One of the wonders of teaching is that one never stops learning. Here’s proof.
I’ve been teaching my first year students an introduction to the short story, based on Mansfield (“Bliss”), Joyce (“The Sisters”) and Woolf (“Kew Gardens”). I insisted that the Modernist short story is only one branch of the modern short story and that to really understand the first decades of the 20th century one should never forget about pulp fiction in all its variety. I didn’t know, though, how to prove that as succinctly as possible.
Reading (for a completely unrelated matter, a paper) Justine Larbalestier’s excellent essay The Battle of the Sexes in Science-fiction, I came across an image of Hugo Gernsback’s first editorial for Amazing Stories, the pulp magazine that invented modern science-fiction (post Wells’s scientific romance). Doubting whether to scan the image for class use, as Gernsback explains beautifully the function of the story-based pulp, or check the internet, I chanced upon a real treasure trove: The Pulp Magazines Project (www.pulpmags.org). My digital generation students absolutely loved the idea… and its gorgeous look. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would have the chance to thumb my digital way into so much mythical, thrilling stuff…
This is a huge depository, started in 2011, an “archive of all-fiction pulpwood magazines from 1896-1946”, but also a digital archives hub of many other projects connected with the short story in the first half of the 20th century. Ironically, this website proves the point I was trying to teach my students much more effectively than any book on the short story I have read, namely, that the Modernist short story coexisted with a true avalanche of popular short fiction. In both cases –literary Modernist, popular– the short story reveals itself as a genre essential to understand 20th century Literature in English. Indeed, although I came across this web in search of Amazing Stories, you’ll find there as much as you wish to know about the magazines in which Modernist short fiction originally appeared in the USA and the UK.
Larbalestier speaks of her luck at having access to the very rich Science Fiction Collection of the University of Sydney for her essay. One thing that caught my attention was that she speaks of crumbling pulps which must be handled with all the care in the world. The scanned versions of The Pulp Magazines Project might thus be eventually the only proof that these magazines ever existed, which makes me think inevitably of how in literary research we are fortune’s fools, as we depend on the vagaries of the materials’ survival. Funnily, it turns out that this applies to Medieval manuscripts as much as to early 20th century pulpwood short fiction.
So… for next year, if I teach 20th century English Literature again, as I guess I will, it’s back to drawing board for me, to reconsider how to put much better in context my Modernist trio, now that I know that this website exists. How absolutely tempting to teach an elective subject based on the astonishing richness (and variety) of its resources!!