actually found a publisher.
Popular Library’s cover for Ceremony of Innocence does show a nun–but it’s easily the most misleading of this batch. Ceremony, which uses the figure of a young novice, Sylvie, living in a convent outside Geldersburg (read Johannesburg), rather as Voltaire does Candide–to highlight the vanities and hypocrises of contemporary religion and society. Sylvie is found to having some kind of healing power, but this disturbs the quiet order of the Catholic church and she is smuggled out of sight while the church leaders figure out the right “spin” for her story. Unfortunately for them, she falls for one of the men hiding her and ends up bearing his child. As with Candide, Sylvie is an instrument rather than a character, and Webster uses her to cut deeply into her targets. “Several of her scenes are expert in her caustic malice,” Orville Prescott in the New York Times. Writing in 1948 for
These Popular Library titles are just a sample of the armload I took away from this summer’s visit to Alberton. I expect at least a few of the rest to show up here in the course of the months between now and next year’s visit.