Marketing Modernism between the Two World Wars

How American publishers worked to build a wider audience for modernist literature


In February 1934, the Saturday Review of Literature featured a two-page advertisement entitled "How to Enjoy James Joyce's Great Novel Ulysses." This promotion-with its promise that consumers would encounter "one of the most exciting stories offered by modern fiction"-was part of a much broader campaign. For more than a decade, American publishers had sought to expand the market for modernist literature in the United States. Their goal was to convince consumers that these "difficult" books could be both a pleasure to read and an affordable way to experiment with new ideas and gain access to intellectual refinement.

Focusing on the advertising policies of five publishing houses in the 1920s and 1930s, Catherine Turner examines the process by which "highbrow" works of fiction were packaged, promoted, and sold to a mainstream American readership. The publishing houses range from the small firm of B. W. Huebsch to Alfred A. Knopf, Harcourt Brace and Company, Charles Scribner's Sons, and Random House. These companies introduced American readers to the work of such writers as Sherwood Anderson, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and Joyce. Many became bestsellers, despite initial fears that they were too demanding or too dull for ordinary readers.

Turner explores the various strategies employed by the publishers to convince a skeptical public to buy new works of serious literature. She also revisits the relationship between "highbrow" and "middlebrow" culture at a time when such labels were being undermined by the rise of a mass consumer marketplace.

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