The first two generations of the twentieth century were reading generations, devoting part of their hard earned leisure to the major writers of the day—Booth Tarkington, Sinclair Lewis, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name but three who sold well—and another part to writers less refined but perhaps even more robust whose work, usually and pejoratively described as escapist in character, saw print in those large-format monthly journals called “the pulps.” Turn-of-the-century general fiction magazines such as Argosy and Blue Book gave way, in the 1920s, to a ramification of specialized journals—Amazing Stories for science fiction, Popular Detective for crime fiction, and self-explanatory titles like Gangster Stories, Women’s Stories, and Wild West. There were scores of other pulps, most of them quite as narrowly directed, over the years. As Frank M. Robinson and Lawrence Davidson remark in Pulp Culture (1998), “by the time the pulps finally died [in the 1950s] more than twelve hundred different titles had appeared, exploiting every human endeavor from making love to making money, from throwing a football to flying a Zeppelin.”
The pulps comprised an account, in fictional language, of the emerging modern society of industry and technology, but they also recorded a widespread nostalgia for the fields of personal prowess that the new economics of mass production and Babbitt-type consumerism had all but abolished: the pulps, in their way, were the last frontier, after the actual frontier had given way to cheap tract housing in Southern California. In just this spirit, as early as the teens of the Twentieth Century, Edgar Rice Burroughs and his imitators had begun filling the pages of Argosy and All Story with tales of heroic endeavor set in Africa or on lost continents in the Pacific or on the moon or Mars. “The pulps had their faults,” Robinson and Davidson write, “but when they were good, they were very good.” Among other virtues, much of pulp fiction boasted a distinctly masculine character, as in the work of Burroughs; along with its masculinity, pulp fiction also tended to endorse a chivalrous code, inherited from medieval knightly romance. People remember Tarzan as Johnny Weissmuller played him in the movies, nearly dumb and a bit brutal, but the Burroughsian literary original was an English lord, fully educated, who returned to the jungle on the conviction that civilization had become disturbingly unfaithful to its ancestral canons. The pulp protagonist never quailed from using his fists yet he usually employed them in a cause that transcended his ego. Whether he was a King of the Apes or a hard-boiled detective, he fought for something that communicated with decency and he often sacrificed for his victory. The graphic exterior aspect of the pulps reflected this heroic ethos. The typical pulp cover, in lurid but enthralling color, depicts the protagonist in combat in the exotic setting, often accompanied by the female interest. She corresponds to anything but the cliché of a frail damsel; on the contrary, she tends to match the hero in vitality and resolution, and she willingly takes on the fight with him.
Perhaps the disrepute of the pulps stems from their having been un- or even anti-politically correct before their time. Robert Lesser writes in Pulp Art (1997) that, “pulp in the form’s heyday meant trash” and “pulp still, apparently, means trash, a concept embedded in the American language.” The phrase “as worthless as pulp fiction” is one that Mr. Lesser attributes to a New York Times opinion-piece by Anna Quindlen that saw print as recently as 1993. Quentin Tarentino’s ultra-violent film Pulp Fiction (1994) reinforced the worst stereotypes of the genre while simultaneously assaulting all of the generic virtues. The pulps disappear as we speak, mouldering away in attics and basements, only sporadically preserved; relatives junk and transport the archives when aging eccentrics die. The opportunity to assay the field is kept open, however, by the fortunate fact that in the last ten years a number of daring publisher-aficionados have taken the capital risk of putting favorite writers back into print. This rebirth itself constitutes a phenomenon meriting notice: it suggests resistance in pockets of the culture to the surrounding de-enculturation of our times, a dedication to the venerable past rather than to the fleeting mediocre present, and the possibility of bequeathing a boon to posterity. A brief survey seems in order.
