Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week - February 26, 1938 issue of Argosy

Argosy February 26, 1938Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, the phrase "pulp fiction" has come back into use, but many have forgotten its origin. For the first half of the Twentieth Century, the popular market for fiction was dominated by "pulp" magazines. The Magazine of the Week is the February 26, 1938 issue of Argosy, arguably the most successful of the pulp magazines.

"Pulp magazines" are so named for the pressed wood pulp on which they were printed. Publishers used cheap wood pulp in lieu of ordinary paper both to keep costs down in a highly competitive market and due to paper shortages during the wars. Because they were printed on such poor quality wood pulp, most pulp magazines have disintegrated over time, and any copy that has survived in good condition is now a collector's item.

Pulp magazines tended to garish covers and sensationalistic stories -- the term "pulp fiction" refers to this exuberant but unpolished style -- but the pulps also printed a great deal of excellent fiction. Between the late 1890's and the early 1950's, many important American authors such as Jack London and Tennessee Williams got their starts in the pulps, and it is difficult to name a significant early writer of mystery, romance, science fiction and fantasy, horror, or westerns who did not write for the pulps. Indeed, the very concept of dividing fiction into these different genres originated with the pulps.

The February 26, 1938 issue of Argosy is a typical example of pulp fiction. It contains some short fiction best left forgotten, but also the first appearance of Ship of the Line, a Horatio Hornblower novel by C.S. Forester, whose outstanding sea adventures remain widely read to this day, as well as the conclusion of a novel by Luke Short, a successful author of westerns. (Argosy and other pulps often printed novel-length works by serializing them over several issues.) Incidentally, the apparent holes in the cover of this magazine are with one exception a deliberate part of the cover art -- Hornblower's ship HMS Sutherland and her French adversary are giving each other a pounding.

Argosy was the first of the all-fiction pulps, switched to that format by publisher Frank Munsey in 1896. Before the pulps came along, however, there was yet an earlier option for fiction readers who did not wish to pay for hardcover books. You will see an example of that format next week.

No comments: