What Black Readers Read in 1943

Beecher Terrace

Over at History News Network, book historian Jonathan Rose discusses a 1943 study of African American reading habits in Louisville.  Here is a taste:

In 1943 a study of reading habits was conducted in Beecher Terrace, a black Louisville public housing community. At this point “the projects” were new, clean, and well maintained, a vast improvement over the hovels they replaced, and not yet ridden by crime and drugs. The residents were nearly all domestic, service, and industrial workers, but only 11 percent of households were headed by single mothers, and the unemployment rate was just 4.4 percent. As for schooling, 44.2 percent had some elementary education, 44.8 percent had attended high school, and nearly 10 percent had some exposure to higher education. Beecher Terrace offered a range of social and recreational services and was located near a black business district and a segregated branch public library. It was a stable and hopeful community, and although life wasn’t easy, it was improving.

The investigator, Juanita Offutt, visited all 616 homes and interviewed the residents about the books they owned, read, and borrowed from the library. And when she asked about their leisure activities, the most popular answer, volunteered by nearly a third of all residents, was reading. A 1938 study of Cincinnati had found that 34 percent of black homes were bookless, but the figure for Beecher Terrace was just 7.3 percent, though four times as many had only a Bible, and another 13.1 percent only a Bible and dictionary. Nearly half of the Beecher Terrace homes had more substantial libraries, averaging 3.7 novels, 2.3 religious books, and 1.5 works of non-fiction.

Offutt compiled a complete inventory of all the books she found in residents’ homes, a total of roughly 1,800 volumes. Mostly they were standard romantic and detective fiction, Tarzan, westerns, children’s books, religious tomes, Sherlock Holmes, Rudyard Kipling, Louisa May Alcott, and seven copies of How to Win Friends and Influence People. But there were also some classics: The Arabian Nights, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights (four copies), Pilgrim’s Progress (four copies), James Fenimore Cooper (eight individual volumes plus his collected works), eleven volumes of Charles Dickens (including three of Oliver Twist), Lewis Carroll, Silas Marner (three copies), Madame Bovary, John Dryden’s Marriage à la Mode, The Vicar of Wakefield, Far from the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native, Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Moby Dick, Ivanhoe (three copies), Tristram Shandy, Gulliver’s Travels, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Brave New World, Das Kapital, Thus Spake Zarathustra, and twelve individual Shakespeare plays plus two volumes of his collected works.

There were four volumes of essays by Emerson, a popular author among black autodidacts (Ralph Waldo Ellison was named after him). Eighty-three households stocked some poetry, mainly Robert Browning, Burns, Byron, Chaucer, Coleridge, Virgil, Kipling, Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Masefield, Milton, Thomas Moore, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Tennyson, Whittier, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and nothing really modern. There was some contemporary middlebrow fiction: Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (three copies), A. J. Cronin, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (four copies), John Galsworthy, James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, Main Street and Arrowsmith, Somerset Maugham, O. Henry, All Quiet on the Western Front, Treasure Island (8 copies), The Grapes of Wrath, Booth Tarkington, H. G. Wells, and even P. G. Wodehouse.

And Offutt found seventeen sex manuals, including Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, but mostly common-sense guides for married couples, such as Harland W. Long’s Sane Sex Life and Sane Sex Living. As Offutt conceded: “Frequently the tenants admitted that the books were given to them and that many of them had not been read by any one in the family.” But the sex guides clearly had been bought and thumbed through.

Very few households regularly subscribed to magazines, but some were bought and read at least occasionally: the most popular were Life (23.3 percent of homes), True Stories (21.9 percent), Good Housekeeping (13. 1 percent), and the Ladies Home Journal (8.2 percent), compared to just 3.1 percent for Time and 1 percent for the Crisis, the NAACP organ.

Four out of five households read the Louisville Defender, the local black weekly, a comparable proportion read the white-owned Louisville dailies, and only 5.5 percent of households never took in a newspaper. (In 1943 total circulation for African-American newspapers was 1,613,255, more than triple the figure for 1910, and rising rapidly.)

Read the entire post here.