Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Adventure July 1934

Adventure July 1934The Magazine of the Week is the July 1934 issue of Adventure magazine, cover art by Walther M. Baumhofer.

One aspect of collecting pulp magazines that takes some getting used to is that often the magazines' covers and contents reflect the prejudices of the time. The cover of the Magazine of the Week, featuring a sinister-looking Asian villain (check out his sharpened thumbnail), is an example of what collectors call "yellow peril" cover art, a common racial stereotype in the pulp era. The Magazine of the Week's "yellow peril" cover illustrates the story "War Lord of Darkness" by Erle Stanley Gardner. This was published one year after Gardner created the character for which his is now best remembered, Perry Mason.

Needless to say, the "yellow peril" stereotype is offensive to modern readers. However, the Magazine of the Week is an example of how misleading it can be to hold figures from the past to modern standards. Before you judge Erle Stanley Gardner harshly for writing this story, you should know that prior to becoming a full-time writer, Gardner was a practicing lawyer in California, where he gained a considerable reputation for vigorously defending Asian clients. In Chinese-American communities he was called "t'ai chong tze," the big lawyer. Even though "War Lord of Darkness" has a Chinese villain, Gardner's stories also contain many sympathetic Asian characters. (The same is true of the creator of the most famous Asian villain, whom we will see next week.)

At the same time, while politically correct attitudes can be taken to excess, this kind of cover art is a reminder of the important function served by what we now call "political correctness." By perpetuating racial stereotypes, the pulp magazines contributed to bigoted attitudes, helping to make possible for example the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Stereotypes about Asians and African-Americans were especially common in pulp fiction, and the fact that social norms have evolved to the point that such attitudes are no longer tolerated in the publishing field is something to be celebrated. I hope you will forgive me for circulating this cover image, but I think it is a useful exercise to look back upon the attitudes of the past, so that we may see how far our society has come and remind ourselves not to repeat past mistakes.

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