Sunday, September 11, 2016

Trash or Classics: The Readers and Writers of Pulp Magazines (Part 1) 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

Pulp Magazines had humble beginnings. Being the offspring of the penny dreadfuls and the dime novels, the pulps had about the same reputation; at least in the beginning. The pulps were conceived in the late 19th Century when Frank Munsey overhauled his previous dime novel called Golden Argosy. Though it looked more akin to a small sturdy magazine or pamphlet by today's standards, it set a precedent for what would later be the first pulp magazine called Argosy. Golden Argosy had a balanced blend of fiction and nonfiction articles. Its audience was teen aged boys, and it had a fair level of success. The magazine changed names several times over the years but typically kept the same format of including both fiction and non fiction. That is until late 1896, when it adopted the name Argosy Magazine and switched to strictly fiction. Thus, the pulp magazine was born. 

April 1912
Beginning in December 1896 Argosy Magazine had the entire market for pulp magazines pretty much to itself. That is until January of 1905 when Munsey added another pulp called The All-Story Magazine. The All-Story Magazine, which changed its name to The All-Story in 1907 and then All-Story Weekly in 1916, set an industry standard by publishing authors who would eventually become some of the biggest names in the industry: Edgar Rice Burroughs, Max Brand, and A. Merritt.[1] Additionally, in May of 1905 a pulp called The Monthly Magazine published by Story Press Corporation joined the pulp market fray. It would eventually be bought by Louis Eckstein's Consolidation Magazine Corporation and later be known as The Blue Book Magazine.

In November of 1910, a fourth pulp magazine would emerge called Adventure. While it was "[N]ot as historically or culturally significant as Argosy and All-Story, Adventure enjoyed an even better reputation and today remains highly regarded by pulp collectors for its overall excellence." (Hulse 55) Under these auspicious beginnings and over the next 5 decades, hundreds of pulps would pop up. Some lasting decades, some only a few issues. The golden era for these magazines would be the 1920s and 30s and thereafter the industry would slowly wane until it was overshadowed by comic books and cheap paperback books.

Several writers cut their teeth in the pulp magazine industry and would eventually break free of that industry to write novels and gain recognition as writers. Some of these writer's works are now included in the curriculum of public schools here in the U.S. Other pulp writers died in mid-career and still managed to be carried onward by fans and scholars who kept their works alive even today. But the undercurrent of these popular magazines were the eyes that were tightly fasten to their pages; the readers—both adults and kids— who handed over their hard earned money and read the stories. It would be several decades after the golden era of the pulps that popular culture would witness the industry's full impact.

The intent of this article is two-fold. First, to examine a handful of writers who, while they were working on novels, also attempted to break into the pulps. Some of the names of these writers might surprise you. Second, to examine a few pulp readers who, as children during the pulps' golden era, were so influenced by the stories it convinced them to become writers. Several of these names might surprise you as well. 

Hemingway's 1923 passport photo
Let's begin with the writers. Aside from those who were actually publishing their works in the pulps, who also garnered a large following, there were aspiring writers who not only read the pulps, but were also attempting to breach their covers with articles of their own. One such writer was Ernest Hemingway. "By the time Hemingway was in his early teens, pulp magazines were a presence on every newsstand." (Earle All Man! 33) Even though Hemingway was reading the pulps in his early teen years, between 1918 to 1922 (ages 19 to 23 years of age) he was submitting short stories to The Saturday Evening Post. However, during this same time span, Hemingway was submitting stories to Adventure, Blue Book, and Argosy[2] According to a letter written to a good friend—Will Horne—in 1919, "Hemingway stated that Burroughs, who 'perpetrated Tarzan & the Apes,' was urging him to write a book." (Earle 33) This is, of course, another indicator that Hemingway was actually reading the pulps, and possibly corresponding with their authors.[3]

Since the pulps were being published weekly and bi-weekly, stories typically followed a particular formula, were written fairly quickly, and too often not re-written (edited) simply due to lack of time[4] Hemingway didn't deviate from this formula, as his early pulp submissions reveal. Hemingway submitted "war stories, boxing stories, gangster stories, romances, and at least one story told from the point of view of a dog." (Earle 35) Of course, everyone knows eventually Hemingway's novels were published, and the rest is history. What many people do not know is that Hemingway, to some degree, cut his 'writing teeth' in the pulps.

