An exchange in the Scranton, Pennsylvania, Tribune on the merits of pulps caught my attention recently. The instigator of this exchange was Donald Raub, then a schoolboy attending what used to be Central High School in Scranton, Pa who sent many letters to the editor.
The first letter was this screed printed on 15 May, 1940, as the Germans were invading France. The obvious response was to stop the production and reading of pulps.
15 May 1940: RAPS STANDARDS OF PULP MAGAZINES
Of alarming and not a little disconcerting significance to intelligent Americans of this allegedly broad-minded era is the constant influx “of low-brow literature” into the news stands. The pulp magazines, so avidly devoured by the manual working class of this country, are contributing zealously to the intellectual collapse of thought and originality. The shabbily-contented periodicals whose front page covers depict fiendish killers, cheap love scenes, fantastic ‘‘things to come” and the like are all in a sense morally destructive. Rarely does any pulp magazine whose specialty is duping a gullible public ever offer anything constructive or beneficial to its perusers, as do the ‘‘slick” magazines. The pulps thrive on the fatuous patriotism of an almost ignorant following of readers, whose individual intellect if analyzed carefully, is barely above fundamental learning. Intelligence, native comprehension is lacking woefully with a great number of people in this national commonwealth, and because of this plight, further effort to enlighten a frightfully indifferent public now and in the future is deemed futile. This does not mean necessarily, that America is the haven for fatheads. But it does mean that there is too much mental indolence with many people and periodicals, which are categorically classed as pulps are wretched weapons which are helping materially to hamper education as education should not.
Plato and Mazzini are excellent for those who honestly enjoy the classics. But “horror stories” etc. are not even to be considered, despite the pointing fact that they are enjoying far flung popularity. This trashy fiction is detrimental to the progress of learning. Its influence, especially upon youth, is dismaying.
Magazines read by the middle class, the so-called “slick” periodicals, are instructive and stimulating. These are not to be censured but rather encouraged. The next type of magazine is the delight of the erudite, and unfortunately are not to a great extent publicly appreciated.
Epitomizing everything in a nutshell it will be realized that pulp magazines are factors working to lower the cultural standard of America.
Central High School
Pulp readers, as we all know, are gentle people; slow to take offence and respond. This letter from a former student of the same school was printed on 17th May. He claimed that the pulps were in fact, propaganda of the sort needed to keep the population Americanized and defend democracy.
ANSWERS RAUB ON PULP MAGAZINES
Editor, The Tribune
It is apparently obvious that Mr. Raub of Central High School is viewing “the pulp magazine situation” in a rather narrow-minded manner. His title of “low-brow literature” must have been derived from a hasty glance at these magazines. (He does admit arriving at such a “brilliant conclusion” from the cover pictures.)
But what he doesn’t know Is that if he read a magazine or two of this sort (and I mean “reading between the lines”) he would find it more appropriate to label them propaganda. Not propaganda for an “intellectual collapse” but propaganda for the betterment of our government.
The theme of all the detective stories is more or less the checking and punishment of crime and murder. And in the way of “war pulps” we find the abomination of war and the preservation of democracy as its central idea.
Of course these pulps may not be the highest type of literature circulated but I would rather see Americans be injected with the serum of Americanism of these pulps rather than have them poisoned by literature (now rather freely circulated) which is detrimental to our union.
Former C. H. S. student,
If that weren’t enough, another pulp reader stepped in on 20th May. He questioned Mr. Raub’s logic in assuming that pulp readers, generally admitted to be a class of persons of no great intellectual calibre, could be in fact learning harmful stuff from the pulps when they were unable to comprehend anything.
CLAIMS “PULPS” DO NO HARM
Editor, The Tribune,
I would like to ask Donald Raub a few questions about his arguments in his recent blast against the “pulp” magazines.
Mr. Raub first states that the “pulps” are “contributing zealously to the intellectual collapse of thought and originality.” Later he alleges that the bulk of the cheap magazine trade is made up of “an almost ignorant following of readers . . .” etc. Now my question is this: How can there be an “intellectual collapse” when there just ain’t no intellectuality among the “pulps” readers (according to Mr. Raub) in the first place?
