Lesson 4: The Rise of the Pulps: 1911 - 1926

Lesson 4: The Rise of the Pulps: 1911 - 1926

Created by James Gunn and Thomas Seay

This course is available for online enrollment as ENGL 506 through the Continuing Education department of the University of Kansas. To take this course for academic credit, click here.

Lesson Objectives

After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Discuss how market forces created pulp magazines and shaped the content of science fiction in the early twentieth century; and
  • Identify some of the recurring themes and ideas of early pulp science fiction.

Readings

"The Machine Stops," by E.M. Forster
The Road to Science Fiction #2, pp. 16-19

From Under the Moons of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Road to Science Fiction #2, pp. 47 - 74

"The Moon Pool," by A. Merritt
The Road to Science Fiction #2, pp. 75-113

"Twilight," by John W. Campbell, Jr.
The Road to Science Fiction #2, pp. 256-76

Introduction

As the nineteenth century became the twentieth, the United States was ready for progress and the romance of progress and for the fiction that would sum up these dreams as meaningful human adventures.

Teddy Roosevelt summed up some of the spirit of that time, a spirit that would seep into science fiction as well. H.G. Wells visited Roosevelt in 1906, and the president brought up The Time Machine to disagree with its pessimism. Wells recalled their conversation: "If one chose to say America must presently lose the impetus of her ascent, that she and all mankind must culminate and pass, [Roosevelt] could not conclusively deny that possibility. Only he chose to live as if this were not so." And he continued, as Wells remembered:

"Suppose, after all," he said slowly, "that should prove to be right, and it all ends in your butterflies and morlocks. That doesn't matter now. The effort's real. It's worth going on with. It's worth it. It's worth it—even so." (H.G. Wells, Experiment in Autobiography. New York: MacMillan, 1934.)

 

This kind of environment encouraged the further development of science fiction. Jules Verne had proved that people were eager to read about future wonders and wonderful voyages; H.G. Wells had demonstrated that science and the future could be the subject of literature; and the magazines had proved that they could be printed and distributed economically even at a dime a copy, that the public was eager for fiction, and that part of the mix of fiction desired by a sizable share of the reading public was fiction about science, adventures in strange worlds, wonderful journeys, and cautionary tales about possible catastrophes and possible future societies.

The pulps had been created in 1896, as Frank Munsey's Golden Argosy evolved into Argosy, 192 pages of fiction for a dime. That was just a dozen years after the invention of pulp paper, a rough-surfaced printing medium which yellowed quickly (it contained within itself the acid of its own destruction), shredded readily, and did not reproduce pictures very well, but which had one outstanding virtue: it was cheap. It was made from wood shredded to fibers and then reduced to pulp by chemicals, then pressed and dried on a mesh mold.

Circulation of Argosy doubled when it changed to an all-fiction policy. For four years it remained about 80,000 and then took off, reaching a half-million by 1905. The popularity of science fiction was making itself evident with the publication of H.G. Wells's stories and serials, particularly The War of the Worlds and The First Men in the Moon in Cosmopolitan, and science fiction began to appear with some frequency in Argosy.

Munsey brought out a new pulp magazine, All-Story, in 1905. Within a year the magazine had a printing of 250,000. In 1906 Munsey published the first specialized pulp magazine, the Railroad Man's Magazine, which was filled with railroad stories; the second specialized magazine, the Ocean, which offered 192 pages of sea stories for a dime, came out in 1907 but lasted only a year.

The slick magazines were paying reasonably good rates for their fiction: many paid five cents a word, and established authors negotiated their own rates. But in the pulps the customary rates were one-half to one cent a word, and the Munsey magazines were almost the only ones that paid on acceptance. A full-length serial often brought the author only $400.

By 1911, the future of Munsey's All-Story was uncertain, but on August 24 of that year. an unknown writer sent to managing editor Thomas Newell Metcalf 43,000 words of an uncompleted novel entitled Dejah Thoris, Martian Princess, and asked that, if accepted, it be printed over the name of "Normal Bean." The author was Edgar Rice Burroughs, a 35-year-old failure at a dozen different enterprises and occupations.

But Burroughs thought he could write pulp fiction and sell it. "If people were paid for writing rot such as I read I could write stories just as rotten," he recalled in 1929. "I knew absolutely that I could write stories just as entertaining and probably a lot more so than any I chanced to read in those magazines." (The Washington Post. October 27, 1929)

The novel was serialized as Under the Moons of Mars, by (because of an artist's error) "Norman Bean." For the 65,000-word serial, All-Story paid Burroughs $400. It was a bargain, for Burroughs began writing, as some writers do, at the top of his form. In Under the Moons of Mars (published in book form as A Princess of Mars) were all the characteristics that later would make him rich and famous: the mysterious circumstances, the unfettered imagination, the persistent action, the unabashed coincidences, the Victorian code that governed the behavior of his heroes—all of them flawed but in their totality weaving tapestries of far-off romantic adventure that had never before been displayed.

