Pulp magazines were a cheap form of popular entertainment that emerged just before the dawn of the twentieth century, grew to immense popularity during the 1930s, and withered away by the early 1950s. Sold for 10 to 25 cents each and chocked full of sensational action, the pulps appealed primarily to the middle class and the educated lower class, but drew avid readers from every strata of society. As pulp publisher Henry Steeger noted in the preface to Tony Goodstone's The Pulps, "the names of Harry Truman, President of the United States, and Al Capone, lowest figure of the underworld, graced our subscription lists at the same time." Beneath the garish and lurid covers, the rough-edged pages (made from the cheapest wood-pulp) were often filled with hastily written purple prose. Yet, a few of the pulp magazines contained genuinely fine writing, and many of them contained crude, but powerful storytelling that shaped American popular culture. The pulps offered a proving ground for some of America's most popular authors, and introduced some of the world's best known fictional heroes.
The pulp magazines grew out of a nineteenth-century tradition of stories for the masses that began with religious chapbooks that warned against "the pernicious effects of dram drinking" and other vices. These small paperbacks were peddled on street corners by hawkers (or chapmen). Although meant to be cautionary tales, some buyers no doubt read these stories of innocent young girls seduced into a life of alcohol and prostitution more for titillation than for moral inspiration. The chapbooks created an appetite for fiction that was satisfied for a time by serialized tales in the weekly story papers that emerged mid-century. In 1860, the publishing house of Beadle & Adams began publishing entire novels in a small paperback format that became known as a dime novel (although many of them actually sold for five cents). Once the format proved successful, Street & Smith, which had been in the weekly fiction business since the 1850s, started their own dime novel line. Street & Smith soon had two very popular dime novel series that would have direct links to the pulps. Nick Carter Weekly featured a clean-cut young detective, by the same name, who was a master of disguise. Edward Zane Carroll Judson, writing under the Ned Buntline pen name, elaborated on the exploits of the real-life William Cody in Buffalo Bill Weekly. However, the story papers and "nickel weeklies" did not disappear, and at the end of the nineteenth century sensational popular fiction existed in a variety of formats.
Frank A. Munsey is generally considered the father of the pulp magazines. In 1882, he launched Golden Argosy, a weekly story magazine for children. Over the next decade, Munsey modified the magazine in a number of ways. He changed the content to all fiction, targeted it for an older audience, switched to cheap wood-pulp paper and shortened the name. By 1896, Munsey had transformed his newly named Argosy into the first pulp magazine. Stephen Crane was one of the early contributors to Argosy. As the turn of the century approached, Argosy was selling half a million copies a month. In 1905, Munsey added The All-Story Magazine, followed by Cavalier Weekly in 1908. With the publication of the 1912 story "Under the Moons of Mars," All-Story introduced Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose work insured the popularity of the pulps and left an indelible mark on popular culture. Later that same year, All-Story published Burroughs' "Tarzan of the Apes." The following year Burroughs began his Pellucidar series. After the All-Story editor repeatedly quibbled about rate of payment and rejected the sequel to the first Tarzan story, Burroughs began sending his work to other pulp magazines. All-Story fell on hard times and was combined first with Cavalier and then with Argosy. In its 1919 incarnation as All-Story Weekly, the magazine published Johnston McCulley's first Zorro story, "The Curse of Capistrano." Munsey's magazines were creating popular culture icons, but they were also facing stiff market competition.
Once again, Street & Smith shifted to a format pioneered by other publishers and soon dominated the field. They began with Popular Magazine in 1903 and Top Notch in 1910. Street & Smith steadily expanded their offerings until they were one of the largest and most successful pulp magazine publishers. Soon, dozens of other publishers were trying to copy their success. At the end of World War I, only a few dozen pulps were being published. In the midst of the Great Depression there would be several hundred.
By the 1920s, the general interest or family pulp gave way to the specialized pulp. At the height of the pulps in the 1930s, there seemed to be a magazine for every interest: horror, sports, the exploitative "spicy" pulps, gangsters, romance, cowboys, trains, and even a magazine titled Zeppelin Stories. Because profit margins were small, publishers constantly shuffled their offerings and followed new trends. If a title started to lose readers, they dropped it immediately and tried a new genre. The history of the pulps is littered with many esoteric and short-lived magazines.
