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 Erle 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 The 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 Detective Stories.
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
Authored by Alfred Jan; reprinted from The Pulpster #11 (2001).