PRINT February 1982


Hardboiled America

It is time that the American people realized themselves. Broadway is genuine. . . . But in the drawing rooms they think it well to deprecate all this. They want to copy Europe, just as we in Russia insisted for so many years on copying Europe. . . .
—Serge Diaghilev, quoted in Serge Diaghilev, by Richard Buckle

From a nation of immigrants dependent on what Diaghilev saw as a mail-order heritage, America, by the ’50s, had begun to realize the competitive vitality of its own accomplishments, eventually growing so enamored of its immediate past that planned obsolescence pioneered a brand of turnover nostalgia that could find gold in schlock faster than you can eat a McDonald’s Big Mac. Now the question is, how do we honor our visual Broadway with the perspective of real time? The answer lies in a brand of radically telescoped cultural archeology. Digging out the first strata required the talents of high art archeologists looking for an unexploited pop culture donkey on which to pin a revisionist thesis. The most enlightened example is, of course, Robert Venturi who, with Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, launched the landmark Learning from Las Vegas in 1972, after which vernacular architecture was the new catch-phrase and the commercial Strip was elevated to the Camino Real.

Once the theoreticians had paved the way, the hawkers moved in—de-intellectualizing, homogenizing, sentimentalizing. The result was the romantic Know-Nothingism manifested by John Margolies in the introduction to his book, The End of the Road: Vanishing Highway Architecture in America. To wit: “The commercial architecture by the side of the road is very important; it is America’s definitive contribution to the art of design in the twentieth century. It is not ‘that awful commercial garbage’ that our parents hated so much; it is not blight and ugliness and bad taste. It proves that what we are really best at is being tacky and commercial.” Now, that’s a real leap from the theoreticians’ position, as stated in Learning from Las Vegas:

Understanding the content of Pop’s messages and the way that it is projected does not mean that one need agree with, approve of, or reproduce that content. If the commercial persuasions that flash on the strip are materialistic manipulation and vapid sub-communication, which cleverly appeal to our deeper drives but send them only superficial messages, it does not follow that we architects who learn from their techniques must reproduce the content or the superficiality of their messages. . . . Just as Lichtenstein has borrowed the techniques and images of the comics to convey satire, sorrow, and irony rather than violent high adventure, so may the architect’s high reader suggest sorrow, irony, love, the human condition, happiness, or merely the purpose within, rather than the necessity to buy soap or the possibility of an orgy.

Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour, attended by high moral purpose, are on a dig; Margolies is on a treasure hunt.

What architects were discovering in the late ’60s had already been a concern for artists since the mid-’50s. Richard Hamilton’s collage Just What is it that Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing? from the “This is Tomorrow” show at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956 still remains the most succinct meditation on the seductive/repulsive allure of the vernacular. Hamilton’s collage is Pop’s Rosetta Stone—through the window of his hybrid low/ middle/high living room can be seen an early vision of the Strip. Here the relationship between architecture and art is succinctly distilled; it’s that of the elephant lumbering after the hare. And, as the wheel turns, the artists were preceded by the writers. In 1955, none other than Vladimir Nabokov was tooling down the Strip with Lolita, listening to the “would-be enticements” of “. . . all those Sunset Motels, U-Beam Cottages, Hillcrest Courts, Pine View Courts, Mountain View Courts, Skyline Courts, Park Plaza Courts, Green Acres, Mac’s Courts.” Just up the road (also in ’55) was Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Coney Island of the Mind” and its reflections “on freeways fifty lanes wide/on a concrete continent/spaced with bland billboards/illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness . . . ”. Ferlinghetti’s lament precedes Margolies’ paean to the “tacky and commercial” by two decades, decades filled with earnest cultural reclamation whereby a Topsy phenomenon was met with dismay, explored with irony, and ultimately re-evaluated.

Geoffrey O’Brien’s Hardboiled America: The Lurid Years of Paperbacks offers a fascinating paradigm for a middlebrow dig into the fast dissolving past which mediates between the elevated application of Venturi and the fire-sale enthusiasm of Margolies. Capitalizing on the critical revival of writers like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler, O’Brien glides into an inspired analysis of the graphic and literary “dream America made of itself, a few decades ago.” O’Brien targets his quarry in the preface:

The paperbacks were a microcosm of American fantasies about the real world. They took the ordinary streets, the dives, the tenements, the cheap hotels, and invested them with mystery—with poetry even—turning them into the stuff of mythology. Shamelessly exploitative, they made their points with a maximum of directness. No trace of subtlety was permitted to cloud the violent and erotic visions that were their essence, and that very lack of subtlety lifted them out of this world.