Would Mr. Raub’s wholesale, low, I. Q. indictment of “pulp” readers also include congressmen, doctors, lawyers, etc., who evidently have a “pulp” following among their brethren? I am personally acquainted with not a few of the medical profession who read “sensational pulps.”
Personally, I don’t think that so called ’’wide-spread’’ reading of the “pulps” will lead to intellectual decay. We have always had such literature in our midst and its harm has been negligible.
By this time, even a pulp author could compose a letter. Frank Westpfahl’s letter, also printed on 20th May, compared pulp and slick plotting, found no difference and concluded with a plea for tolerance and understanding.
ANOTHER ANSWER TO RAUB
Dear Mr. Raub:
Your letter in The Scranton Tribune in which you objected to the publication of pulp magazines was read with interest by the writer. I am afraid that your penchant for words has served to bedim your zeal in the search for fact. May I offer you a few?
In the first place, you have generalized. Can you honestly do that and look at a situation objectively? True, there are many, a great many pulps that have no place in this or any other age. But there are still others that are to be commended for some of the stories they offer. Many ‘big name1 writers have and still do write for the pulp publications. Most of them received their training under the helpful guidance of an editor of one of these publications which you wish to see abolished. If these men had not had a place in which to train, a proving ground, they would undoubtedly have been lost to the world of literature. Which by the way, literature, I defy you to define.
The truths they lisped they dare not speak. While writing for pulp publications many authors were allowed to write without fear of censorship, fear of business interests and editors, who in turn feared to incur the animosity of big business, their advertisers. You doubt this? Then read “Money Writes” by Upton Sinclair, find out just what sort of a man Lorimer was. And he was only one of the many.
You say that the pulp magazines rarely ever offer anything constructive or beneficial as do the slicks. If you have ever taken the trouble to sit down and read and analyze and compare the stories offered by the two types of magazines you know how absurd your statement really is. Practically all stories published in pulp and slick have been written around a formula, a basic plot situation. (Polti I think lists 36 of these situations in his book which you will no doubt find at the public library). The same formula is often used in both and I venture to say that it would surprise you to know just how many yarns which were written for the slicks eventually end up in the pulps. Good yarns, good stories rejected by a slick editor because they were overstocked or for some other reason often find their way to the pulps and are accepted. I believe Jack Woodford, a very able writer and teacher, is preparing a book on this very subject.
Perhaps you object to the frankness that is to be found in the pulps. You prefer masked emotions. Well, certainly the quality group of magazines which you mention, the delight of the erudite, do not deal in masked emotions. On the other hand,, their references to sex and the like are very often far, far more frank and displeasing than is to be found in the pulps. They are allowed to “get away” with unadorned facts of life because they are supposed to be written for and by the art and beauty crowd. Their authors are true artists who write for art’s sake, whoever he is, and not for the pecuniary remuneration. That’s what they say. But don’t believe it. They write for money, the same as the pulp and the slick writer and it’s their goal the same as it is yours and mine.
Again, you say that the pulps are zealously devoured by the manual working class. Well, have they not a right to choose their own company? Practically everything else has been taken away from them. Perhaps they too would enjoy the classics, Balzac and Maupassant if they only knew about them. But then some bigot would step in and say that these same men were leading thousands of our people toward an intellectual collapse of thought and originality.
Sorry I can’t continue, but I write with the hope of earning a few dollars. I’ve got to spin out a yarn for the pulps, God bless them. I couldn’t allow your letter to pass without answering it. You see we aspiring writers and the published ones wouldn’t have much to look forward to if it weren’t for the pulps. And there has been much, too much controversy already about them, the scrivener, like other folks, must live too and all he asks is that he be allowed the little freedom that is now his.
Should you care to contact me I should be more than glad to discuss this problem with you, go into detail and list some books for you to read which you will find to your interest.
So, tolerance, my friend, let us have tolerance and facts in this upset world of today. And let there be understanding, too and a never ending search into the facts of the other fellow’s problem.
Of course, such a tolerant and moderate person had no chance of succeeding in the writing profession. As far as I can tell, no fiction written by him ever appeared in magazines.
