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Serial and Government Publications Division






Comic Books
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Pulp Fiction
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Thrilling Love, December 1933 (Cover KM). Serial and Government Publications Division.

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Another important collection that represents popular culture from the 1920s through the 1950s is the Library's collection of pulp fiction. “The Pulps,” so called because they were printed on cheap, highly acidic paper, grew out of the dime novel industry of the nineteenth century (see Women in Popular Culture in Rare Book and Special Collections). Cheap, portable, disposable, and usually sensational in presentation and content, pulps can be considered predecessors to today's paperback books. At five to twenty-five cents an issue, pulp fiction was a literature accessible to Americans at every income level—often sold at newsstands and drugstores. Until the mid-1950s, pulp fiction was the literature of choice for the reading public, before it was supplanted by comic books and paperbacks.

Pulps presented stereotypic views of society, often within a fantastic, unusual setting. Every genre of literature is represented; indeed, the pulps popularized several genres and writing styles. They introduced writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, and Max Brand to the reading public. Pulp fiction writers were often prolific, usually followed a formulaic style and plot, and were paid by the word. As Lee Server points out, publishing houses of pulp fiction were considered writing factories, and deceased authors could have their name appropriated by anonymous hacks in order to attract buyers and to increase revenue. 18

Discussion of women in pulps often focuses on characters, which tended to be stereotypic and one-dimensional, and on cover artwork, which was deliberately enticing, exotic, and shocking. Women characters abounded in the pulps, sometimes as main characters but more often as companions, sidekicks, or inamoratas of male protagonists. Sue McEwen, the daughter of policeman Gilbert McEwen, had a supporting role in several Moon Man stories from 10 Detective Aces (Microfilm 95/1697 MicRR). Love Romances and Popular Love glamorized women and fostered ideal love while appealing to women readers. Oriental Stories and Dime Mystery Magazine, intended for male audiences, studied the darker side of eroticism and romantic obsession.

Covers frequently depicted women as femmes fatales, damsels in distress, or the objects of either desire or torture. Few women artists are identified in histories or checklists. Margaret Brundage, an artist for Weird Tales, is one of the few women artists that we know of in the field. According to Tony Goodstone, author of The Pulps: Fifty Years of American Pop Culture (New York: Chelsea House, 1970; PZ1.G6524 Pu N&CPR), Brundage's highly erotic covers were controversial even for Weird Tales readers. Researching women writers of pulp fiction is equally difficult. As with comic books, writers wrote under several names, used initials, and in some cases made every attempt to conceal their gender. Some women, however, did achieve recognition in the field. Mary Elizabeth Counselman (1911-1995) wrote supernatural stories in Weird Tales. Dorothy McIlwraith was editor of Short Stories until 1938. In 1940, she joined the editorial staff of Weird Tales, where she served as editor until 1954.

As one kind of American popular culture, the pulps are a rich source for researchers to discover the place of women in American society and imagination. The stories and cover art in the division's collection capture a period of American history in which readers looked for escapism, titillation, and armchair adventure.

Using the Pulp Fiction Collection

The pulp fiction collection at the Library of Congress consists of issues received for copyright deposit at the time of their publication, dating from the 1920s to the 1950s. The collection consists of approximately 310 titles and 14,000 issues. The majority were held by the Serial and Government Publications Division until preserved on film. Three extremely rare and valuable titles are available in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division: Amazing Stories, Black Mask, and Weird Tales. Microfilmed titles, available in the Microform Reading Room, can be found by searching the Library's online catalog. For these, the division retains all original color covers in preservation sleeves.

An inventory of the collection is available in the Newspaper and Current Periodical Room in a card file arranged by title. Each issue (and any duplicates) received was checked in on a card and assigned a box location. “Pulp Fiction in the Library of Congress: A Finding Aid” compiled by Janelle M. Zauha in August 1992 (N&CPR Reference Desk) provides holdings information and notes on the collection that supplements the card file index. A list of titles that have been micro—filmed is available online.

Secondary sources provide overviews, histories, and bibliographies for the pulps. Lee Server's Danger Is My Business: An Illustrated History of the Fabulous Pulp Magazines (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1993; PN4878.5.S47 1995 N&CPR) is a profusely illustrated, highly readable overview of these “fabulous” titles. Server highlights the most prolific and most accomplished writers and categorizes pulps by genre—such as adventure, private eye, romance, horror, or science fiction titles. In contrast, Cheap Thrills: An Informal History of the Pulp Magazines by Ron Goulart (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1972; PS379.G6 N&CPR) relies less on illustration and concentrates on one particular period, detailing the “heyday of the pulp magazine” from 1920 to 1940. Cover art is also a subject of interest, as Jaye Zimet's Strange Sisters: The Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction, 1949-1969 (New York: Viking Studio, 1999; NC973.5.U6 Z56 1999) documents.

One of the most exhaustive indexes and checklists to the pulp magazines is The Pulp Magazine Index compiled by Leonard A. Robbins (Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, 1988; Z1231.F4 R54 N&CPR), a multivolume set with indexes by author, artist, character, and magazine. Other indexes to pulp fiction focus on specific genres, as does Mystery, Detective, and Espionage Fiction: A Checklist of Fiction in U.S. Pulp Magazines, 1915-1974 by Michael L. Cook and Stephen T. Miller, in two volumes (New York: Garland Publishing, 1988; Z1231.D47C66 1988 N&CPR).

SEARCH TIP: Pulp fiction tends to be classed by genre, and there is no subject heading for “pulp fiction” per se. To find information about the pulps, the following, very general Library of Congress subject headings are useful, but they obviously apply to other literary topics as well.

Popular literature
Literature and society—United States—History—20th century
Magazine covers—United States

Genre headings for pulp fiction include:
Detective and mystery stories, American
Spy stories, American
Crime in literature
Western stories
Science fiction—American

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