Arkham House can boast the longest existence among these enterprises, tracing itself back to a bug in founder August Derleth’s (1909 – 1971) mind in 1937, the year of the death of Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890 – 1937), whose works Derleth would return to print. With fellow Lovecraftian Donald Wandrei (1908 – 1987), Derleth issued The Outsider and Others, a compendium of their mutual mentor’s cosmic-horrific stories; the two issued further Lovecraft titles in the 1940s, keeping them in print in new editions through to Derleth’s death. Exhausting Lovecraft’s fiction, Derleth had then edited the master’s letters in five fascinating volumes, issued in the 1960s; the letters illuminated the stories and became an indispensable element of the Lovecraft canon. Derleth began publishing other writers of the Weird Tales group, such as Wandrei himself and Clark Ashton Smith; Derleth’s successors have solicited more new writers and have broadened house’s purview to embrace science fiction as well as macabre stories reflecting the Lovecraftian “Cthulhu Mythos.”
Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith (2003), a recent addition to the Arkham House catalogue edited by David E. Schultz and Scott Connors, complements the five volumes of Lovecraft’s epistolary writing. Poet, painter, sculptor, fiction-writer, polymath-autodidact, and lifelong gold-country Californian, Smith (1893 – 1961) like Lovecraft reveals himself in his missives as a man of real intellect, a fine stylist, a connoisseur of poetry and the plastic arts, and a firm defender of his carefully formulated convictions. Would that a representative contemporary humanities professor possessed but a fraction of Smith’s grace and judgment! Smith’s erudition and gentlemanliness tell us that the pulp writers, despite the stereotypes that would dismiss them, were often (the best of them at least) genuine literary practitioners: thoughtful, civilized men with a curatorial attitude toward the common artistic inheritance, who took pleasure, amidst a characteristic poverty, in well-worn books culled from the second-hand shops and a wide and regular correspondence with their far-flung colleagues. Smith’s family had settled, to farm, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the community of Long Valley, California; Smith stuck to his native ground, seeing no reason why art could not thrive in a rural locale, and in his teens was already a published poet under the tutelage of the California bard George Sterling.
The letters, covering the five decades from 1911 to 1961, deliver fascinating, splendidly informed discussions of French Symbolist poetry, of British aestheticism, of trends in modern literature and painting, as well as a running commentary on what it meant to earn one’s keep as a penny-a-word writer for perishable monthlies. In a 1949 letter addressed to Derleth concerning the generics of science fiction, Smith complains that a critical symposium on the topic has failed to be sufficiently historical: “I was quite surprised that no one mentioned Lucian, Apuleius and Rabelais among the forefathers of the genre, since all three are of prime importance. Lucian was a satirist and a skeptic who, in the form of imaginative fiction, endeavored to ‘debunk’ the religious superstitions and contending philosophies of his time; being, one might say, somewhat analogous to Aldous Huxley, who in his turn has satirized modern science.” In another 1949 letter, addressed this time to Samuel J. Sackett (then a student, later an English professor, at UCLA), Smith lists the formative influences on his literary work: “Poe should head the list. Baudelaire and George Sterling in regard to poetry, and Lovecraft and Dunsany in regard to prose, should be added… Lafcadio Hearn, Gautier and Flaubert (the latter at least in The Temptation of St. Anthony) have all helped to shape my prose style.” To L. Sprague de Camp in 1953, summarizing his formal education, Smith writes that “it has been mainly self-conducted, highly irregular, and largely a matter of my following my own vagrant and varying inclinations… My real education began with the reading of Robinson Crusoe (unabridged), Gulliver’s Travels, the fairy tales of Andersen and the Countess d’Aulnoy, The Arabian Nights and (at the age of 13) Poe’s Poems.” A few days before his death, Smith dispatches an Alexandrine sonnet to his friend Donald Sidney-Fryer. That—Lucian of Samosata and Flaubert’s Temptation of St. Anthony—is the fertile soil of Smith’s pulp fiction.
