The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
A TRIP TO PLUTOPIA
The entry in Wikipedia for Pocket Books is typical. "Pocket Books produced the first mass-market, pocket-sized paperback books in America in early 1939 and revolutionized the publishing industry." That's true only in the most technical sense: Pocket Books were the first ones in America to produce books like those of Pocket Books. How many people know of another series of books sized for the pockets of America's masses that had sold at least 200,000,000 copies before the first Pocket Book hit the newsstands?
Emanuel Julius is a fascinating example of that most American of American types: the freethinker who is hounded out of society for seeing the obvious before it becomes fashionable. The son of immigrant Russian-Jewish parents who changed their name from Zolajefsky, Emanuel dropped out of school at thirteen, in 1902, to go to work. Like other poor boys from Benjamin Franklin to Isaac Asimov he found books to be his salvation and devoured them all his life, adding to their number with his own writing.
Radicalized by his experiences, Julius found a home in the socialism brought over from Europe by thousands of other immigrants. Socialists fought for many of the same ideals as the Progressives but went farther in condemning the rich, the tycoons, the robber barons, the breakers of unions and buyers of legislatures. They stood for the workers at a time when strikes often pitted armed armies on each side leading to bloody outcomes that almost always favored the rich. And they found an unlikely home in tiny Girard, Kansas. Much of Kansas was pure conservative heartland, the home sweet home that Dorothy Gale wanted to return to from Oz, yet the plight of farmers - farmers are always in plight - meant that a large fraction supported the People's Party, the namesake of the Populist movement that is revered in theory to this day. Girard had an unusually large immigrant population for Kansas; it drew in another radicalized American, J. A. [Julius Augustus] Wayland, who through a similar progression of books and convictions arrived there to launch a newspaper titled The Appeal to Reason, after Tom Paine.
With the backing of Socialist party head Eugene V. Debs, the tiny paper grew into a national phenomenon, sometimes selling over a million copies of its political issues. Upton Sinclair's everlastingly famous takedown of the filthy meat-packing industry, The Jungle, was commissioned by and serialized in The Appeal before it saw book form. Wayland ran it as the public face for a mail-order industry of books and pamphlets, a Montgomery Ward's of print wares. The story inevitably ends tragically: Wayland shot himself in 1912.
The Appeal started to sink rapidly and Julius, by then a successful newspaper editor who hobnobbed with radicals in Greenwich Village, was brought in to save it in 1915. In a plot twist a scenario writer might call far-fetched, a New York actress named Marcet Haldeman had recently arrived in Girard because under the terms of her father's will, she could inherit his bank only if she lived in the town for a year. Marcet was beautiful, rich, and just as radical as Emanuel. They married - partnered - and resolved to be equals in every way, symbolizing the union by merging their last names to become the Julius-Haldemans.
The war years and after were terrible times to be proclaiming socialism. Debs was thrown in jail for preaching draft resistance and Wilson's Attorney-General A. Mitchell Palmer tried to deport all the country's radicals in a series of raids on socialist hangouts, using information provided by the zealous head of his General Intelligence Division: J. Edgar Hoover.
Haldeman-Julius squeaked through the dangerous days by allowing the paper, temporarily renamed The New Appeal, to back the war effort. At war's end, therefore, he was suspect by both the conservatives and the radicals. Haldeman-Julius desperately needed a new source of revenue.
Help arrived from a source that also has written out of standard history: a socialist college. (Haldeman-Julius actually put out multiple self-congratulatory explanations of where the marvelous idea came from, which leads me to suspect that this fortuitous, outside accident was the true antecessor.) The tiny People's College of Fort Scott, another hotbed hamlet not far up the road from Girard, had money from an unlikely source: producing oil wells on the campus. (Of course. A socialist college in Kansas which made its money from oil. Fire that writer, and get me some of whatever he's on.)
