Hard-Boiled, Working-Class Readers
And Pulp Magazines
By Erin A. Smith
Review by Alfred Jan
As the boundaries
between high and pop culture continue to blur, more academics are writing about pulp
magazines, especially the detective genre. Much has been discussed regarding formal
structure and subject matter, but Erin A. Smith, who teaches American Studies and Literature
at the University of Texas at Dallas, broadens the study to include a sociological
and historical context. Because Smith perceived a gap in the history of reading tastes
among the less literate classes between the two world wars, she wanted to reconstruct
a profile of hard-boiled fiction consumers. Specifically, she used Black Mask as
case example, analyzing editorials, letters to the editor from writers and readers,
the stories themselves, and advertisements to elucidate how the pulp magazine shaped
its readers and vice versa.
In Part I, Smith discusses the status of hard-boiled writers, and by
extension, all pulp writers in the literary marketplace. Her epigraphs from Vanity
Fair, June, 1933, and Harper's, June 1937, brought home the hostility slicks
felt toward pulps; the former stated that pulp fans moved their lips when reading,
and the latter asserted "they had tastes of savages." Drawing heavily from
Erie Stanley Gardner's letters and Harold Hersey's "Pulpwood Editor". Smith
gives us insights on how various writers worked the border between slicks and pulps,
revealing it to be more porous than we might think. A dichotomy within detective fiction
was introduced by presenting Raymond Chandler's "The Simple Art of Murder," published
in a 1944 issue of Atlantic Monthly, where he defended hard-boiled, a mainly
male genre, from its predecessor, the London Detection Club writers such as Agatha
Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and others who crafted more traditional
mysteries. This contrast gives the reader a lesson on hard-boiled origins.
In another chapter, Smith dissects ad copy and deduces who the target
audience was. Reproductions of ads by I.C.S.-International Correspondence Schools to
Earle F. Liederman's book Muscular Development, to Lee's work clothes ("Do
you look the deserving man you are?"), to Sherwin Cody School of English ("Do
you make these mistakes in English?") show us, Smith concludes, that targeted
readers were working-class males, possibly immigrants, who wanted to defend their masculinity
in the face of increasing workplace mechanization. The ads also appealed to desire
advancement in economic and social status.
In Part II, the author correlates hard-boiled plots and themes with readers'
working lives. Her most ambitious claim is that plots reflected both writer and readers'
societal positions in that pulp authors saw their stories as piecework, not great art,
and the fast-paced, intricate plots mirrored the assembly line atmosphers for worker/readers.
Her strongest example consisted of contrasting the reading experience of two novels
about murder on a stranded train, Frederick Nebel's hard-boiled "Sleepers East" and
Agatha Christies traditional "Murder on the Orient Express". Nebel's rapid
plot loosely connects a chain of discrete, violent scenes without resolution, while
Christie ties up all loose ends. Smith concludes that the hard-boiled hero, and readers
who identified with him, was struggling to retain the autonomous artisanal work ethic
in the face of scientifically managed mass production factories.
But how convincing is Smith's project? She draws parallels and extrapolations
without interviewing real people for confirmation. For instance, were the hypermasculine
ads and stories really taken seriously by the average male reader?
By concentrating on Black Mask, her study comes across as too
limiting. She ignored readers of other genres, such as middle-class teenaged boys who
underlined juicy descriptions in Spicy Mystery, women fans of romance pulps,
or highly educated science fiction pulp readers, or readers of Weird Tales,
which included many women, if letters to the Eyrie were any indication. Furthermore,
the advertising she analyzed appeared across the board in all kinds of pulps, not only
in Black Mask, which should have been named in the book's subtitle (and not
pulps in general) since that was her only example. Incidentally, the unattributed cover
image of the book was not reproduced from Black Mask but from the May 1941 Private
Nevertheless, I recommend this title to pulp fans, especially Black
Mask collectors, because Smith raises topics not usually found in books on pulps,
and although written by an academic, it is very understandable, with informative
extensive endnotes to each chapter.
Hard-Boiled, Working-Class Readers And Pulp Magazines
Erin A. Smith, Temple University Press.
2000 paperback $19.95
Review by Alfred Jan
Reprinted from The Pulpster #11, 2001