Black Writers for the Pulps: the Case of Wallace Thurman and Harlem Stories.

First installment of Zagat's "Tomorrow" series, May 27, 1939

Black Mask, the "Klan Issue," June 1923

For years I’ve been thinking about the presence, if any, of African American writers in the pulps. The idea is interesting, especially since the pulps get a bad rap – pretty much warranted – for incredibly stereotypical and dehumanizing characterizations of African Americans and, really, most any non-white race. Nathan Madison has done a wonderful job cataloging the anti-foreign sentiment in the pulps (and comics) and giving reasons for it, and I couldn’t manage to improve upon his book, but a few examples spring quickly to mind: Arthur Leo Zagat’s Tomorrow series from Argosy which ran over the course of 1939-1941 and which has America overthrown by Asian armies which use African Americans as foot soldiers; the black face dialect humor of Octavius Roy Cohen which appeared in both the pulps and The Saturday Evening Post; the representation of Africans in much adventure fiction (including that of Robert E. Howard); the entire genre of Yellow Peril pulps, such as Wu Fang and Yen Sin; the not-so genteel xenophobia of H.P. Lovecraft (which is the go-to example for academia and apologists alike), etc., etc., ad nauseam … Really, the examples are too numerous and the exceptions are too few… but there are exceptions. There are examples of enlightened and humanist anti-racism in the pulps, enough to trouble that tired and inadequate excuse that the pulps were products of the times and the times, well, weren’t always so good for many people of different nationalities. Whereas racism was an attitude, it wasn’t the attitude: the fact that the early 1920s “neutral” debate about the Klu Klux Klan in the pages of Black Mask quickly gave away to anti-KKK sentiment in the fiction of Daly and Hammett proves this.[i]

But what I’d like to do here is return to my initial question about black writers in the pulps and how the lack of any examples (with one or two exceptions, which I’ll discuss below) points to one of the major difficulties of pulp research, which is the general lack of biographical information endemic to an industry that relied upon relationships of correspondence, pseudonyms, and house-names, and endemic to an industry that never had the luxury of either corporate or academic support and archiving. Samuel Delaney attributes to Harlan Ellison the idea that “we simply have no way of known if one, three, seven [pulp writers] – or even many more – were blacks, Hispanics, women, Native Americans, Asians, or whatever” because of the fact that most pulp writers – especially in the first few decades of the 20th century remain little more than anonymous names.[ii] Whereas a large proportion of pulp stories were written by established professional pulp writers – especially from the period after the first world war when pulp magazines solidified into a true industry – there were still many (hundreds, perhaps thousands) who remain unknown. I’m thinking largely here of the early general fiction pulps rather than the later genre pulps which have had the luxury of more scholarship, but even in those I daresay that there are more authors unknown than known.

One of the reasons for the general lack of knowledge of any African American pulp writers is because, to be a bit reductive, there was limited access to education and luxury time for writing within black communities, there were fewer opportunities – and there has historically no institutional infrastructure for preserving the experiences of black commercial writers. Therefore the place to look for black pulp writers would be where there was access to education, an African American-based economy, and a pre-existing community of writers. I have in mind Northern industrial cities and, more specifically, Harlem in the 1920s, when and where there was a vibrant author and artist community that has had plenty of academic scrutiny and historic archiving.

The Harlem Renaissance (or New Negro Movement, as it was called at the time), is often seen as a movement (sometimes codified as a subgenre of modernism, sometimes as a separate yet similar entity) that looked to find a distinct artistic form that identified, disseminated, and celebrated African American culture. A faction of the movement felt the best way to do this was to emulate established modernist (and white) novelists while another saw the need for distinctly black style, topics, etc (something similar happened in the Irish Renaissance: is it best to show a humanized and civilized people different from British stereotypes or a people and culture broken by oppression?). Academics have examined the literature of the New Negro Movement in terms of these two attitudes. What is too seldom considered is non-literary or, to put it another way, explicitly commercial writing by authors of the movement. In other words, the authors of the Harlem Renaissance have not been considered in terms of any of them being potential pulp writers…

Which brings me to Wallace Thurman, one of novelists, playwrights, and spokesmen of the Harlem Renaissance. He was the editor of Fire, the movement’s literary magazine, and he chronicled both Harlem and the movement in his Broadway play Harlem (1929) and his novel Infants of Spring (1933). He, for one, thought that the movement was hamstrung by its emulation of modernist/white authors. And he was also a reader and ghost writer at MacFadden publications which published the confessionals True Story and True Detective, but also pulp (and pulpish) magazines like Ghost Stories, Red-Blooded Stories, Thrills of the Jungle and Flying Stories. Thurman even co-wrote numerous plays with MacFadden editor William Jourdan Rapp.