Marian Wharton, the head of the English department, talked to Haldeman-Julius about printing inexpensive copies of literature for use by her classes. He not only did, he offered a 50-book series to The Appeal's subscribers for $5.00. 5000 offers poured in the first week. In quick succession he offered The Appeal's Pocket Series, People's Pocket Series, Appeal Pocket Series, Ten Cent Pocket Series, Five Cent Pocket Series, and the just plain Pocket Series. With higher print runs he got the price down to a nickel, and got around the tedium of dealing with small change by making 20 books the minimum purchase. In 1924, he settled on a size of three and a half by five inches for the slim 50-60 page books, making them pocket-sized for a trouser or a shirt, or a handbag or other holder. When he went to a cheap, blue cover stock they became known as Little Blue Books. They kept that name even after the color changed and the covers became more varied. (A series of larger-sized Big Blue Books inevitably accompanied them for a time.)
Little Blue Books printed almost everything - almost everything that Pocket Books itself did not. No mysteries or westerns or romances of the type we associate with the 40s paperback craze were deemed sufficiently high literature to slip through (although Poe and Doyle did). Customers had their pick of classic literature from around the globe, histories of every nation, lives of varied great men, poetry, and proverbs. Hundreds of basic self-help books gushed from the press: Care of the Baby, Arithmetic Self Taught, How to Pronounce 4000 Troublesome Words, Facts About Digestion, How to be a Fur Trapper. Philosophy abounded. Haldeman-Julius seduced Will Durant of Columbia University with the promise that he would make more money writing than by lecture tours. Durant eventually wrote 11 works on the great philosophers. When they were collected by Simon & Schuster unchanged under the omnibus title The Story of Philosophy, the book sold 95,000 in hardcover in 1926, a phenomenal amount that lodged him on the bestsellers' lists and allowed him to write the shelf-filling Story of Civilization series that turned him (and his co-author child bride Ariel) into multimillionaires.
Philosophy unexpectedly sold. Sex sold expectedly. A catalog I have, undated but probably late 1940s, has the categories Sexology, Sex and Love, Special Phases of Sex, and Abnormal Aspects of Sex. Little Blue Books disseminated information on sexual techniques and birth control in years when almost no respectable publisher would touch those topics, but Haldeman-Julius considered them information the working classes needed to know. Like most sharp businessmen he was a bit of a huckster. Rolf Potts noted that:
As Haldeman-Julius readily found out, the public also liked titillation. Guy de Maupassant’s The Tallow Ball sold three times better when entitled A French Prostitute’s Sacrifice, and sales of Gautier’s Fleece of Gold jumped from six thousand to fifty thousand when it was retitled The Quest for a Blonde Mistress. “What could Fleece of Gold mean to anyone who had never heard of Gautier or his story before?” Haldeman-Julius wrote. “Little, if anything.… The Quest for a Blonde Mistress [is] exactly the sort of story it is.” In this way, a book about Abelard and Heloise was sold as The Love Affair of a Priest and a Nun.
Much of the rest of the catalog covers freethinker books condemned in the 1920s that look proper, indeed obvious, in the 2010s. Books denouncing puritan morals, advocating atheism, defending evolution, criticizing capitalism, debunking spiritualism. Yet he also excerpted the Christian Bible along with the Talmud, Confucius, and the Koran.
“I am against all religion—I think the Bible is a dull book,” he later wrote. “Yet I print the Bible, and in the face of an appallingly low annual sale I keep the book in the series. I do this out of stubbornness. I am determined, because I know I am prejudiced against the book, to give it more than a fair chance. Could supporters of the Bible ask any more of one who does not like it?
A 1928 account of his now wildly successful publishing program was titled The First Hundred Million, the number of copies supposedly sold. Since the books kept being published until the printing plant burned down in 1978 (although few new titles were added after the start of the Depression), the final tally must be many times that.