Street & Smith created the first successful specialized pulp magazine in 1915 when they converted their dime novel Nick Carter Weekly into the pulp magazine Detective Story Magazine (which was supposedly edited by "Nick Carter"). Police sleuths and private detectives had been a staple in other popular fiction formats and at first the pulps offered nothing new in this genre. Then, in 1920, H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan (who published pulps only to subsidize their more literary magazine, The Smart Set) began The Black Mask. At first, the magazine published general adventure fiction. Within a few years, a distinctive style began to emerge. First, there was Carroll John Daly's brutally tough Race Williams. Next, there was Dashiell Hammett's world-weary and often violent Continental Op. Employing terse dialogue, nuanced characters, and realistic settings, Hammett began to develop the new style of detective story that would become known as hard-boiled fiction. When Joseph T. Shaw took over as editor in 1926, he sought out more writers who could produce work in the Hammett tradition. In 1933, Shaw made his greatest find, and published "Blackmailers Don't Shoot," the first work of detective fiction by Raymond Chandler. Chandler's tough guys, who followed their own code and dealt their own justice in a harsh world, helped define hard-boiled fiction.
Black Mask was the most significant of the detective pulps, but it was certainly not the only entry in the field. The "Black Mask School" was perpetuated, and even refined, in the pages of Detective Fiction Weekly, Dime Detective, Thrilling Detective, Ten Detective Aces, and others. The detective pulps also launched many significant authors in addition to Hammett and Chandler. Erle Stanley Gardner was one of the most prolific and popular of the detective pulp writers. John D. MacDonald and Lawrence Treat had stories published in the waning days of the detective and mystery pulps. As with most genres, the detective pulps had their "spicy" versions that mixed a healthy dose of sex with the detection. Most notable of these was Spicy Detective Stories, which often featured the erotic adventures of Hollywood private eye Dan Turner, written by Robert Leslie Bellem. A totally different tradition in detective fiction, the "weird menace," began in Dime Mystery Magazine. With covers that often combined the ghoulish and the sadistic, Dime Mystery and its spawn offered stories of "impossible" crimes that seemed to be caused by the supernatural, but were eventually revealed by the detective to have a rational solution and a human culprit (oddly enough, the Scooby Doo cartoons seem to be a direct descendent of this sub-genre).
The Western, a staple of the dime novels, came to pulp magazines when Street & Smith converted their Buffalo Bill Weekly dime novel series into Western Story Magazine. With a loyal audience already existing for tales of gunfights, Indian wars, and hairbreadth escapes, the leading Western pulps, such as Far West, Western Story, and Ranch Romances, easily sold 20 million copies per month. Gradually, the pulp Westerns deviated from the blood-and-thunder style of the dime novels as more pulp writers began to emulate the more restrained and polished style of best-selling Western novelists such as Owen Wister and Zane Grey (who had a number of his novels serialized in the pulps). One of the new breed of Western writers who got their start in the pulps was Louis L'Amour. In creating characters such as Hondo, L'Amour began to crystalize the Western hero. However, the most popular author of pulp Westerns was Frederick Faust, who wrote under numerous pseudonyms, but became best known as Max Brand. While some Western pulp writers strove for gritty realism, Brand elevated the cowboy of the Western pulps to a figure of mythic proportions that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the popular culture pantheon with the fantastic heroes of the adventure or single character pulps.
Science fiction, more than any other popular genre, owes a great debt to the pulp magazines. Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and others had planted the seeds in the previous century, but the true golden age of science fiction flowered in the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. The "scientific romances" of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his imitators had been appearing in pulp magazines for over a decade, but it was not until an immigrant with a love of science got into publishing that the pulps provided an outlet for true science fiction. Hugo Gernsback immigrated to the United States from Luxembourg in 1904 and immediately became involved with the new science of radio. Gernsback began publishing a magazine, Modern Electronic, devoted to his new interest. By 1919 Gernsback had expanded the scope of his magazine and changed the name to Science and Inventions. He had also begun including stories of what he called "scientifiction." In 1923, he produced an all-scientifiction issue with six stories, and reader response was enthusiastic.
In 1926, Gernsback published Amazing Stories, the first magazine devoted solely to science fiction. While it was not until 1933—and after a change of publishers—that the magazine became standard pulp size, Amazing Stories is still considered the first science-fiction pulp. By August of 1928, Gernsback's magazine was publishing landmark science-fiction novels such as E.E. "Doc" Smith's first installment of the Skylark series and Philip Francis Nolan's "Armageddon, 2419 A.D.," the first Anthony "Buck" Rogers story. Gernsback did more than anyone to establish science fiction as a distinct genre, and earned his title as the "father of science fiction." Yet, much of what Amazing published tended toward space opera, and Gernsback never quite realized the dream of teaching readers hard science through the stories in his magazine. It was John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Stories (begun in 1930) who truly championed hard science, and issued in the golden age of science fiction. Campbell demanded high-quality fiction based on believable extrapolations of hard science. Campbell also discovered and nurtured many of the authors who would set the standards for science-fiction writing, including Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Lester del Rey, and Robert Heinlein. There were plenty of other science-fiction pulps on the stands over the years, but it was Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories that defined the future of the genre.