Here is the true essence and origin of America’s Strips—a hyperrealism that seduces by virtue of its brute “disregard for good taste and moral uplift.”

Starting with the short-lived cultural pretensions accompanying the mass paperback’s real emergence in 1939 (Pocket Books’ “first ten titles were canny choices, a carefully mixed bag of culture, uplift and entertainment: William Shakespeare and Agatha Christie, James Hilton’s Lost Horizon and Dorothea Brande’s Wake Up and Live!”), O’Brien chronicles the postwar capitulation to sex and violence, and concludes with the industry’s self-imposed restraint after its investigation by the House Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials in 1952. Yet Hardboiled America is more than a schematic look at a subgenre. The book’s richness does not lie in its historical detail, but rather in the critical and cultural insights accorded the material.

O’Brien’s assessment of the cover art of pioneer illustrators—notably Rodolph Belarski, Stanley Zuckerberg, and James Avati—hinges on what he terms “a triumph of format, of suggesting within the small dimensions of a book cover a larger world that one could walk through.” And what a world. Supplemented by cover blurbs like “A Left-Over Blonde Ready for Murder” and “A Hot Redhead Meets a Cold Corpse,” Belarski’s women have the most aggressively monumental busts (definitely more than breasts) in the history of illustration. With butterfly bodices strained past reason, these women alternately cower and advance like an endlessly reduplicative army of Brünhildes. Whereas Belarski’s women are their own mise en scène, Zuckerberg favored pregnant tableaux in ruined alleys and moldering rooming houses. His women are lush, dark, and troubled, like Jennifer Jones (who could well be the model) in Ruby Gentry; his men are Mediterranean and, while passively posed, appear more coiled than relaxed. O’Brien’s favorite, James Avati, is the most archetypal talent considered, and his covers tease one into the book with a narrative flair not present in his competitors.

Both Avati and Zuckerberg worked for Signet Books, about which O’Brien states:

Signet had found the exact midpoint of American culture . . . whatever contradictions existed between high and low, between literature and exploitation, were to be welded together in a single image. It is the blending of opposite points of view that gives the Signet covers their vitality. At first glance the artwork seems part of the usual trashy paperback syndrome. But when you look again, the setting comes into focus, the faces are seen to have ambiguous expressions, the instant reading of the pulp cover has given way to something unsettled and quietly disturbing.

And that is the natural tension of the vernacular, where the addition of detail is always an enticement to action.

Discussing the reciprocity between paperbacks and films, O’Brien might well be reiterating those persuasions of the Strip “which cleverly appeal to our deeper drives but send them only superficial messages” when he states:

. . . Movie poster, film frame, cover painting, page of text—[each] tries to be more than surface, to bring the viewer or reader into immediate contact with a reality more real than the place where you (watcher or reader) are standing. You approach those surfaces as if to enter the genuine place, the place where the action is. It is a quest for an impossible kind of directness, an image or event so unmistakably there that you need not even a split second to analyze or question it.

What we see in the “Buy me, feel me” esthetic of early American paperbacks is a facet of the Strip, with its hysterical competitiveness and esthetic of urgent consumerism. O’Brien’s odyssey through Hardboiled America lets us see who was in the cars and lets us share their vision of “the glitter of fulfillment.” Here is how O’Brien describes the dream and the dreamer: “A buck, a blonde, a Buick, a steak dinner, bottle after bottle of champagne, a color television—everything and anything that you could hold in your hand, really see, really touch, before it slips away.” What is, in the end, most laudable about O’Brien’s excavation of the pulps is his willingness to confront the blighted expectations which the paperbacks’ rough artistry catered to. He uses his subject to capture the convulsions of a nation discovering that the sky is no longer the limit.


Geoffrey O’Brien, Hardboiled America: The Lurid Years of Paperbacks, (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1981), 144 pages, illustrated.