Haldeman-Julius and Little Blue Books therefore should be famous, or at least ubiquitous in used book stores. Instead, they are nearly invisible and I say that as someone who collects examples of paperbacks before Pocket Books. (They are legion, from hundreds of publishers in varying sizes and composition.) Time has turned their virtues against them. Little Blue Books simply don't look like books; as skinny pamphlets the size of index cards (for those old enough to get that reference) they don't shelve the ways books do, don't contain complete texts, and don't get surrounded by that ineffable aura that makes old books prized possessions. Bookdealers find them clumsy to deal with, and usually file them alongside other pamphlets and ephemera rather than with their authors. Their original working-class audiences were less likely to create libraries in their homes, an imitation of the habits of the wealthy that filtered down to the middle class and stopped there (as a societal generality: individuals varied). And the sheer cheapness with which they were made that made them sellable at five cents made their active lifetimes brief. Many of the ones in the batch I bought have their covers disconnected, their staples rusty, or their newsprint pages tearing. If you want to check some out you can find individual ones on eBay for less than the price of shipping or lots of several dozens for a hundred dollars. No individual title that I'm familiar with is especially scarce or expensive, although the small number of late titles printed by Haldeman-Julius's son are harder to find. It's mostly a matter of tracking down more than 1900 total titles. A few complete collections are known to exist. Finding first editions is probably an impossible task; none of the originals or the reprintings are marked or dated in any way. The Haldeman-Julius site has invaluable information for collectors. If you have any interest at all, be sure to start there. For one thing you'll learn that they skipped #1849, the search for which might otherwise drive you crazy.
Now for the story itself. "A Trip to Plutopia" appeared in the Appeal to Reason on March 2, 1918 and was reprinted there on April 16, 1921. In between it appeared as one of the first dozen titles in the Appeal's Pocket Series, alongside Grey's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher," and the Soviet Constitution. It's never been formally reprinted since, although it's available as an ebook from various sources. Only 2000 words long, it's barely substantial enough to deserve a separate printing although one could say that it sums up Haldeman-Julius's lifetime philosophy in a single heavy-handed blow.
Plutopia is the imaginary utopia of the plutocrats, those who exercise power by virtue of wealth, a lovely and evocative word that's sadly fallen out of fashion. (The planet and Disney's cartoon dog may have usurped it, along with the confusion with the Roman Pluto, god of the underworld. The word derives from the earlier Greek Ploutōn, the wealth-giver and alternate name for Hades, because so much of their riches, from minerals and even the seeds that grew plants, came from below.) The plutocrats are the very literal 1%, the top 500 inhabitants of the 50,000 who populated the island of Plutopia. Each lived in a palace, getting their riches off the backs of the 49,500 workers who toiled twelve hours a day, 365 days a year, in the rolling mills. By limiting their clothing to paper sacks and their intake to three 200-calorie food pills a day, the cost of a worker had been reduced to a mere 11.4 cents a day. The plutocrats were not cruel. They treated their workers to a movie every Christmas Eve.
Every once in a while, the ungrateful wretches did question the state of the world. The plutocrats had an answer for that. Let the workers demand an extra food pill every day. They would get it, albeit in the form of four 150-calorie pills. Everybody wins.
"A Trip to Plutopia" traffics in nastiness to make up what it lacks in deftness, perhaps the reason it went ignored for so long. As a dystopia, it's an excellent antidote to the sanctimonious depictions of elite rule in more famous works like Looking Backward: 2000-1887. And it is depressingly pertinent for today's world, 100 years hence.
A TRIP TO PLUTOPIA
Plutopia is Greek for Hog: Island. It is still in the experimental stage. The dream back of this venture is to try out the latest ideas in exploitation, and if successful the plan is to be applied generally.
Plutopia is the heaven of the exploiters, the haven of the twelve per-centers, the paradise of the dividendists. It is a small body of land completely surrounded by graft.
The system of government is simplicity epitomized - in fact, there is no government. It is sublimated anarchy. The administration of affairs at Plutopia approximating perfection, there is no need for an organized government.
At present, there are 50,000 inhabitants at Plutopia. All but 500 are working people.
Let me begin with the 49,500. When one describes the first he has practically described the last, for they are about alike in dress, habits and tastes.
They do not have names; each has his own number and answers to it like a convict.