Weird Tales, launched in 1923, was aptly subtitled "The Unique Magazine," and warrants consideration in a category all by itself. The magazine provided an outlet for some of the earliest and most outré work of Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Fritz Lieber, and other notable authors. Tennessee Williams' first published work, "The Vengeance of Nitocris," was in Weird Tales. However, the writers who did the most to sustain the magazine during its first decade were H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Lovecraft specialized in tales of slithering ancient horrors. Lovecraft's most enduring contributions are his creation of the Cthulhu Mythos, about the indescribably ancient and horrific beings that exist in the dark infinity outside humankind's perception, and the fictional grimoire of forbidden lore, the Necronomicon. In relentlessly vigorous prose, Howard chronicled the adventures of many a brawny and brutal hero, but his best-known creation is Conan of Cimmeria. Although never a consistently profitable magazine, Weird Tales was published for 279 issues and was one of the last pulps to grace the newsstands when it finally ceased publication in 1954. Other pulps, such as Strange Tales, Unknown, and Fantastic Adventures, emerged to compete with Weird Tales in the fantasy market, but none managed to match the wonderful strangeness of the original.
The greatest boon to pulp magazine sales was the advent of the single-character pulps, sometimes referred to as the "hero pulps." Recurring heroes such as Tarzan and Zorro had been appearing in various pulp magazines for years, but in 1931 Street & Smith published The Shadow, A Detective Magazine, and The Shadow became the first character to appear in a magazine created specifically for his adventures. It did not take long for the Shadow's success to be noticed, and the next wave of characters seemed to hit all at once. The Phantom Detective, Doc Savage, G-8 and His Battle Aces, and The Spider, the four longest-running hero pulps next to The Shadow, all appeared in 1933. These and other hero pulp characters had a direct influence on the superhero comic books that appeared in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Some of the Superman mythos seems to come directly from Doc Savage. To begin with, they are both named Clark. Each hero has a female cousin nearly as remarkable as himself, and each has a secret arctic getaway referred to as a Fortress of Solitude. And while Doc Savage had no true powers, he was often referred to in the stories and in advertisements as a superman. Perhaps no superhero has inherited more from his pulp ancestors than the Batman. His costume and vigilante crusade are reminiscent of Zorro. His modus operandi of prowling the night and striking fear in criminals is borrowed from the Shadow. And like Doc Savage, The Batman is a normal human who has, through years of hard work, trained his mind and body to perfection. The immense popularity of progeny, such as Superman and the Batman, is one of the factors that led to the demise of the pulps.
A number of forces converged to bring the pulp magazines to an end. By the early 1940s they faced stiff competition from comic books. Not only were the comic-book heroes flashier, but a number of pulp publishers converted to comic books when the new medium proved profitable. Then, World War II brought about paper shortages. In spite of this, a new format, the paperback book, emerged offering pulp-type content, with authors like Micky Spillane, at the same price and in a more convenient format. After the war, paperback publishing boomed and pulp magazines faded away. By the middle of the following decade, all of the pulps were gone. A few of the science-fiction and mystery titles continued in digest format. The tradition of the hero pulps lives on in comic books and paperback adventure series.
As products, the pulps proved ephemeral. Of the thousands of different magazines and characters that existed, most have been forgotten by everyone except a handful of collectors and historians. More copies of the cheaply made magazines crumble to dust each day, yet they have shaped every genre of popular fiction. Their purple blood runs in the veins of every hero of film, television, and paperbacks. The pulp magazines have proven to be the wellspring of the American mythology.
del Rey, Lester. The World of Science Fiction: 1926-1976 The History of a Subculture. New York, Ballantine Books, 1979.
Goodstone, Tony. The Pulps: Fifty Years of American Popular Culture. New York, Bonanza Books, 1970.
Goulart, Ron. An Informal History of the Pulp Magazine. New York, Ace Books, 1973.
——. The Dime Detectives. New York, Mysterious Press, 1988.