Arkham House (which also published Russell Kirk’s first book of ghost stories) also bequeaths to us two handsome volumes collecting the hitherto un-anthologized short stories of nonagenarian Nelson S. Bond (born 1908), The Far Side of Nowhere (2002) and Other Worlds than Ours (2005). Bond represents a different type of pulp author from Lovecraft or Smith, who lived to write, or to paint and sculpt, and never took what other people would have called regular employment; he wrote rather by avocation, pursuing a career in public relations, at which he was apparently gratifyingly successful. While neither an innovator nor a refiner (beyond a certain point) of action-narrative, Bond nevertheless produced satisfying journeyman-work that pleased the readership and often influenced the editor to “give him the cover,” as happened in the case of the novella Wanderers of the Wolf Moon in Planet Stories for Spring, 1944, a novella collected in Other Worlds than Ours.
The pulps persuasively solicit the adjective robust, which I used inevitably in the previous paragraph and which one must be in order to reach age ninety-eight and still pursue an active life, mentally and physically, as Bond does. Another still-active nonagenarian who sharpened his authorial quill in writing for the pulps is Jack Williamson (born 1918), long resident in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Williamson benefits from the dedication of Michigan aficionado and entrepreneur Stephen Haffner, whose Haffner Press in Royal Oak, a suburb of Detroit, has published The Collected Stories of Jack Williamson in five lavish volumes featuring cover-art on the dust jackets from the periodicals in which the keynote tale of a given volume first appeared. Volume One, for example, bears the subtitle The Metal Man and Other Stories and sports Frank R. Paul’s December 1928 Amazing Stories color-cover for the eponymous saga. Haffner’s five tomes allow readers to observe Williamson’s development from a bold but unmistakable imitator of others to a self-confident master of an audacious art unmistakably his own. Each volume in the series also includes editorial and other non-fictional material, such as, again in Volume One, Williamson’s 1928 Amazing-Stories opinion-piece, “Tremendous Contribution to Civilization,” a defense of science fiction against its detractors. Science fiction, Williamson writes, “carries us to the land of our dreams and lo! They are dreams no longer, but splendid, fascinating realities… Dreams of men reach out to other worlds of space and time.” Williamson wielded this potent mythopoeia in his prose like a sword of the imagination.
Haffner’s publishing coup de nobilité must be his two magnificent volumes enshrining the oeuvre of the Queen of the Pulps and the veritable High Priestess of Planet Stories, Santa-Monica born Leigh Brackett (1915 – 1978); Haffner promises a third volume within the patience of those who hope and wait. Brackett’s Mars, the chief setting for her tales, is a once splendid world which, having exhausted its resources and succumbed to planetary aging, struggles to preserve its heritage of civilization amidst the collapse of its cities into ruins and the barbarization of its society. That a bureaucratically sclerotic terrestrial empire has extended itself to the Red Planet helps matters not a bit. The overarching Brackett-saga plays out the gritty oath of a few believers to preserve nobility against every form of social and political corruption. Brackett’s work for Planet Stories especially gave her an international reputation in the 1970s, when French and German editors rediscovered her on their own and translated her Mars-cycle for publication in those languages. Brackett’s crime-fiction has also reappeared from Blackmask Online, who have issued her 1944 novel No Good from a Corpse, set in Los Angeles, Hollywood, Santa Monica, and Venice. Her final achievement was her screenplay for George Lucas’ second “Star Wars” film, The Empire Strikes Back (1981).
No one today writes anything resembling the potent mixture achieved by a Smith, a Bond, a Williamson, or a Brackett. Our entertainments have become effeminate and puritanical in their perversely and contradictorily sexed-up way. The pulp writers were red-blooded; contemporary popular fiction is “blue” in the pornographic sense and “blue” in the sense of its prickly correctness. Give us the red mist of the Lost Venusian Sea! To invest a few dollars in any of these beautifully produced books is to vote for civilization over barbarism.
Thomas F. Bertonneau teaches English at SUNY Oswego.
Posted: May 14, 2007 in Essays.
Civilization in Davy Jones’s Locker
Volume 39, Number 3 (Fall 1999)