I had occasion to interview No. 31497. He told me he was satisfied with the way things were run and hoped there would never be a change. He was very thankful to the 500 in the palaces, because they gave him an opportunity to work twelve hours each day in one of the rolling mills. He said the first thing he learned was to believe that the 49,500 who worked should do nothing but work, while the remaining 500 who worked not should do everything but work. He confessed this was a difficult theory to get into his head, but as his head had never been overtaxed in any way he managed to adopt the idea.
"At present," he said, "it seems that I always believed that we were supposed to work all the time. The plan is easy to understand. We have absolutely no worries, and we are taken care of as well as we've been taught to expect."
This point needed explanation, which 31497 was glad to supply. An inventor in the employ of the 500 Plutopists had produced a pill, which was placed on the tongue and permitted to dissolve. Three pills went to a worker each day. It was considered sufficient to keep him strong enough to work twelve hours each day. As for clothes, wood pulp was used for the manufacture of paper sacks, on the back of which was printed the number of the worker.
One huge building housed the 49,500, each being assigned to his room which measured six by eight feet. The lights were turned off at 8:50. Once a year, on Christmas Eve, all were given free tickets to a movie. It was figured out scientifically that the upkeep of each hand was exactly 11 cents and four mills a day.
No. 31497 said one good feature about the new system at Plutopia was that the men did not have to take care of their families. In fact, they were not permitted to have families. The women were housed in a separate building. The children were sent to a sort of an orphanage where they were educated to take their place in the industrial order when they become of age, which was placed at nine years. This is highly interesting. Let us now turn our gaze towards the remaining 500.
Where the 49,500 were housed in one building, there was a palace for each of the beneficiaries of Plutopia. Having solved the problem of labor, and having cut down expenses to the lowest possible point, the income was enormous. They no longer figured in dollars and cents. They struck off currency that began at $100,000, because they never cared to bother with less, as it was considered very discommoding to be cluttered up with a lot of loose change. While they believed it was ideal for the workers to partake of food-pills three times each day, they preferred to satisfy their gastronomical desires with more tangible edibles. They imported chefs who were, in reality, Arabian magicians who waved a wand and brought rare dishes from their culinary alchemy.
There is, as we have already mentioned;, no government in Plutopia. The 500 have things arranged so precisely that there is no need for a police force. By training the 49,500 with the utmost care there is no need to waste money on policemen, constables and the like. As for courts, they also were abolished, as they are considered unnecessary expenses. In the old days, the capitalists spent huge sums in their courts, but the science of controlling labor through psychology enabled them to discard the expensive system, at least in this experiment station at Plutopia.
One of the most distinguished looking of the 500, when interviewed, was quite ready to talk.
"Here is the ideal system at last," said the Plutopist, unable to conceal his satisfaction. "I'm sure that it will be only a question of time before the world will follow our methods. This is the last word in organization. We have absolutely no doubts about our hands. They are nothing more than hands, because we are careful that nothing should get into their craniums except what we want lodged there. There is the secret of success. Our hands are not permitted to study, once they are given a place in our mills, because study after workinghours is tiring and throws our whole schedule out of whack. You see, we have just so many calories in the three pills the hand gets each day, and if he wastes any effort we might be forced to give him four, and that would increase expenses one-third of a cent, which we could never consider.
"Besides, thinking is bad for contentment. We don't like them to think about anything but their work. If there is any thinking to be done around here, we take the job on our own shoulders."
"What must be done before a person can become one of the 500?" the Plutopist was asked.
"Nothing. We have a closed corporation and we try to pass the property on only to our blood relatives. Sometimes we reach out and invite outsiders. But the best method is that of inheritance. We got it from our parents, and our children will get it from us. It's much like being a crown prince."
"How about the 49,500? Do they stand a chance to join your 500?"
“Of course they do. They have a wonderful chance. If we happen to like one, we could have him admitted to our ranks by voting on the question. A unanimous vote is needed, however. But that doesn't alter the fact that our hands have an equal chance to take our places."
"Have you ever admitted one of your hands?"
"No, not yet. We may some day."