Another well known writer who weaved in and out of the pulp arena was none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald really never needed the pulps, or the slicks (literary magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, etc.) for that matter. Born in a well-to-do upper middle class family, Fitzgerald attended St. Paul Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota, and by age 13 the school newspaper published a mystery story he'd written. When Fitzgerald was 15 he was sent to a well-known Catholic boarding school in New Jersey called Newman. He spent his remaining school years at Newman, graduated and it was on to Princeton.

First Edition Cover for
This Side of Paradise
While at Princeton he sharpened his writing skills and wrote for The Princeton Triangle Club and their Nassau Literary Review, as well as the Princeton Tiger (the college's literary humor magazine). By March 1920, at the age of 23, Charles Scribner's Sons published Fitzgerald's debut novel, This Side of Paradise. So where do the pulps fall into this story? In the 1920s, as an already established writer, Fitzgerald (with his wife Zelda in tow) moved to Paris, France. The Fitzgeralds soon met Ernest Hemingway and thus began a meaningful and helpful relationship for F. Scott Fitzgerald. With money running short, and Fitzgerald's debut novel only doing moderately well, the Fitzgeralds needed cash. Hemingway, who had already established himself as a magazine writer, introduced Fitzgerald to the world of not only the pulps but of a larger market in the arena of the slicks.

In April of 1920, H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan started a kind of "high brow" pulp magazine called Black Mask. The intent of Black Mask was to attract the best writers of the pulps and low end slicks. This idea did not quite work the way Mencken and Nathan planned (mainly because both carried an elitist attitude and looked down their noses at pulp fiction magazines and their writers). In the beginning they culled material from The Smart Set, a literary magazine, which left the first few issues' stories of Black Mask dry, dull, and boring (slow-paced yarns). Something not conducive to the more rapid quick, action packed stories of which the pulp readers were acquainted. Eventually, Mencken and Nathan were able to obtain writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Carroll John Daly, all whom were able to write faster paced well written stories conducive to pulp readers. These three eventually became the staple writers for Black Mask. H. L. Mencken and F. Scott Fitzgerald were friends, and so Mencken regularly accepted Fitzgerald's work for The Smart Set.

Even though Fitzgerald, like Mencken, frowned upon the pulps and pulp writers, he certainly had no qualms about making extra cash from them. Mencken had also tried his hand in the pulps prior to The Smart Set and Black Mask with his creation of magazines such as The Parisienne and Saucy Stories, using both his colleagues and friends—Hemingway and Fitzgerald—in those magazines as well. Moreover, after seeing the kind of bankroll he could acquire—$15,000 to $20,000 per year—Fitzgerald was more than happy to submit his stories to various slicks and pulps.[5] In time, Fitzgerald was able to balance his time devoted to novels as well as short stories and garner a lucrative career from both.

[1] Ed Hulse discusses this in greater detail in his work titled The Blood 'N' Thunder Guide to Pulp Fiction (Murania Press, 2013)
[2] David M. Earle discusses this period of Hemingway's life in a goodly amount of detail in his work titled All Man!: Hemingway, 1950s Men's Magazines, and the Masculine Persona.
[3] Unfortunately no such letter from Burroughs to Hemingway exists, the only evidence for it is Hemingway's claim made in his letter to Will Horne.
[4] All these points are detailed in Earle's work All Man!
[5] Here's an interesting tid-bit of historical trvia. Through this time period - the early to mid-20s, Fitzgerald was publishing quite a few short stories to various pulps and slicks, many of which focused on the "flapper" movement of the day. The flappers coupled with the popular music of the time set a new trend throughout the 1920s. It was during this period and Fitzgerald's exposure to the flappers via the various popular stories in the slicks and certain pulps that he coined the term "The Jazz Age" which is still used today to describe the era.

Works Consulted/Cited

Earle, David M. All Man!: Hemingway, 1950s Men's Magazines, and the Masculine Persona. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 2009. Print.

Earle, David M. "Pulp Magazines and the Popular Press." Volume II: North America 1894-1960 The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines (2012): 197-216. Web. <>.

Hulse, Ed. The Blood 'N' Thunder Guide to Pulp Fiction. N.p.: Murania, 2013. Print.

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