The next day, another letter appeared, displaying the writer’s literary tastes or lack thereof. You decide.
CONTINUES “PULPS” CONTROVERSY
Day after day for the past week I have been reading one blast after another condemning Mr. Raub’s condemnation of pulps. The last, by Mr. Westpfahl, has prompted me to write this letter. I agree, with Mr. Raub that most pulp ought to be eliminated. However, there is room for argument on both sides and I am not overlooking the fact that no matter what anyone says, pulps will continue to exist just the same.
When I got through reading Mr. Westpfahl’s opinions I began to wonder just what he considered as pulp. It certainly is too bad that his aspirations seem not to go any higher than earning a few dollars. It appears to me that anybody working with that end in view cannot possibly raise the standards of any kind of literature.
Lamb says that literature is a very bad crutch, but a very good waiting stick. In the case of pulp, the former applies. Mr. Westpfahl certainly drew no line as to what he considered as educational pulp and what as detrimental. Of course, I assume that Mr. Westpfahl knows that there is such a thing as detrimental pulp. And since he wants a definition for “his kind of literature,” I think that I can adequately define it with one word—cheap.
About these big name writers that he talks about I’d like to know just what he considers as a big name writer? It may be, that he believes a big name writer of a pulp production to be comparable to the big shot of a small time racket. Now, it may be that great authors have arisen from the ranks of weedy publications, and it may also be true that Mr. Westpfahl knows of such cases, yet, I am sure that he is aware, that in every walk of life there are a few exceptions. Still of all the hundreds of publications and of the thousands of contributors, in the case of pulps, this exception is negligible. In other words, it is my opinion that if you have the stuff on the ball you’ll get to the top, without having to rely on pulps to get you there.
As for this Polti guy, to whom Mr. Westpfahl refers, well, I’ve never heard of him and neither have a hundred million other people. And yet, I have heard of Margaret Mitchell and so have countless numbers of others. Therein, Mr. Westpfahl, lies the difference between pulp and good literature.
Evidently, I have been trying to show the difference between pulp and good literature, and indeed, this was my chief aim. However, someone mentioned that pulps were educational. I contest this because I have yet to see the day when any person will go out into the street and buy one of these magazines with the express purpose of increasing his knowledge about the practical things. Now, I do not say that pulp is bad, but I do maintain that it is greatly inferior to living literature, and that certain types of pulp should be curbed by law. The dime detective story certainly can be contested as to its positive and negative value. I suppose any youth is learning something when he tries to carry out one of their “perfect crimes,” against society.
I shall stick to my guns that pulp in its common form is not educational, at least not my type of pulp. Anybody who has the nerve to say it is, certainly needs to dig deeper into the matter. People read pulp because it amuses them, as it does me, nothing more. Ignorant people might read pulp in the hopes of learning something, but not so the average American.
NICHOLAS A. URDA
To which Mr. Westpfahl replied on 31st May, defending freedom of speech and the right to entertain oneself as cheaply as possible.
MR. WESTPFAHL REPLIES IN PULP CONTROVERSY
Editor, Scranton Tribune,
Sir: In answer to Mr. Urda:
Your letter interests me. I shall attempt to answer it in as direct and brief a manner as possible.
In the first place, you do not quote me correctly. I did not say that any fiction found in the pulp magazines was educational. Neither did I say that there was any form of detrimental fiction to be found in the slick magazines, but permit me to say it now. And certainly there is to be had an undesirable amount of bad, unjustifiable fiction in both types. But, who am I to pass judgment on it? And who are you to attempt to do so? My argument is that this is a free country. We have a free press. Under fur constitution we are permitted to write as we please, people are supposed to be allowed to read what they please. Why deprive them of that right or try to? They, the reading public, know what they want in the way of entertainment. They create the demand. And the wily editor supplies that demand by telling his contributing writers what to write. By your own admission you read pulp stories. Then why try to argue against them? If you’re looking for education then for heaven’s sake don’t read fiction. Fiction is written for people who like to dream, as a psychologist would put it, want to escape from this unpleasant sphere. And because they are Incapable of dreaming dreams that are fantastic enough, that carry them far and away from their own little, to them gigantic, troubles, they read fiction.
