How Hitler Nearly Destroyed the Great American Novel
When Houghton Mifflin published ‘Mein Kampf’ in 1933, it sparked what could be the strangest saga in publishing history
There are horror stories about what can go wrong on release day, and then there is the story of John Fante. There has always been a rich genre of heartbreaking tales of what could have been — from albums released on September 11th to sculptures destroyed in transit — and then there is the novel Ask the Dust, a book whose tragic bad luck is spoken of in hushed tones — passed from writer to writer and repeated endlessly by critics and journalists — as the ultimate publishing nightmare.
The fact that a brilliant work would not be appreciated in its time is not, in and of itself, a remarkable event. But the nearly unbelievable (and up until now, largely unconfirmed) how of Ask the Dust, now widely considered to be a sort of West Coast Gatsby — which was released to rave reviews in 1939 but did not begin to find its audience until the early 1980s as Fante, then a double amputee, lay dying of diabetes — was not some inexplicable, unavoidable force majeure. It was not ill-health or racism or hubris. It was something much more specific. It was something with a face and a name. Really just one name, in fact.
While the list of artists victimized by the Nazis is long — from Stefan Zweig to Felix Nussbaum — few of them were first-generation Italian immigrants living and writing books in sunny Southern California. Very few of those tragedies were rendered through a decision by a U.S. Federal Court. And of course, none of them were ultimately redeemed by a chance encounter on the shelves of the Los Angeles Public Library nearly a half-century later.
What follows, then, is one of strangest sagas in all of publishing — perhaps in all of art. It is a story of greed and stupidity, of bad timing and eventual vindication. Ultimately, it’s the story of how some of the “finest fiction ever written in America” managed to triumph over undeniable evil. And it’s one that deserves the…