"Aren't you a little afraid that this army of hands might get organized and throw your friends into the discard?"
"Ah, you mean: Are we afraid of Socialism? Not a whit. Our hands are too well trained. You already understand how we take them through our training school and turn them out perfect workers. That is our strongest argument. Our scientists are now at work on a still bigger idea. This is confidential, of course."
"Certainly," I answered. "Not a word will be said about it."
"Very well," he answered. "See that it goes no further. We are working on a wonderful idea. We see the possibility of doing away entirely with our expensive training school!"
This was interesting. Urged to continue, he added: “If nature is able to give us human beings with hands, eyes, ears and finger nails, why not have nature go still further and present us with human beings who already have the ideas we try so hard to inculcate?"
This was too brilliant for syntax. They had hit on the amazing idea of breeding ideal hands. It was almost unbelievable.
"We'll work it out in time. Our hope is to combine the strength of the ox with the blind loyalty of the dog, the self-sacrifice of the egg-laying hen and the mentality of the jackass. It's revolutionary, but it can be done. When we succeed, our problem will be solved for all time."
The interview at an end, I applied for a pass to the training school. Being a friendly sort of person and knowing there could be no harm in granting the request, the Plutopist wrote out the order.
I began my tour in the kindergarten. There I saw a large class of children, all under five years of age. They were being taught how to use words. In unison they recited: "I want to work!"
"Very good," said the teacher. "Very good. Now try to put a little more gladness into your voices."
With added enthusiasm, the children yelled: "I want to work!"
It was inspiring.
Next came: "Twelve hours a day! I want to work! Twelve hours a day!"
The teacher announced, a little later, that the children must say this 100 times each day, including Sunday. In the next class, the children are given little jobs. The mills were reproduced in miniature and the children were impressed with the fact that the greatest happiness would come when they became old enough to go into the genuine mills. In the miniature the youngsters tended machines that were as tiny as dolls and yet able to do satisfactory work. Incidentally, these children, despite the smallness of the tools, turned out quite an amount of goods, but, unfortunately, the output was not enough to cover expenses.
This was the fatal flaw in the system and undoubtedly was the reason why the 500 wanted to do away with it entirely and resort to having the children born with the idea of the virtue of work and the blessedness of producing for others.
As stated before, when the child becomes nine years old, a place is found in the mills. Up to then, the total cost of upkeep for each child is four and six-tenths of a cent per day.
I heard a great commotion. The teachers were rushing about in terror. Something fearful must have happened. I rushed along with them and when the opportunity presented itself I asked the cause of this excitement.
"It's too terrible for words," answered the person to whom I had directed my question. "It's the first time such a thing ever happened."
"What?" I demanded.
"The children in the kindergarten were repeating their lesson a few minutes ago and everything was going nicely. They were saying 'I want to work' as they should when one boy forgot himself and said: 'I want a pair of skates!' It's too terrible! too terrible!"
And then, trying to excuse the slip, the teacher added: "It may be a hereditary taint. It must be."
"What makes you think so?"
"It has been reported that this boy's father is a dangerous character who will bear watching. Once he made a remark to the effect that he thought it might be a good idea if the hands got four pills a day instead of three. Think of it! He actually proposed an increase in rations of 200 calories, or 1,400 a week. Oh, we must watch these hands. Even after the best kind of an education they are likely to get socialistic ideas."
"What will you do if they threaten to go on strike for the extra pill?"
"Oh, there are plenty of ways of handling the issue. If feelings get strong and it begins to look as though they stand a chance of winning, we'll give in to them."
"Is it possible?"
"We will give in, but there won't be any real difference in the end. Let me explain. They get 600 calories a day, and as we control the manufacture of food-pills, we will give them four a day, but there will be 150 instead of 200 calories in each. That's one way. But I don't think it will ever come to that point. We have them too well trained."
Yes, Plutopia is a wonderful island. It will work as long as the hands consent to work. But so long as there are youngsters who crave a pair of skates and a grown-up who doesn't conceal his desire for an extra pill, there is a standing menace to the future security of Plutopia.