Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Orange Pulp: The Pulp Magazine and Contemporary Culture

Proving once again that great things often come in small packages, my New York readers could do no better than a visit to the Palitz Gallery at Lubin House, 11 East 61st Street.  In this small space, Syracuse University Library has managed to cram 61 super-rare works from the long-ago world of pulp magazines – treasures much too fun to miss.  I attended last night with arts advocate Clarissa Crabtree, and the show is sure to please anyone with even a passing interest in Americana or classic pop culture.

A quick primer for the uninitiated: the pulp magazine was so-named because of the rough, wood-pulp paper on which they were printed.  As such, pulps were not supposed to last – they were the essence of disposable literature.  But many, many American pop culture icons emerged from the pulps, including such characters as Doc Savage, The Shadow, Conan the Barbarian, Sam Spade and Tarzan of the Apes.  Writers who worked in the pulps included Ray Bradbury, Dashiell Hammett, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Isaac Asimov, and even world-class crackpot and religious huckster, L. Ron Hubbard.

The heyday of the pulps was roughly from the start of World War I to the end of the 1940s.  They were largely genre-specific, and to walk into a newsstand in the 1930s was to walk into a paradise catering to every taste.  There were magazines devoted to science fiction or supernatural stories, or detective stories, jungle stories, adventure stories, hero pulps and aviation stories.  There even was a short-lived pulp dedicated to stories about airships! 

One of the greatest things about the pulps was the vibrant cover art, well represented in this exhibit.  Several paintings by Norman Saunders are on hand, and they have to be seen to be believed.  Artists worked at breakneck speed, and most of the work created for the pulps no longer exists.  But it is not scarcity alone that makes this exhibit worthwhile -- the pulps were often lurid, but they were lurid to an almost lyrical degree, and much of the work (both art and prose) attains a status of near-poetry.

Also on hand: rare letters from a young writer named Ray Bradbury, still trying to break into the business; a table devoted to The Shadow (the greatest creation of the pulps), including rare radio scripts, advertising posters, the first issue of the magazine, and an Orson Welles radio show playing on a continuous loop; a payment stub for H.P. Lovecraft for his story At the Mountain of Madness, naming Julie Schwartz (of later comic book fame) as his agent; and a copy of Weird Tales containing the first published fiction of Tennessee Williams.

This exhibit runs through April 12, and gallery hours are Monday to Friday 10 a.m. - 6:00 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  Admission is free.

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