Sunday, September 25, 2016

Trash or Classics: The Readers and Writers of Pulp Magazines (Part 2) By Todd B. Vick

“Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read!”―William Faulkner

The pulp magazine industry experienced its zenith during the 1920s and 1930s. Aside from a small resurgence of great writers in the 1940s and early 1950s, who got their start in the pulps, the 20s and 30s delivered more recognized pulp writers than any of the other decades. The readers of the golden era of pulps read stories from pulp greats such as Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Hugh B. Cave, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lester Dent, C.L. Moore, Sax Rohmer, and the list goes on. This same era of the pulps would also instill into the minds of a handful of young readers the desire to become writers.

Jack Kerouac
A whole generation of young readers in the late 20s and early 30s spent their free time with their noses in pulp magazines. Many of these readers would, as adults, be the political movers and shakers of the 1960s. In fact, one such group of readers were later called The Beat writers. "Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs all acknowledged the influence of pulp magazines (named because of the cheap wood pulp paper used to print them) on their later work."[1]

Both Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg would claim that certain stories they had read in the the various pulp magazines had inspired them to become writers later in life. Kerouac was so influence by the pulps that in 1959 his "fantasy novel, Doctor Sax, served as a tribute to the pulp magazine characters (especially "The Shadow") he loved as a child growing up in Lowell, Massachusetts.[2] In Doctor Sax, Kerouac writes:
Young Jack Kerouac
On Saturday night I was settling down alone in the house with magazines, reading Doc Savage or the Phantom Detective with his masky rainy rainy night—The Shadow Magazine I saved for Friday night, Saturday morning was always the world of gold and rich sunlight."[3]
While attending Bartlett Junior High School (1933) Kerouac read pulp magazines and enjoyed characters such as "The Green Hornet" and "Phantom Detective." These characters and stories inspired him to create "his own stories, encouraged by the school librarian, Miss Mansfield, who ran an after-school discussion group and writing club."[4] Kerouac always claimed that this early influence from the pulps sparked his desire to be a writer.

Allen Ginsberg was a bit of a loner who not only enjoyed listening to Flash Gordon and The Shadow on the radio, but he spent a lot of time reading his favorite pulp magazines. "In early 1941 his first work appeared in print when two pieces were published in the school magazine, the Spectator."[5] Ginsberg attributes his early desires to write to those radio shows and pulp magazines which sparked his imagination.

Allen Ginsberg
Ginsberg never mentions (that I could find anywhere) specific writers from the pulps that he enjoyed, but he has mentioned specific magazines he read frequently; these include Weird Tales, Black Mask, and The Shadow. And, of course, we all know Ginsberg would later become a world renown poet and political figure for civil rights in the 1960s, ultimately writing his now famous and frequently banned poem "Howl."

The last of these Beat writers to read pulp magazines as a young person was William S. Burroughs. Of the Beat writers and poets, Burroughs is probably the most eccentric. Never afraid to draw attention to himself, he thrived on the pulp magazines that were the strangest: Weird Tales, Planet Stories, Amazing StoriesStrange Tales, and others. Burroughs actually mentions pulp writers who had a profound impact on his writing. Topping that list is, of course, H.P. Lovecraft. However, Burroughs has also mentioned, in various interviews, Robert E. Howard as someone he read and enjoyed. Burrough's work titled Naked Lunch centers around a kind "pulp magazines" tone. Additionally, in a chapter titled, "Wind Die. You Die. We Die." from Burrough's book titled Exterminator!, Burroughs writes,
Funny what you find in old pulp magazines. "Wind Die. We Die. You Die." Quite haunting actually . . . the middle-aged Tiresias moving from place to place with his unpopular thesis, spending his days in public libraries, eking out a living writing fiction for pulp magazines . . . good stories too . . . [6]
William H. Burroughs
Here Burroughs is recognizing those who influenced him as a writer, describing in uncanny detail some of the events in certain pulp writers' lives that they have conveyed to their readers in biographies and interviews. Burroughs took offense at how the literary community maligned the pulp magazines and their writers. As a Harvard graduate in 1936, Burroughs witnessed first hand the comments and criticisms that were herald against pulp magazines. Portions of his novel Naked Lunch are not only a hat tip to the genre and its magazines but an attack against those who had the gall to demonstrate a kind of literary snobbery toward pulp writers.[7]

Some of these same critics, after Burroughs wrote and published Naked Lunch, would tag Burroughs as a pulp writer. Something they intended as an insult. Burroughs took it as one of the highest compliments he could be given.

Works Cited

1. Weidman, Rich. The Beat Generation FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Angelheaded Hipsters. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid. (Italics already present)
4. Evans, Mike. The Beats: From Kerouac to Kesey: An Illustrated Journey through the Beat Generation. Philadelphia: Running, 2007. Print.
5. Ibid.
6. Burroughs, William S. Exterminator!: A Novel. New York: Penguin Books, 1979.
7. See the essays in Harris, Oliver, and Ian MacFadyen. Naked Lunch @ 50: Anniversary Essays. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009. Especially Timothy S. Murphy's chapter titled "Random Insect Doom: The Pulp Science Fiction of Naked Lunch."

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