On June 4, 1912, Burroughs submitted a new novel to Metcalf called Tarzan of the Apes. All-Story bought it for $700 and published it complete in the October 1912 issue (now a prime collector's item). Both of Burroughs's first published novels brought forth a remarkable response from readers, including letters of praise and threats of violence against Burroughs and Metcalf if they did not produce sequels—since both novels end with typical Burroughs cliff-hangers.

In 1914 Metcalf offered Burroughs two-and-a-half cents a word and wanted 50,000 words a month. The reason: All-Story was going weekly. All-Story Weekly began to publish its backlog of Burroughs stories: a novelette about a caveman who awakens into the present from a long sleep, "The Eternal Lover"; "The Inner World," which was published under the title of "At the Earth's Core"; and The Beasts of Tarzan, among others. Burroughs later launched his own publishing company in Tarzana, California; before his death in March 1950 at the age of 75, Burroughs had published 59 books and made, according to his own estimate, a fortune of more than $10 million.

Other writers were providing romantic adventures in strange places or on other worlds: Austin Hall with "Almost Immortal" in 1916 and "The Rebel Soul" in 1917, both of which deal with the transference of the spirit from one body to another; Ray Cummings with "The Girl in the Golden Atom" in 1919, which follows in the spirit of O'Brien's "The Diamond Lens"; Francis Stevens (pseudonym for Gertrude Bennett) with The Nightmare in 1917, Labyrinth in 1918, Citadel of Fear and Heads of Cerberus in 1919; and Murray Leinster, who would write and sell millions of words of science fiction in the next five decades under his pen name and his real name, Will F. Jenkins, with "The Runaway Skyscraper" in 1919, about the Metropolitan Tower in New York being carried back in time, and "The Mad Planet" in 1920, about the destruction of civilization by a vast increase in carbon dioxide in the air and the effort of a primitive young man to survive in a world dominated by giant flora and fauna.

In 1917 All-Story introduced a new writer who would rival Burroughs in popularity, if not in productivity or commercial instincts. There was good reason for all three: A. (for Abraham) Merritt had a romantic imagination and a poetic style to match, but he also was the 33-year-old associate editor of Hearst's Sunday magazine section, The American Weekly. His first story was "Through the Dragon Glass"; his second publication was an All-Story serial in 1918, The People of the Pit. The same year saw the publication of a novelette called "The Moon Pool," which created such a sensation that Bob Davis offered Merritt $2,000 for a sequel. The story describes the fate of an exploring party investigating mysterious ruins on an island in the Pacific and their living death through a strange energy creature which lives inside one of the structures and draws in strength from the moon. The Conquest of the Moon Pool was serialized in 1919, and Merritt would carry on two careers for the next fifteen years, writing in his spare time and ultimately becoming editor of American Weekly. Among his later novels of romance, mystery, and lush descriptions: The Metal Monster, The Face in the Abyss, The Snake Mother, The Ship of Ishtar, Seven Footprints to Satan, Dwellers in the Mirage, Burn Witch Burn, Creep, Shadow! and the uncompleted Fox Woman (completed by Hannes Bok).

Meanwhile the pulp-magazine field was changing: Argosy went weekly in 1917 and began increasing its publication of fantasy and science fiction. The first crime-story magazine, Detective Story Monthly, was published by Street & Smith in October 1915; two years later it would be joined by Mystery Magazine and later by many others. Western Story magazine created the western pulp in 1919; Love Stories created a new popular genre in 1921. It was the beginning of a move toward the specialized pulp fiction magazine begun by Railroad Magazine. The Thrill Book, which might have been the first science fiction and fantasy magazine, was launched by Street & Smith in 1919 as a semi-monthly but lasted only sixteen issues.

The magazines were raising their prices: the World War I paper shortage had evolved into a period of increasing paper costs, and the labor movement, which reached a peak of unrest between 1914 and 1917, was steadily raising printing costs. But it was a bad time for price increases: World War I had been followed by a recession and motion pictures were becoming a popular alternative to the pulp magazine. For their July 1920 issues, Argosy and All-Story merged into Argosy All-Story Weekly.

At the time of the merger, Frank Luther Mott estimated, in his History of American Magazines, Argosy All-Story had a circulation of 500,000 and maintained 400,000 into the twenties. But nonetheless, as the magazines merged and reduced their editorial staffs, an era was coming to an end. Out of it had come a new kind of fiction, the scientific romance. Not the scientific romance of H.G. Wells, who had emphasized the scientific, but the scientific romance with the emphasis on the romance. From this period, more than any other, pulp fiction got its reputation as escape literature, a reputation that would be difficult for the mystery, the western, and particularly science fiction to live down.

Now the field was ready for the specialized magazines, and a young publisher of radio and invention publications was dreaming about a magazine that would predict in detail the delightful, thrilling future in store for us through scientific progress.

Writing Assignment

Pulp fiction is often accused of being escapist literature of little substance or consequence. Do you feel that some or all of the stories assigned for this lesson address larger themes or engage higher ideas?