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Woody Haut

Related: pulp fiction - crime fiction - 1950s - paperback - noir


Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War (1995) - Woody Haut

Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War (1995) - Woody Haut [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

First sentence: "It is no coincidence that Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest was first published on the eve of the Wall Street Crash..."

From Kirkus Reviews
Forget the snappy but misleading title: Haut focuses on the paperback originals that took the place of pulp magazines in the period from 1945 to 1963. Contending that hardboiled fiction has rarely been taken seriously by literary criticism ``precisely because it is a class-based literature,'' Haut wants to establish the newly fashionable political credentials of hardboiled writers who, considering American society to be inherently criminal, focus on ``capitalism's relationship to crime, corruption, desire and power.'' Hence the darkness of noir fiction echoes the dark underside of the fractured American '50s. Haut, an American journalist living in London, is not especially original about Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, Ross Macdonald, Jim Thompson, or Mickey Spillane, all of whom have been put through these paces before. He's much more revealing when he discusses more neglected writers like Leigh Brackett, Dolores Hitchens, and Dorothy B. Hughes (all of whom managed to create complex heroines ``within a culture intent on rendering them powerless''); William McGivern, Gil Brewer, and Lionel White (whose underworld novels mask critiques of the dominant social order); Charles Williams and Charles Willeford (whose later novels subvert the false optimism of the emerging '60s, when pulp fiction would be overtaken by the real-life nightmare of current events). Even here, however, Haut too often strains to pair key novels with irrelevant historical events (McGivern's Odds Against Tomorrow appeared the same year Sputnik was launched) and presses extended plot summaries into service to support historical generalizations as wordy and dubious as anything in the academic criticism he lambastes. Surprisingly, Haut makes a sounder case for pulp fiction's political analysis of American culture than for its central importance to that culture. -- Copyright 1996, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. , via Amazon.com

'I killed more people tonight than I have fingers on my hands. I shot them in cold blood and enjoyed every minute of it... They were Commies... Red sons of bitches who should have died long ago.' Such sentiments as these from Mickey Spillane's character Mike Hammer seem at first sight to perfectly convey the right wing mood of McCarthyite America. In many ways American 1950s pulp fiction, with its concentration on the crime fighting detective as hero, and its casting of strong independent women as double dealing and dangerous to know, seems to encapsulate the worst of the conservatism that swept across the postwar US.

This well researched and highly readable study suggests that this is only one side of the picture. Haut argues that the work of the best writers in the genre, and their attendant popularity, reveals much more about the general unease felt by many Americans about where their country was going. On the one hand, there was the general increase in living standards, coupled with the expansion of the consumer society. American workers at the time though could be forgiven for thinking there was a catch; there was. It was the same period that saw the founding of the CIA, the atom bomb tests, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, US intervention in Guatemala, Lebanon and Korea, and the anti-union Taft Hartley Act.

Citing the work of ex-Communists and liberals such as Jim Thompson, Chester Himes and David Goodis, and right wingers like Spillane, Haut makes the case that the collection of characters inhabiting the pulp world was largely formed by a society riven and driven by paranoia, be it the valid paranoia of blacks and the left or the insane paranoia of the witch hunters. In fact, despite Spillane's fevered ramblings, paperback books themselves were soon to become a target for the right. In 1952 a Select Committee reported that pocket books 'have degenerated into media for the dissemination of artful appeals to sensuality, immorality, filth, perversion and degeneracy'.

Other sections of the book examine the politics of private detection, the crime novel as social critique and the hitherto neglected women pulp writers such as Leigh Bracket (who went on to write film scripts for Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep and Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye), and Dolores Hitchens.

The strength of the book is that the writer does locate his subject in a historical, political and cultural context. Informed by what appears to be an American far left background (his sources include Harry Braverman, Ernest Mandel and Mike Davis), he navigates well the tricky area of the 'literary' status of these 'jobbing writers'. These writers were paid by the word for producing formula work which demanded requisite amounts of sex and violence, in what was effectively industrialised literary production.

Aware of these constraints, he argues convincingly that the best were still able to display real insight into the times about which they wrote. In addition he argues importantly that pulp fiction themes owe a debt to an earlier 'hard boiled' proletarian literary tradition that explored the experiences of those either marginal or hostile to US society. On the downside, the book is really an accompaniment to the novels under discussion and becomes somewhat hard going without a knowledge of the texts themselves.

What also might have been useful would have been a discussion of the artwork of the book covers. This though is a minor quibble about what remains a useful Marxist inspired contribution to, debates on popular culture. --Eamonn Kelly via http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/sr194/books.htm [Jul 2005]

see also: pulp - 1950s - crime fiction - paperback - noir

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