Chances are good that Thurman would have ghost written for some of the MacFadden pulp/broadsheet magazines but, ultimately, it is impossible to know because they would have been written under a house name or pseudonym. Of course, one could scour the magazines for potentially promising racial themes, but it would still be a frustrating and inconclusive hunt. What is important to take away from Thurman’s pulp career, though, is that he, like most pulp writers, saw it as a purely commercial venture. And the industry supported him while he worked on his novels about Harlem. I like the idea of Ghost Stories magazine with Thurman as a ghost writer; it seems symbolic of the ethereal specter of black writers haunting the pulps.

Harlem Stories, May 1932

Even more tantalizing than Thurman, and at approximately the same time, or a little after, and with a possible Thurman connection, is the short lived Harlem Stories, which lasted for only two issues in 1932. It is considered one of the rarest pulps with only a single copy each that I know of (from the Frank Robinson collection, each of which sold for over $2,000 in 2012. If you’re the lucky purchaser or find a copy in your attic, puhlease get in touch with me!! Heh).

Harlem Stories is considered a “Girlie Pulp,” a genre that grew out of the situational flapper pulps of the 1920s but which had, by the advent of the depression, delineated to increasingly sensational and risqué fiction – some even publishing nude photographs. (For the definitive history the genre, see Doug Ellis' wonderful Uncovered.) These were under constant scrutiny and censure by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, resultantly most were absent from New York newsstands but freely available elsewhere. Like Harlem Stories, many of these were New York-themed, such as Broadway Nights, Gay Broadway, and New York Nights. These latter titles, most published by Harry Donenfeld, were pretty slick affairs, different from the obviously slip-shod Harlem Nights (notice the single color cover), hence I don’t think these were published by one of the “better” girlie pulp publishers. The publisher was listed as Jaycline Publishing, but that doesn’t give us any clue, especially since many publishers used contrived corporations per title so as to avoid prosecution. One possible clue is that in Pulpwood Editor (1937), Harold Hersey lists himself as publisher of “Harlem Nights,” a title that has never come to light. Interestingly, he also lists himself as “Advisory Editor, first issue only” on New York Nights and French Night Life (two Donenfeld publications). I think that Hersey got the name of his own magazine wrong – which is somewhat understandable seeing the number of magazines he was editor and/or publisher of – and was publisher of Harlem Stories. In support of this claim is the fact that the only identifiable author who published in Harlem Stories was W. Adolphe Roberts (see the table of contents here), who had been editor of MacFadden’s Dance Magazine in 1927, while Wallace Thurman ghost wrote for it and Harold Hersey was supervising editor of all the MacFadden Magazines. In 1928, Roberts would become editor of Ghost Stories before Hersey bought it out and continued writing for the magazine under Hersey’s editorship.

W. Adolphe Roberts later in life. Photo Credit: The Jamaica-Gleaner

Roberts was involved in the Greenwich Village scene (as was Thurman who published in the Greenwich Village Quill, a little magazine, in 1927); he “discovered” Edna St. Vincent Millay and started publishing her in Brief Stories, and he had an affair with Margaret Sanger, as did Harold Hersey. If you’re confused by these tangled relationships… well, welcome to the Village. Roberts was born in Jamaica, though was of Anglo-Jamaican descent, and was heavily involved in the movement for Jamaican freedom from colonial rule – a fact that has led many book dealers and academics to identify him as black. Given his interest in black rights, though, his professional relationships with the MacFadden magazines, and his involvement with the Greenwich Village bohemian scene, there is little doubt that he would have known Thurman, as would have Hersey.[iii]

Thurman was one of the most astute chroniclers of Harlem life, publishing Infants of Spring as a critique of the New Negro movement in 1933. Just as the second issue of Harlem Stories was hitting the stands, Thurman was hired as an editor at Macauley’s publishing house. What are the chances that either Thurman had been involved in Harlem Stories, either as a ghost writer or editor as a way to make a little money while working on his novel and before landing his prestigious editorial position? The answer to this may be hiding in some archived correspondence or it may be lost. Harlem Stories itself may hold a clue, though.  