About those big name writers I talk about: By a big name writer is meant simply a person whpse product sells very easily and handsomely to a slick or quality magazine because he has established a name for himself. His stories are not necessarily good, oft times they are very odoriferous. He writes as he would like to write, as most writers would like to write and dare not, knowing that they must not write of life objectively, but as foolish morons want them to: They must write convincingly of such things as love always triumphs, honestly is the best policy and such.
There are a few exceptions. Yes, there are a few, a very few exceptions where a writer has succeeded in ‘hitting’ the slicks without first training on the pulps. Ask any writer, write to them, read their biographies, they’ll tell you very frankly that they first smelled the odor of printer’s ink, first saw their name in print in a pulp. Names? I’ll give you just a few, Sinclair Lewis, Donald Barr Chidsey, Theodore Dreiser, Jack Woodford, William Afee. There are others. And a great many of them still continue to write for the pulps, Of course you wouldn’t recognize their stories or the names beneath them. You’re not supposed to: they write under a pseudonym. Brother, if you think you or anybody else can get to the top, if you have the stuff, without training on the pulps, then go to it. Maybe it can be done. There are a few exceptions:
As for this Polti guy to whom I referred. You say that you and a hundred million other people never heard of him. Well, I shan’t try to tell you about him. He was just a guy who lived a short time ago, studied a bit about drama and its various forms and after he’d studied for a long time decided maybe he could help other people by enlightening them as to his findings. So, he wrote a book about it. It’s a good book, really.
Margaret Mitchell wrote a book too, Gone With The Wind. It was a good book. You could write a book just as good as the one in question. You could if you had the time and the patience to undertake an endless amount of research, an enormous amount of effort, and a tremendous amount of luck. Yes, luck had a great deal to do with it. Think not? Then you haven’t been initiated into the whys and wherefores of the making of successful novels.
Fiction writers will hate me like the devil for what I have written. I’ve given away trade secrets, so to speak. There are a great many more that I haven’t given away. But oh boy, how I’d like to. It’s high time you fellows started to think, to really, honestly seek the truth. And yet I am convinced that you don’t want it, you prefer to state your own smug, prejudiced opinions, to run your neck out without knowing one iota of the truth. Why don’t you do something actually constructive about it? Seek out these objectionable pulps, call them by name and run them out Why don’t you? I’ll tell you why: Because you. can’t draw the line between the words literature and cheap, if you know what I mean.
It’s too bad that my aspirations don’t go any higher than earning a few dollars. Yes it is. I’d like to raise the so called standard of literature, but I’m not kidding me. I couldn’t even begin to try. Read Voltaire and know the answer. Read the Bible and know why. It can’t be done. The standard was set years and years ago and to try to elevate it is futile. We “smart fellows” know that. We should. The Nirvana of literature has been with us for a long time, if that’s what you want, we want, and we disregard it.
And so, knowing that, I reiterate, I write with the hope of making money. And even if I didn’t know that literature had reached its peak ages ago, I would still say just that.
So let us be frank about the whole matter. Let us not try to write about something of which we know nothing. I confess I know little. There must be more intelligent people hereabouts who do know more. Let them take up the fight. I have always hated publicity, I do not seek it now, not unless I’m paid for it. I promise you, continue your discussion, I shall not attempt to judge or pass my judgment on. And so, the torch I fling to abler hands.
Mr. Urda, in turn, defended his call for censoring some of the pulps on 12th June.
MORE ON PULP MAGAZINES
Editor, The Tribune.
Sir: To Mr. Westpfahl:
You speak very sincerely and I am inclined to believe that you know what you are talking about. In my previous letter, if I happened to infringe upon your dignity I am genuinely sorry for it. However, it is usually the bad that brings out the good, as in the case of pulps, and so I write in the hope that you may understand me. In my first letter I believe that my perspective overran your propensity but, since your last letter so clearly extricates you, I contend that here is a just matter to be debated.
