Contributor: Jennifer Brannock
Curator of Rare Books and Mississippiana/Associate Professor
McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi
In recent years, there have been a number of influential books that induced teenagers to read. Before Twilight and The Hunger Games, there was the 1950 novel Hot Rod by Henry Gregor Felsen. Hot Rod differs from the previously mentioned books because it depicts aspects of real life including the most popular pastime of teenage males after World War II.
Many hot rodders of the time were viewed as delinquents. Despite their bad reputations, repairing, customizing, and racing automobiles became a part of mainstream American culture. The 1940s and 1950s saw the birth of many hot rod enthusiast magazines including Hot Rod, Speed Age, Hop Up, Car Craft, and Rod and Custom. These periodicals provided a way for hot rodders around the country to communicate about techniques used to customize vehicles. These were also the first publications that adolescents were able to read relating to the hot rod craze.
Published in 1950, Hot Rod became the cool book to read. Required reading in high school in the 1950s included books like Silas Marner and A Tale of Two Cities. These books proved to be difficult for the average student. Felsen’s Hot Rod became the book of choice for remedial readers. As one writer from the 1950s stated, “[Hot Rod] serves as one way of getting kids started on a lifetime reading pattern.”
Hot Rod was so popular that volume one of High School Reading Book from 1961, which was comprised of condensed versions of books, included a portion of Hot Rod beside selections by Rudyard Kipling, Helen Keller, Robert Frost, and Mark Twain. The influence of the book was so evident that a high school English teacher wrote the article “If Only Dickens Had Written about Hot Rods” so-called because a student remarked in her class, during a discussion of A Tale of Two Cities, “if only this Dickens wrote about hot rods” [as he yawned]. Also, Stephen King lists it as one of the most important books of his childhood.
Hot Rod was initially intended to promote safe driving to teenagers as seen in the back cover (below). Despite its envisioned purpose, the book became the “gateway drug” for nonreaders. In response to this new readership, the hot rod genre was born.