Shaw, Joseph Thompson 1874-1952

views updated

SHAW, Joseph Thompson 1874-1952

PERSONAL: Born May 8, 1874, in Gorham, ME; died August 1, 1952; son of Milton and Nellie Morse Shaw; married Hanna Muskova. Education: Bowdoin College, B.A., 1895.

CAREER: New York Globe, staff member, 1895; American Woolen Company, Boston, MA, secretary, 1890s-1900s, writer from 1904; American Relief Administration; Saturday Evening Post, story editor. Sidney A. Sanders Literary Agency (later Joseph T. Shaw Associates), owner, 1942-52. Member, national championship fencing team, 1916. Military service: U.S. Army; captain, and bayonet instructor during World War I.

MEMBER: Alpha Delta Phi.


From Wool to Cloth, Livermore and Knight (Providence, RI), 1904.

The Wool Trade of the United States: History of a Great Industry; Its Rise and Progress in Boston, Now the Second Market of the World, U.S. Government Printing Office (Washington, DC), 1909.

Spain of To-Day: A Narrative Guide to the Country of the Dons, with Suggestions for Travellers, Grafton (New York, NY), 1909.

Derelict, Knopf (New York, NY), 1930.

Danger Ahead, Mohawk (New York, NY), 1932.

Out of the Rough, Windward House (New York, NY), 1934.

Blood on the Curb, Dodge (New York, NY), 1936.

It Happened on the Lake, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1937.

(Editor) The Hard-boiled Omnibus: Early Stories from Black Mask, Simon and Schuster (New York, NY), 1946.

(Editor) Spurs West! Permabooks (Garden City, NY), 1951.

Black Mask (magazine), editor and contributor, 1926-36.

SIDELIGHTS: Joseph T. Shaw developed a vigorous form of American storytelling while running Black Mask, the detective-fiction pulp magazine that delivered the hard-bitten, blunt tales of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. "Although Shaw did not create the hard-boiled writing style . . . he was largely responsible for the success of this uniquely American genre," Garyn G. Roberts wrote in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Shaw respected detective fiction, which most editors regarded as nonsense, and from his respect grew a literary force.

Shaw's parents were of old New England stock; his paternal ancestor, Roger Shaw, had come to New England in the 1630s. Shaw attended Bowdoin College in Maine, where he practiced swordplay and editing: he starred on the school fencing team and edited the campus paper. Upon graduation, Shaw worked at the New York Globe and as a secretary and writer for the American Woolen Company. He competed on the 1916 national championship fencing team, earning a presidential medal. During these early years, Shaw's writing and editing were limited to such pedestrian fare as From Wool to Cloth, The Wool Trade of the United States, and Spain of To-Day.

Shaw was a bayonet instructor during World War I, rising to captain. He stayed in Europe after the war, distributing food to starving people in Czechoslovakia and Greece with President Hoover's American Relief Administration. By the time Shaw came home, though, he wanted to get back to editing. He worked on stories at Saturday Evening Post before assuming the editorship of Black Mask in 1926. The magazine was no prize: it was called a pulp because of the cheap paper stock on which it was printed; its writers were considered hacks; its editors disowned it. Shaw thought he could make a success of it.

Black Mask, according to Roberts, "had been founded in 1920 by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan; its content was described its subtitle, An Illustrated Magazine of Detective, Mystery, Adventure, Romance, and Spiritualism. Mencken and Nathan had started the magazine to help support their sophisticated literary periodical, Smart Set. . . . Mencken always despised the Black Mask . . . and neither his nor Nathan's name ever appeared on it." The magazine had a revolving door of editors. The journal was successful, but many considered it a sleazy piece of work.

Shaw began by looking through all the back issues and liked what he saw of Hammett's work. Hammett had begun his career by trying to publish in Smart Set, and had been shunted over to Black Mask. When Hammett had asked for a raise from two cents per word to three, the editors refused. Hammett had quit and gone into advertising, but Shaw wooed him back. Circulation climbed when he featured Hammett's stories.

Hammett's stories, as did much of Black Mask detective fiction, revealed a gritty world of cynicism and cunning. Shaw, seeing literary possibilities, encouraged stylish writers of it, such as Hammett, Chandler, Daly, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Lester Dent.

Shaw also directed art for the journal that rendered its rough-hewn edges chic, dangerous. Arthur Rodman Bowker, whose work Rogers called "bold" and "stylized," illustrated these stories exclusively. The sharp artwork nicely complemented the terse prose. Shaw also insisted on calling the magazine a "rough-paper book" rather than pulp, and spoke of the journal respectfully. He paid and treated his writers better. Dent recalled: "When you went into his office and talked with Shaw, you felt you were doing fiction that was powerful. You had a feeling of stature." Shaw also connected his authors with publishers and movie studios, helping to make detective fiction more lucrative and respectable.

He wrote in a 1932 editorial: "Black Mask is unique among fiction magazines, appealing to a wide group of readers ranging from those who like action fiction for action alone, where it is real and convincing, to the most discriminating readers in the professional classes.... While it is commonly classed as a detective fiction magazine, it has, with the help of its writers, created a new type of detective story which is now being recognized by book critics as inaugurating a new era of fiction dealing with crime and crime combatting."

Shaw was a better editor than writer. Chandler once said of Shaw's prose: "[It's about the deadliest writing I ever saw on a supposedly professional level.'" Shaw, however, had a golden talent for recognizing gifted writers, promoting them and advancing daring fiction. After he left Black Mask in 1936 over a salary dispute with the magazine's owners, Shaw became a literary agent. He also edited several successful collections of detective and western fiction before he died.

Shaw, who could sharpen stories, also had a vision for genre fiction. He recognized that writers such as Hammett and Chandler created realistic characters in dangerous situations, rather than complex crime puzzles. As Shaw wrote in the introduction to The Hard-Boiled Omnibus: "We . . . created a new type of detective story differing from . . . the cross-word puzzle sort, that is lacking deliberately all . . . human emotional values . . . .in this new pattern, character conflict is the main theme; the ensuing crime, or its threat, is incidental."



Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 137: American Magazine Journalists, 1900-1960, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994, pp. 283-288.

Durham, Philip, Down These Mean Streets a Man Must Go, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1963.

Goulart, Ron, The Dime Detectives, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1988.

Nolan, William F., editor, The Black Mask Boys, Morrow (New York, NY), 1985.


Clues, fall-winter, 1981, Dave Lewis, "The Backbone of Black Mask," p. 117.*