Now that I know what you mean by a big name writer, and who this Polti guy was, I think that I can move about more freely. Still, I believe that you misunderstood me. The point which I wish to stress, is that pulp is not educational. It’s true, you did not say that it was, but if I recall correctly, some writer did. Let me remind you that I’m not taking it out on you. There are two forms of pulp, the entertaining and the detrimental, or as you say, “literature and cheap.” You are right, I can not draw a line between the two and neither can anyone else or you, for the simple reason that the one form overlaps into the other. In this maze of pulps that are floating around the country, there are many good and bad. I do not advocate the extermination of the entire pulp production but I do contend that the detrimental be abolished. Yes, this is a free country, the greatest on earth. But why are moving pictures censored and cut? It’s a free country isn’t it? By the same token, certain types of pulp should fall into the same category and should therefore, pass through the same critical inspection.
You evidently have little value for figures. You could name me a hundred or two hundred of your big-name writers and still the ratio would be small. Sinclair Lewis got to the top because he had the stuff on the ball, and don’t let anyone fool you that he didn’t. So did the rest of them, if this wasn’t true then every writer in the country would be a big-name writer. About these pen-names that you speak of, well, I have never seen any sense in not signing your own name to a story that is your own, unless that story was odoriferous and then, naturally, the author wouldn’t like to have his name under it. A good illustration is the and, and, and, and type, it’s not even amusing. You rarely see a well-known author using a pen name and if he does, he is just as well-known by his right name. (
As for your thinking that the past is more perfect than the future, well, you are wrong. Wrong because China has proven that Confucius was wrong. Wrong because nothing has ever been made that cannot be perfected just a little bit more. And that applies to your standards of literature. Perhaps we cannot raise this standard of literature, but it is possible and fellow, it’s a free country isn’t it?
A word about Mitchell before I close. She wrote a good book all-right, but listen, you can’t just sit down and say, “well, I’ve collected material for seven years, guess I’ll write a novel.” Perhaps you can but it’s a big perhaps and it means, “perhaps, if you got the stuff on the ball.” If you haven’t your book will be a flop and you know it. And if you work for 10 years on a pulp production, without trying to increase your standard of writing, I’d advise you not to try it.
I really believe that you are very capable of carrying out your side of the argument, however the issue is of such trifling importance, if it is not altogether ambiguous that it is hardly worth dickering over. Still I am not reluctant to write about it as It furnishes plenty of food for thought. I would like to hear from you again Mr. Westpfahl and also from anyone else who may be interested.
NICHOLAS A. URDA
As this controversy came to an end Frank Westpfahl, Nicholas A. Urda and Donald Raub all enlisted in the US Army and fought in World War 2. I bet they all read some pulps then. Wonder if they changed their minds.
Over the years I’ve read several attacks on pulp literature, usually appearing in the slick and literary magazines. Such general statements as “pulps are bad literature” or “pulps have a corrupting influence on the reader” are simply not true. Yes, some pulps did print poor literature but what these attacks fail to realize is the simple fact that there is such a thing as a good or excellent pulp magazine.
In 2012 I wrote an online article for Mystery*File titled “My Favorite Magazines” in which I listed several pulp titles that often published very good fiction. I don’t want to read substandard literature so I listed only the best titles in genre fiction. But I also listed my favorite slick, literary, and digest magazines.
In other words, there is such a thing as a good pulp magazine. It’s not all poor literature.
Agree. Take Sturgeon’s law “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” Applying that to the estimated forty thousand issues of pulp magazines produced, we get about four thousand issues that aren’t crap. Let’s read and celebrate those.
And to paraphrase a quote on philosophy “Pulp magazines maybe trashy. But the history of pulp magazines is scholarship.” Here’s to more scholarship.
Sai, fun debate. Have you pried into the life of Donald Raub, to see whether he lived the virtuous life he was aiming for? -John
John, great question. I included a link to his recent (5 years ago) obit in the first paragraph. He was in the marines for 30 years, and other than these regular eruptions in the newspapers in his teenage years, seems to have lead a blameless life.
Or maybe he used an alias and alter ego; an idea borrowed from the pulps.
No mention of his upstanding reading preferences in the obit. 🙂