Eugene Cunningham on the value of action fiction

Eugene Cunningham c. 1923
Eugene Cunningham c. 1923
Eugene Cunningham was a prolific western writer, publishing more than 400 stories in the pulps. Born in Arkansas and brought up in Texas, he served in the US Navy, travelled the world and came back to the US in 1919 to become a writer. He sold his first story in 1920 to the pulps in 1920, hit his stride by 1923 and had a steady stream of stories published till 1938, after which he dropped to a few stories per year. Most of his fiction was in short story to novella length, which explains why he doesn’t have many stories in print today. Another factor in his obscurity is that more than a third of his work was in early Fiction House magazines (Action Stories, Frontier Stories, Lariat Stories) that are hard to find today.
He was known for the violent nature of his books, and the number of villains that would die in them – 70 odd in Riders of the Night (1932), and 300 in Buckaroo (1933), at the hands of 3 Texas Rangers (which reminds me of this anecdote I read):
Sometime during the 1890s there was going to be a prizefight in Dallas . . .or maybe it was West Texas . . . or possibly it was somewhere along the Rio Grande. We may not be sure of the exact location, but we are sure it was somewhere in Texas. Anyway, frantic citizens had put out a desperate plead for a company of Rangers to stop the fight. Imagine their shock when one solitary Ranger, often said to be McDonald, got off the train.
Looking at the lone Ranger, the townsmen wanted to know when the rest of the company would arrive. Then came the legendary reply: “There’s just one prizefight, isn’t there?”
Jon Tuska and Vicki Piekarski say that he was inspired by Hammett’s Red Harvest, and credit him with bringing an understanding of the psychology of gunfighters to the western story. This quote from Twentieth Century Western Writers summarizes his style:
His novels were crammed with characters involved in an intricately plotted contest between good and evil that used the peak-and-valley technique of keeping the hero in constant trouble before the inexorable climax in gunfire. His geography was straight, as were his flora and fauna. His idioms were true to those who used them and his women, generally two or more competing for the hero’s hormones, certainly did not creak when they moved. All this, plus his subtleties and nuances of shading, lifts his action yarns out of the ruck of the genre.
A more detailed biography of his life can be found here, in the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook. The article I’m reprinting is from The Writer’s Monthly, December 1923, and it shows Cunningham’s belief in the value of action fiction.
“Action” Fiction
IT HAS become fashionable of late for book reviewers and others of the real literati to decry anything in fiction leaning toward “action-stuff”. So common is this tendency today that reviewers have several clever phrases in stock with which to index any book which vaguely approaches the line between psycho-analysis and “action fiction”—“two-gun stuff”, “action for the masses”, “dead men by the cord”, and the like. We are instantly warned off —perhaps.
In each such discussion we are reminded that the real progress of the world—which alone the writer should depict—is really achieved by folk who never hammer, much less shoot, their opponents. These real doers of the work—whom Fannie Hurst aptly called “the world’s little people”—always call a policeman to settle the point at issue. Then the rascal leaves us via the “Black Maria”, the hero returns to his pinochle-game and Virtue is triumphant with no more than a slight lift of voice and never so much gore as a businesslike nosebleed would supply.
It is no task of mine (since, as a reader, I see points of merit in both varieties of fiction and read both with pleasure) to compare the two types of fiction. Besides, if I lean toward one school, assuredly the other holds me a benighted groper in the abysmal dark of Utter Ignorance; my opinion valueless, even if amusing. But since fiction containing more than the lawful. 001% of movement has come to need justification, if not the abjectest of apologies, it seems to devolve upon anyone chancing to think of a good word for “action-fiction” to rise and speak— distinctly.
From certain personal observations I am confident that however sophisticated certain ones of us have become, there is still a considerable body of educated readers who prefer Dumas to Henry James, sword-play to soul-complexes and subtle problems of the inner mind, and who like in their fiction a trifle more movement than that slight shift of sitting- posture coming with the varied brain-throes which in some modem novels make up the narrative between Chapter One and Finis.
