In a critical moment in the plot of Stephen King’s It: A Novel, the protagonist finds himself distraught over a grade his creative writing teacher has given him for what he considered a first-rate story.
The story comes back from the instructor with an F slashed into the title page. Two words are scrawled beneath, in capital letters. PULP, screams one. CRAP, screams the other. Bill takes the fifteen-page sheaf of manuscript over to the woodstove and opens the door. He is within a bare inch of tossing it in when the absurdity of what he is doing strikes him. He sits down in his rocking chair, looks at a Grateful Dead poster, and starts to laugh. Pulp? Fine! Let it be pulp! The woods were full of it! [Stephen King, IT]
Let it be pulp!
In current American culture, the word “pulp” generally signifies something dirty, quick, cheap, and maybe even quasi-pornographic. The word that might appear in the American mind immediately after “pulp” is “shoddy.”
My mom—who introduced me to the love of reading at an early age—always called it “trash fiction.” This was not necessarily a bad thing. Some of the best fiction was trash fiction. It just wasn’t “literary.” Peyton Place might not be The Republic, but each could teach us something. I will never forget when my mom handed me the former. She did it when I was the perfect age to understand it, and it taught me a lot about life, frankly.
The Pulp Era serves as a vital period in American literary culture during the interwar years of the twentieth century. There had been lots of pulp before the First World War, of course, but it became a major industry in New York and, to a lesser extent, Chicago, in the 1920s. Its growth rivals that of Hollywood, and each created the popular culture of the twentieth century. Not surprisingly, the two paralleled one another, and the predominant culture of the New York pulps, as in Hollywood, was Jewish and Catholic. Even during the years of the Great Depression, the pulps sold well, usually for a dime each. Out of the pulps came not only our comic book culture (movies too), but the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. The pulp culture also advanced mysteries and westerns. As I sat in a darkened theater recently with my family, watching the latest Star Wars movie, I couldn’t help but be reminded that Star Wars is rather—explicitly at times—an extremely modern and sophisticated take on the pulp serials of a century ago.
The pulp editors and magazines were out for profit, of course, but they also recognized that they had to distinguish their work in a vast sea of competition. Regarded by “serious” poets and writers of the time as pursuing only mammon, the writers of pulp fiction were in fact responsible for a number of artistic innovations, but perhaps most importantly for the readers of The Imaginative Conservative, pulp writers understood the basic elements of plot, the need to state a thing without softening it, and, most importantly, that the virtues mattered. At a time when Ernest Hemingway (whose style owes much to the best of the pulps, Black Mask) and F. Scott Fitzgerald were questioning the very motivations of heroism, the pulps knew and proclaimed what was good and what was evil. Whatever his actual methods, The Shadow was nothing if not western civilization incarnate. His direct inspiration, Batman, even more so.
In his page-turning memoir of The Pulp Era, The Pulp Jungle (1967), Frank Gruber hoped to advance beyond the pulps into a higher realm of writing and artistic acceptance: the “slicks,” his name for glossy magazines. Despite paying better, the slicks held no attraction for him once he’d succeeded in publishing with them.
The slicks did not satisfy me. I read the magazines and did not like the stories. Most of them were terribly effeminate, it seemed to me, and I was more at home with the virile, masculine type of story. [Gruber, The Pulp Jungle, 150]
At the height of their popularity, around 1934, roughly 150 pulps competed with one another, and the pulp gold- standard was the Black Mask. Trying to break into the market in the early 1930s and finding rejection more often than not, Gruber remembered his vast output:
From August, 1932, through June, 1934, I wrote a grand total of one hundred seventy-four ‘pieces.’ The total wordage amounted to six hundred twenty thousand words, the equivalent of about eight books [Gruber, The Pulp Jungle, 13]
He submitted pieces to mystery pulps, romance publications, sports pulps, and Sunday School papers. His postage bills, not surprisingly, were enormous, but he plugged away. Rejection didn’t mean trashing a story; it just meant sending it to a new and untried publication the day it returned.
Though he often spent time with the rather Bohemian and dirty poets of Greenwich Village, they tolerated him only as a worshiper of the dollar:
The Poets tolerated Steve Fisher and me. They criticized us freely and openly, calling us (at the least) commercial writers. Other times they sneered that we were selling our souls to Mammon. Well, I guess we were trying to sell our souls, but Mammon wasn’t buying. [Gruber, The Pulp Jungle, 61]
With incalculable will, Gruber succeeded. In 1934, he earned only $400. The following year, he brought in $10,000. From that point, with only a misstep here or there, Gruber wrote like a madman in almost every genre and subgenre of the pulps—though he disliked what was, prior to the 1950s, called pseudoscience-fiction—and under a variety of pen names.
A number of great names, many of them essential to the maintenance of traditional virtues and western mores in American culture, emerged out of The Pulp Era: Lester Dent; Norvell Page; John Nanovic; Mort Weisinger; Julius Swartz; Max Brand; and Walter Gibson. As Gruber remembers, there really never existed a “Red Decade” for the pulp writers, unlike the Hollywood writers. Those writing for pulps in New York simply worked too hard to be political. And their readership wanted real heroes, not politicos, theorists, and revolutionaries. The vast American reading audience of the period wanted their men to be men, and their women to be women. They wanted legend and myth. They wanted success and failure. And, most importantly, they wanted good to be good, and evil to be evil.
This also almost certainly explains why the Pulp Era remains the least studied period of American literature and culture. Our loss.
Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.