doc_savageMost people, I am sure, think of pulp fiction as lurid, oversexed, ultraviolent, profanity-laced sensationalism, thanks (but no thanks) to the Quentin Tarantino film of that name. In fact, real pulp fiction was anything but that. Born in the years after World War I and lasting only until the onset of U.S. involvement in World War II (and the consequent shortage of cheap paper on which to publish low-priced magazines), pulp fiction was a uniquely American form of popular culture: stories of endeavor and adventure, in a wide variety of genres, published in magazine form, which largely promoted wholesome values and depicted the terrible consequences of immorality and bad personal character.

To be sure, the literary quality of most pulp fiction was quite low, with stock characters, formulaic situations, often simplistic moral dilemmas, and unsophisticated prose. Those deficiencies, however, were more than compensated for by the presentation of real problems confronting the characters, with their actions in response to these troubles providing the driving force and point of interest for the stories. In this way pulp fictions elevated interest in personal character above considerations of psychology. That explains why so many readers of today find vintage pulp fictions to be more appealing than much current-day fiction, and why many other contemporary readers consider pulp fiction to be simplistic and uninteresting.

The importance of individual choices in pulp fiction makes personal responsibility a central element of such stories, and that, too, is something modern literature often lacks, with the emphasis on psychology often serving to explain away people’s sense of choice. It is also something essential to the creation of a healthy culture that promotes cultivation of beneficial ideas and attitudes.

Another element of pulp fiction was the authors’ evident confidence in and appreciation of the American way of life. No form of literature ever delved more intensively into the evils people could perpetrate against one another (including an emphasis on political corruption and economic exploitation, two topics of great interest today), but the very effectiveness of pulp fiction depended on the freedom American life offered: how people freely chose to act toward one another was the broad subject matter of the form. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in one of his notebooks, “Action IS character,” and pulp fiction readers and writers took that to heart.

Writing in The American Spectator, H. W. Crocker III discusses one of the great pulp heroes, Doc Savage, and points out that the stories about Savage and his team of action heroes show another side of the experience of World War I, as do “Sapper” H. C. McNiele’s Bulldog Drummond novels: sometimes you just have to fight. Crocker’s description of Doc Savage is excellent and well-informed:

Doc Savage, for the uninitiated, was a pulp fiction hero of the 1930s through the 1940s, appearing in more than a hundred and eighty novels. Though the books are very much of their time, they were reissued, starting in the 1960s, as mass market paperbacks, achieving extraordinary success, selling more than 15 million copies.

Doc and his five sidekicks were veterans of the First World War, but definitely not members of the doleful, emotionally shattered, cynical “Lost Generation” who thought that “words like glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene.”

Crocker captures well the difference between emphasis on psychology and on character:

Doc was a fighter pilot in the First World War, and his five postwar assistants are army buddies. The most senior, in former military rank, is Brigadier General Theodore Marley “Ham” Brooks, a dapper, Harvard-educated attorney, who gained his nickname “Ham” from a war-time prank played upon him by Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Blodgett “Monk” Mayfair in retaliation for “Ham’s” getting “Monk” in trouble with some French officers. “Monk” is a world-class chemist of simian appearance. Outranking “Monk” is Colonel John “Renny” Renwick, an engineer with massive fists, and the trick of punching them through door panels. Then there is Major Thomas J. “Long Tom” (from a long-barreled cannon he used to defend a French village during the war) Roberts, an electrical engineering wizard. And finally, William Harper “Johnny” Littlejohn, who held no military rank because he was a war-time spy, something he could easily do, traveling the world as an archaeologist and geologist. Ironically, he is the only member of Doc’s crew to carry a near-permanent scar from the war (a bad eye; though Doc fixes it via surgery).

Doc’s and his men’s war-time memories aren’t the stuff of shuddering nightmares, they are points of comparison for when they come under fire by new evildoers. Like Bulldog Drummond, they would find peace intolerably dull if it weren’t for there being an ever-flowing supply of bad guys to thwart.

After correctly noting that “there were plenty of real-life veterans” who shared the views of Doc Savage and his associates, Crocker notes that the consequences of such a true pulp-fiction mindset are impressive and beneficial: the horrors of World War I “did not cause them to question but to reaffirm British and American ideals. And when their countries needed them again, they were ready; as we must always be.”

Those, not Quentin Tarantino’s enjoyable extravaganza of self-indulgent sensationalism, are the real values of pulp fiction.

Read Crocker’s article here: