Friday, 5 November 2010

A good look at the pulps

Mark Finn directed me to this blog from Jess Nevins, a pulp historian, about the debt science fiction owes to the classic pulps.  Of particular note is this section:

Were pulps racist?
One common perception of the pulps which is not true is that they were exceptionally racist. Certainly, the pulps were racist. Numerous pulp stories featured overtly stereotyped characters, from anti-Asian Yellow Perils to subhuman black or native savages, and many other stories described worlds in which people with non-white skin didn't exist. The science fiction pulps were particularly bad in this regard, exceeded only by the romance pulps, which were the most egregious offenders. Racism is widespread in the pulps.
But it is not true that the pulps were exceptionally racist. Racism was common in the rest of American popular culture during the pulp era. The pulps were only marginally more racist than the slicks, or genre novels, or movies and radio, all of which commonly portrayed people of color in racist and bigoted ways.
In fact, pulps were often racially progressive. Many pulp stories were racist, but the pulps had people of color and female protagonists far more often than did the slicks, genre novels, and movies and radio programs. These characters were active in primarily-white environments and were portrayed as capable, efficient, and in as progressive and non-stereotypical a fashion as the author could manage. Moreover, most of these characters were portrayed as cowboys or detectives or big-game hunters first, and black or Chinese or Jamaican second or third. The characters were defined by their profession rather than their ethnicity, just as white characters were.

Anyone who's followed my discussion of REH's views on race will see where he's coming from.  That final paragraph rings particularly true.  Again, I look to my man Ace Jessel: a sympathetic, intelligent, good-natured, heroic boxing character, the main character of two stories, the only one of an author's many characters to be a world champion, who happens to be black - created by a young, white Texan, in 1929.

Isn't that much more worthy of note than his dime-a-dozen savage stereotypes?


  1. Quick note, Al: Jess, while certainly pretty in his own way, is in fact, all man. He's got a sensitive side, sure, but it's under layers of crusty male barnacles.

  2. D'oh! Thanks, Mark. Sorry, Jess!