As You Were: A Short History of the Viking Portable Library
After some twenty years and seventeen books, William Faulkner was washed up as a writer. By 1945 each of his books — As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, Sanctuary, Absalom, Absalom!, Go Down, Moses, and a dozen others — was out of print. Critics had over-praised Faulkner's earlier work, often for the wrong reasons, but by the mid-1940s a war-weary public found his books too brazen, too vulgar, and too difficult. Faulkner had wandered off to Hollywood to write screenplays — work he did not particularly like. He earned $500 a week in a business where top salaries were five times that. He had earned more a decade earlier when his novels sold well. “In France, I am the father of a literary movement,” he wrote Malcolm Cowley, who had signed on to edit a compilation of his work for Viking Press. “In America, I eke out a hack's motion picture wages by winning second prize in a manufactured mystery-story contest.”
Then came The Portable Faulkner, the eighteenth book in the Viking series of anthologies that had been a product of World War II. Faulkner could not have imagined the consequences. Skeptics may have viewed The Portable Faulkner as a mere repackaging effort — a “greatest hits” album of sorts — to squeeze a little more profit from an aging catalogue of stories.
After the book was published in April 1946, the New York Times Book Review picked up on the magnitude of The Portable Faulkner immediately and credited Faulkner with “the distinguishing mark of the major novelist: the ability to create a variety of characters.” The turning point for Faulkner had come, and in 1949, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
According to the publisher, the birth of the Viking Portable series was nothing more than a “lucky accident.” Credit for the concept can be given to Alexander Woollcott, a journeyman book and movie critic, radio personality, dramatist, and journalist. Woollcott had seen World War I firsthand as a reporter for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, and the memory of it never left his soul.
In 1941 he traveled to England for a series of radio broadcasts, and on his return he set about doing something for the men and women in service. Having already published two book compilations in the 1930s with Viking, Woollcott had little trouble assembling a book of readings for soldiers faced with the prospects of death on the battlefield.
Woollcott chose to focus only on American writers, hoping to remind soldiers of home. In his introduction to As You Were, Woollcott recounted the story of his only night on the British front in the “Great next to the last War” and how he had been moved by another soldier, “my young friend from Australia [who] had half a candle, a few moments to himself, and a book.” The first Portable featured more than eighty-five selections from a Who's Who of American letters: Poe, Cather, Twain, Lincoln, Whitman, Frost, Sandburg, Millay, Thoreau, and others.
The physical characteristics of the wartime Portables owed more to practicality than anything else. The books were meant to be "built like a Jeep: compact, efficient, and marvelously versatile." Woollcott wrote that As You Were was designed for "the convenience of men who are mostly on the move and must travel light." Viking echoed the mission on the jacket of The Portable Steinbeck, the second book. The Portables were to "present a considerable quantity of widely popular reading in a volume so small that it can conveniently be carried and read in places where a book of ordinary format would be a hindrance." The first Viking Portables featured "light paper, small margins, and other production economies" but still offered a "well and legibly printed and sturdily bound" book.
Woollcott's original compact book rolled off the presses in March 1943 with a less-than compact name: As You Were: A Portable Library of American Prose and Poetry Assembled for Members of the Armed Forces and the Merchant Marine. Woollcott did not live to see it finished, though. In late January he collapsed of a heart attack during a radio broadcast and died later that night.
Hitting the War Market
Although manufacturing reached Herculean proportions at breakneck speeds during World War II—more planes, more ships, more of whatever was needed to supply the war—the expediency with which the second and third Portables hit the market meant that Viking had accurately predicted the success of the Portable series and that they had found a way to sell books and support the war effort. The second and third Portables, The Portable Steinbeck and a collection of poetry edited by Horace Gregory called The Triumph of Life, appeared on bookshelves four months after the appearance of As You Were.
To capitalize on the format and the opportunity (after all, wars don't last forever), Viking drew material from the most obvious source — their own stable of writers. Steinbeck was already a major author riding a wave of success brought on by the publication of The Grapes of Wrath in 1939 and the Pulitzer Prize for that book in 1940.
In reality; though, format took precedence over form. Each of the Portables, ran to about 700 pages, each measured 6-3/4 inches by 4-1/2inches, and each was promoted as a condensed, lightweight volume of reading material. Just what was to fall within these 700 pages, though, remained largely experimental, particularly among the first eight volumes.
By the end of the war in 1945, more than a dozen Viking Portables had rolled off the press, including The Portable Dorothy Parker (with an introduction by another Viking author, Somerset Maugham), The Portable World Bible, The Portable Hemingway, Six Novels of the Supernatural, and The Portable Shakespeare. All drew upon current Viking or public-domain resources. The heyday of the Viking Portable Library, from 1943 to 1953, saw some sixty titles published, many selling copies well into six figures over the years.
Today, the Portables are very different in format. They are not the hardback volumes they once were, and they are bigger and far less portable. The quality of the content remains, but the format is gone, leaving behind only a legacy of wartime publishing.
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