Blurring the boundaries: Fourteen great detective stories and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the Modern Library Series

Lise Jaillant

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


In March 1928, the Modern Library, a uniform series of reprints marketed as “the world’s best books,” added two new titles – Fourteen Great Detective Stories and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. While reprints were generally not reviewed in periodicals, the cheap price and stylish presentation of the Modern Library attracted plenty of attention. For example, the Hartford Courant published a review that praised these additions to a “remarkable series.” For today’s reader, it seems surprising that Joyce’s text could be reviewed in a few sentences after a lengthy discussion on detective tales. The “great divide” between modernism and mass culture, described by Andreas Huyssen, conveys the impression of two radically different cultural spheres – even if recent scholarship has traced the influence of popular culture on many modernist works.

Despite this increasing interest in the intersections between the “High” and the “Low,” most scholars have failed to notice that modernist and detective texts were often published in the same venues. Indeed, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, many mainstream firms issued texts that we now see as “high modernist,” alongside detective fiction. For instance, the renowned publisher Alfred Knopf released Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, The Dain Curse and The Maltese Falcon in 1929 and 1930 (the latter was then reprinted in the Modern Library). Knopf’s list also included D. H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Katherine Mansfield and Langston Hughes. Moreover, in 1928, Scribner’s Magazine serialized S. S. Van Dine’s “The Greene Murder Case.” The fact that Scribner, the publisher of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, could proudly endorse Van Dine’s story shows that popular culture and literary modernism were increasingly intertwined.

Drawing on extensive research in the Random House archives at Columbia Rare Book & Manuscript Library, this paper uses a book history approach to show that the Modern Library contributed to the blurring of boundaries between modernist and popular fiction
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)767-796
Number of pages30
JournalJames Joyce Quarterly
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2015

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