by | May 20, 2024

Mickey Spillane was the best-selling American fiction author of the 20th century, 200 million worldwide. But not good enough for the canon.


The best-selling authors of their day, if not the best

I once read a lot of novels. In 1977, newly in Toronto, I was faced with a one-hour commute on public transit, and, aided by a list of 20th century best-selling novels, determined to fill up the time by becoming better acquainted with popular taste in North American fiction, through the years. Not, therefore, the canon of Good and Important Literature, although there is plenty of overlap. I well recall that Zane Gray (The Man of the Forest, 1920) was a bit of a chore, Sinclair Lewis (Babbitt, 1922) a revelation.

However, those best-seller lists were strictly hardcover, no pulp fiction or paperbacks being considered worthy of inclusion, while certain genres of hardcover were infra dig. For its 63rd printing of the 20th anniversary edition (Signet paperback, 1967), the cover of Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury (1947) proudly announced sales of six million, but it received no critical acclaim and never appeared on the definitive best seller list, that of The New York Times. By the time it was adapted into a film in 1953, it had sold 3.5 million copies¹. For comparison, Gentleman’s Agreement, by Laura Z. Hobson, the top novel on the Times chart in 1947, which spent 14 weeks at number one, had sold 1.6 million by 1953². By 1980, seven of the top fifteen all-time best-selling fiction titles in America were written by Spillane, the best-selling fiction author of the 20th century³.  So I read him too, and Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Erle Stanley Gardner.

This approach to a critical understanding of history, focusing on the most popular of popular culture, regardless of whether or not it’s in the canon of high art, received a strong endorsement from William St Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (2004), a minutely thorough quantitative analysis of who and how many read what, which revealed that Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott were the most-read English language authors of the 19th century, by a wide margin. Apart from statistical evidence, St Clair quotes an anecdote from The Illustrated London News, 25th September, 1867 (35 years after Scott had died, and 57 years after his most famous historical verse romance, The Lady of the Lake):

“The writer was travelling down to Wales, and at the London station he said ‘Boy, where are the Scott novels?’ ‘Don’t keep them,’ he replied. ‘Don’t keep them! Why not?’ ‘Because if we did, we would not sell anything else’ … at every station the writer made the same inquiry and met with the same result.”

Not only were Byron and Scott chart-toppers, they were important players in the emergent culture of national identity and celebrity which occurred in early 19th century Europe. But still, I would not read their long narrative poems! There’s something about long poems I have difficulty appreciating, like opera, or perhaps caused by trauma from a schoolboy encounter with Paradise Lost. Though I did start on Scott’s first great novel, Waverley (1814)—but I never made it through chapter one, in which the author discusses why he decided to name the novel Waverley; or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since. For heaven’s sake man, get on with the story!

Now, what on earth could possess me to read Scott’s Lady of the Lake?

Left: A brick of a book. Right: Loose spine cover reveals binding.

It beckoned to me from a shelf of grubby old “Vintage” books at the Value Village store in Orillia, Ontario. They had all seen better days, but this one possessed a romantic allure of faded grandeur, with a dark blue-black cover and gold embossed decoration extant on the spine. No bigger than a postcard (octodecimo: 4″ x 6¼”) it was nonetheless hefty, being 2½” thick, a real brick of a book. Oh no!—it was Scott’s Poetical Works. Still, I looked inside, wondering if there were any nice illustrations. Yes, although hard to find, a mere eight of them hidden amongst 622 pages. But worth the hunt!

Barnard Castle, from Rokeby. Engraved by Charles Heath.

They are steel engravings by Charles Heath, with an incredible density of black ink, an astonishing amount of detail almost imperceptible to the eye, and captioned by faint lettering of the most delicate wispyness, like tiny strands of angel hair that might blow away at any moment, written with a slight backslant which betrays their having been engraved in reverse. Each print is on smooth heavy stock, most are protected by a fine tissue. For $5.99 I bought it, because of those beautiful little engravings. Then, as often happens when one brings a new treasure home and sits down with it, other qualities became apparent.

Mise-en-page. The first of The Lady of the Lake’s 133 pages.

I noticed the type. Such remarkably small type. The poems are set in a Scotch Roman, at Minion (pronounced “min-yun”) size, about 6 on 7 point. Today, comparable specs would be much, much larger, say 10 on 14. The copious footnotes (Scott was a historical scholar) are at one of the tiniest sizes of metal type, Pearl, 5 on 5 point—with small caps to boot! No wonder they named it Pearl, so very precious, and what a wealth of meticulous compositing, so many hundreds of expert man-hours to weigh in one’s hand. And each page so immaculately laid out—all in all, a joy to read! Therefore, piqued by the taste of its art and typography, I proceeded with The Lady of the Lake, and to my great surprise was swept away by the writing.

The Death of King James, from Marmion. The one unsigned illustration in the book—perhaps a later work commissioned at the time of its printing, to add a dash of drama appropriate to Scott’s often violent tales, in the manner of Delacroix, in contrast to Heath’s picturesque landscapes.

The Death of King James, detail.

How old?

The thing is falling apart, with foxing and water damage. I doubt it’s worth what I paid for it. I couldn’t find the exact same edition online. The lack of a title page is problematic; there’s no telling who printed it, when or where. However, the text typeface is the Scotch Roman that was designed especially for Ballantyne, Scott’s publisher, so that gives it some provenance. I searched for information on Heath, the engraver, but that didn’t help pin down the date of publication. Before he died in 1848, he ran into financial difficulties and sold his old stock. With the durability of steel plates, his earlier engravings may well have been reused many times, for many years (banknotes and postage stamps were printed from steel engravings in vast quantities, because of their toughness). There is another, peculiar clue to the book’s age. With the cover’s spine flapping open (see above), disconnected from the back cover, the binding is revealed, sealed with pale grey paper printed with text for some other purpose, perhaps part of a make-ready sheet pulled as the printer was adjusting the impression at the start of a different job. On this are the words “New York” and a few letters in the condensed gothic style of Caslon’s Anglo-Saxon of 1854.

The typeface

Shinntype’s Scotch Modern is similar to the type style in Scott’s Poetical Works, with optical sizes for Display, Text and Micro, as used in the book’s footnotes.

The poems are set in a Scotch Roman, at Minion size, about 6 on 7 point. Today, comparable specs would be much, much largers, say 10 on 14. The footnotes are at one of the tiniest sizes of metal type, Pearl, about 5 on 5 point.

¹ Cinema: The New Pictures, Aug 17, 1953 Time magazine.
² Assignment America, Time, November 9, 1953
³ Obituary, John Sutherland, The Guardian, 18th July, 2006.