Whereas Harlem Stories is now incredibly rare, at the time it was published it was distributed widely enough to warrant a story in the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, which reads:

America woke up the other morning to find that Harlem, long a symbol of hilarity and abandonment in the minds of the nation, had suddenly made a bid for new popularity through ‘Harlem Stories,’ a new pulp paper magazine that appeared on newsstands throughout the country, Saturday. The life and loves of colored folk hitherto confined to an occasional novel or caricature by Octavious Roy Cohen in the Saturday Evening Post, has now been placed within reach of all who go to the stands to purchase … popular periodicals.

The article goes on to point out that whereas the stories are, most likely, written by white authors, they are “written with a degree of sympathy without an overdrawing of either fact or dialect. Except for the Harlem background and the constant references to such people as Bill Robinson, Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters and others, the stories may fit into any slice of American life. They tend to make colored folk not monstrous, but people like one expects to find between the covers of any other magazine.”[iv]

The article also excerpts the story “After Midnight,” which captures the Harlem Renaissance milieu. It is about Mrs. Carlisle Nelson, whose “very near ancestors had toiled on southern plantations,” but now, wealthy because her late husband had “discovered a now famous beverage,” she moves to Harlem with her beautiful daughter, and socializes with Robinson, Robeson, painters, and singers. The article warns “Southerners will find it hard to adjust themselves to hearing colored women referred to as Mrs. Nelson, even in a magazine, but it will be good practice.”[v] The story certainly illustrates a familiarity with the New Negro movement, but without reading the entire story, it is impossible to see how it is treated. But it definitely isn’t dehumanizing in the same manner as many pulp representations of black life.

Illustration for "No Greater Love," Harlem Stories, 5-32

The only full story I’ve been able to track down from Harlem Stories is “No Greater Love” by “Michael Bittner,” which does some interesting racial and gender work. It takes a Harlem nightclub as its setting and deals with the unrequited love that Ivy, an older chorus girl, has for Baby Lou, a younger, up-and-coming chorus girl. When Ivy attempts to save her from an abusive and corrupting Stage-Door-Johnny, who the younger girl ends up murdering, Ivy takes the fall for her, hence “no greater love.” The story deals openly with lesbianism and feminine solidarity, not in a licentious way, but openly enough that it would have met with censor, and potentially been banned in the very neighborhoods it represented.

The fact that the story represents not only black life in a humanizing way, but gay black life, a hidden black subculture, is telling. Academics have conjectured that Thurman himself, though married, was reported to be gay (his wife giving that as the reason for their divorce). It would be too spurious to claim that Thurman wrote the story, nor does it really matter if he did or didn’t; what matters is that Harlem Stories, though short lived, offers an example of a pulp that did humanizing work while riding on the back of sensationalism and risqué sexuality. It is of course participating in the same exoticism that drew white crowds to the Cotton Club and made Josephine Baker a star, but many authors of the Harlem Renaissance, like Rudolph Fisher saw this as the doorway to integration.

Whereas there is little way of identifying African American authors in the pulp magazines, we can identify how the pulps were an important form for some African Americans: in Black Boy, Richard Wright tells of how important pulps were for him as a kid, influencing his reading and introducing him to a world outside the rural south; Wallace Thurman used them both as economic support and as an entryway into a career in publishing; and, as I wrote about years ago, George Schuyler used the pulp form to write pulpish serials for African American newspapers, many of which are empowering. And, as this post and Harlem Stories shows, there were humanizing narratives in the pulps. Further research may reveal more examples in the pulps – perhaps enough to counterbalance, or at least trouble, their abundant misogyny and racism.

Copyright David M. Earle, 2015. Please cite accordingly. 

[i] See Sean McCann’s Gum-Shoe America for an account of this debate.

[ii] Delany, “Racism in Science Fiction” in Dark Matter, R. Thomas Sheree, ed. (NY: Warner, 2000), 384.

[iii] Much of my info on Roberts and Hersey comes from two books edited by John Locke: Pulpwood Days, Volume One, and Ghost Stories: The Magazine and its Makers, Vol. 1., both published by Off Trail Publications

[iv] The Afro-American, April 23, 1932.

[v] The Afro American April 23, 1932