Without deploring super-sophistication—a useless wail, however, loud—it seems to me a good sign that this body of “simple-minded” readers still carries on. Speaking as a reader, I have frequently dropped one of the modem “intellectual” works — some detailed cross-section of the soul-calisthenics of several characters which the reviewer had vowed to constitute an epochal advance in fiction —and turned with amazing relief to a “simple” frontier-yarn of Hugh Pendexter’s, where an elemental sort of chap, woods-runner or scout, matched wits and fists and Hawken-bullets with agents of French or English, his purpose nothing more intellectual than the winning of a continent for America, or some little thing like that.
Powder-smoke is vulgar; those who depend upon a certain dexterity of wrist plus a properly-hung Colt for their continuance in life are crude beings; killing men is deplorable. So much so that the reviewers and critics assure us that if the Sullivans of this world triumph no powder will be burned —except daily when some grinning thug shoots down a de-armed citizen. But still—
After a time in the—well, distinctive atmosphere of some fictional boudoir-scenes, to an elemental man a blast of powder-gas is a positive fumigant. After pages of libidinous description where one’s imagination may be parked at the door, it is a relief to an old-fashioned man to read of some single-minded ruffian who meets the hero’s double-handed knockout with no more complicated thought than: “Lord! What a punch! ”
It comes to me to wonder, sometimes, if these reviewers and critics who advocate exclusive rights for this denatured armchair-action in fiction have ever really considered history. For it seems inconsistent—if not something else even more so, for which I lack a word—to avow reverence for and gratitude to America’s makers, those tall frontiersmen in hunting-shirts, the men of the Revolution, the Civil and later wars, and still say that fiction, or Life, is purely a ruminative process.
Doubtless our historical figures, with their kind in all ages, were hopelessly crude; their lives so simple that, to the modern, they seem hardly to have lived at all. They were “physical-mental”, rather than “mental” types, to borrow the physiognomists’ phrases. But they owned a refreshing simplicity, a directness and effectiveness of method, when dealing with the problems they had to solve.
The average man is apt to think instantly of Christ as the outstanding advocate of brotherly love and perfect peace between man and man. Yet there is “action” in the various accounts of His life; He knew when to supplement words with force. He could use that “whip of small cords” when the Temple was defiled and all the psycho-analysts of Jerusalem had failed to influence the money-changers.
It is undeniable that “action” is often over-done; that many a modern writer of “Western stuff” slays in twenty chapters more men than it cost to win the West. But even so, this is exaggeration rather than downright untruth. There were two-gun men, there were savage Indians; there were vigilantes and daring peace-officers and cold-eyed killers and stage-coach drivers and whooping cowpunchers; jumped claims and cracking six-guns—all the familiar appurtenances of Western fiction really existed.
So if a large number of educated readers demand derring-do in fiction, rather than the narrative of Mr. Smith’s fortune-getting and wife-losing in the hardware business, why should one be called inferior, as fiction, to the other?
One is just as truly a portrayal of life as the other; why should we be asked to believe that existence in Keokuk or New York is a superior thing to life in Taos or Amarillo? Somehow, the anxiety of certain of our literati to steer us away from the “crude”, toward the “cultured”, reminds me of a washerwoman suddenly coming into great wealth—and forever afterward denying that clothes are, have been, or can be scrubbed.
As writers, if we do “action-fiction”, let’s do it without apology, nor give the world to understand that it’s just a kind of finger-exercise, a means to an end, a potboiling process preparatory to writing of The Great American Novel (title, The Marital Adventures of John Jenks; scene, John Jenks’ brain; time of action, twenty years; movement, four slow inches of one hand). For our job is writing of life as we see and interpret it; with all the skill we can bring to the work. If we know best the simple folk and so write of them, there is no good reason to lament our inability to do society-yarns. In our work it will be a consolation to reflect that simplicity is wot necessarily inferiority; that still we shall find a large body of educated readers who, knowing their own minds and establishing their own values, prefer a story to any display of “intellectuality” on the writer’s part.
Long last the Last Frontier!

A couple of his books are still in print (disable adblocker to see links):


  1. A couple editors often discussed the value of action adventure literature. Both Joseph Shaw, editor of BLACK MASK and Arthur Sullivant Hoffman, editor of ADVENTURE, stated that it was possible to write quality action stories. Action can be part of good literature.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *