(Aldous Huxley and his wife Maria in Los Angeles in 1937)
In 1937, while Europe was preparing for war, Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), the famous English pacifist and author of “Brave New World” (1931), moved to Los Angeles, California where he spent the latter part of his life.
After moving to America, Huxley toured around the country in support of his latest work “The Olive Tree,” a collection of literary and travel essays. As he described in this article to The Saturday Review of Literature of July 17, 1937, he encountered . . . Pulp Fiction! His English sensibilities were, to say the least, affronted. Here is Huxley’s article in its entirety as it was published in The Saturday Review.
File this one under: “Kids, these days…”
Sir: —I am sending you the enclosed article, which I recently wrote for an English periodical, Time and Tide. It may be taken as a kind of speculative foot-note to the very interesting account of Pulp Magazines, contributed to your issue of July 3rd by Fletcher Pratt.
San Cristobal, New Mexico.
The editors of The Saturday Review welcome the opportunity to print Mr. Huxley’s article, which interprets a field of pulp fiction not dealt with in Mr. Pratt’s recent essay. One passage which paralleled material in the previous article has been condensed.
ONCE, long ago, it may be that newspapers sometimes contained pieces of good news. If that was ever the case I have forgotten it. Nowadays one can never open a paper without finding accounts of yet another massacre, yet graver threats to the world’s peace, yet more frightful scientific inventions. The bad news that reached me as we were crossing the Alleghenys belonged to the last-mentioned category. From my morning sheet I learned (with what a sinking of the heart!) that some brilliant technician had discovered a way of turning the hitherto recalcitrant southern pine into newsprint; that, in consequence, several scores of millions of dollars were to be invested in new paper factories; that certain companies had given verbal undertakings that they would not completely deforest the country, but that others had not; and that, meanwhile, the Federal Government was impotent to protect the trees; and, finally, that the new process would permit of a reduction in the price of newsprint from forty-five to twenty-seven dollars a ton. To me, this last piece of news was the worst. Cheaper pulp means bigger papers, thicker and more numerous magazines, larger advertisements, longer comic strips, more copious sports news, fuller murder reports, taller head-lines, more sensational party-politics—means in other words more lies disseminated to a wider public, more minds filled with more and (since increase of quantity must fatally lead to decline in quality) even worse drivel, more men and women enslaved by the vice of ever more pointless and indiscriminate reading. If only some benefactor of humanity would come along with a new process that would raise the price of newsprint ten or twenty times! But, alas, that much desired consummation will not be brought about, I suppose, until the forest reserves are approaching complete exhaustion. And by that time, no doubt, some scientific busybody will have discovered a method for turning bamboos into paper. And, in a suitably tropical climate bamboos (as every schoolboy with an interest in Chinese tortures is aware) will grow as much as eighteen inches a day. So that when the northern forests are all destroyed, the price of pulp, instead of soaring, may actually fall—fall to twenty dollars a ton, to fifteen, to ten, perhaps. And then. . . . But I had rather not even try to imagine what periodical literature will be like then. Even today, when newsprint is worth two or three times its weight in anthracite, a display of American magazines is startling enough.
It was in a considerable port and seaside of northern Florida that I first seriously explored the modern pulp situation. I was looking for a book on American geography—some elementary text-book that would provide me with a coherent framework into which to fit the bewildering impressions of high-speed motor travel. But, search as I might, I could find no bookshop. Pulp between boards, unperiodical pulp, was evidently not consumed in this particular city. But when it came to pulp in colored paper, pulp in monthly installments of a hundred and twenty-eight pages, the case was different. In the main street alone I found no less than six shops devoted to the sale of nothing else than periodical pulp. From the brilliantly lighted windows scores and hundreds of highly colored female faces, either floating in the void, or else attached to female figures in a state of partial undress, gazed out from the covers of magazines. Sometimes there would be rows on rows of the same face. More often, however, taking pride in the extent of his stock, the shopkeeper would build up whole picture galleries, in which every head was different. In one window I counted upwards of eighty separate publications, each one with its own yearning or saucy belle. Abandoning my fruitless quest for geographical information, I entered, bought a few specimens in order to have the right to look round and then, flitting like a bee from flower to flower—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, like a blow-fly from garbage-can, to garbage-can—proceeded to explore the shelves.
These magazines, I discovered, may be divided into four main classes: periodicals that purvey what is conventionally called film fun, that is to say mildly pornographic jokes and drawings in some way connected with Hollywood (a name that in contemporary America seems to carry some of the connotations borne in Victorian times by Paris); periodicals specializing in adventure stories; periodicals that print what are called true confessions and true romances, that is to say, stories in the first person dealing with normal sexual experiences; and finally periodicals containing stories in which sensuality is made more interesting by being associated with terror and cruelty. To me the periodicals of this last category were the most fascinatingly revolting. There must have been a round dozen of them with names like Spicy Mystery, Hot Western, Spicy Adventure, Flaming Crime, Peppy Detective. I bought one or two and read them with some care. From internal stylistic evidence, it was clear that in each magazine most of the stories, though attributed to a variety of authors, were written, or at least corrected and edited, by the same pen. In all of them the element of spice, heat, pep or what you will, took exactly the same form. Three or four times in each story the heroine appeared in torn or transparent garments and this was made the occasion for a brief description of her charms—a description which always contained such phrases as “she was all woman,” “her glorious breasts,” “columned thighs,” “curve of the back” (a curiously indirect and euphemistic description of the gluteal region). These passages alternated with others in which the heroine, still gauzily costumed, still glorious, columnar, and curved, would be subjected to flagellation and even mild wounding at the hands of ghosts or monsters, if the story was a mystery, of gangsters, if the pep was meant to spice detective fiction, of malignant cowboys or Mexicans, if the magazine was a Western and dealt with adventure. In due time, of course, she was rescued—but not before appreciable quantities of blood had been drawn and the whip applied pretty smartly to “the curve of the back.”
These stories are like episodes from the novels of the Marquis de Sade—bits of “Justine,” with all the eighteenth-century intellectual’s philosophizings omitted and, at the same time, sufficiently bowdlerized to be acceptable to a vast and simple-minded audience. How large that audience is I have not yet found anyone who could tell me. All I know for certain is that this sort of pulp was for sale practically in every American town and village I have visited. It has even reached the Indian pueblos of the Southwest. Some weeks after leaving Florida I was taking a meal with an Indian couple in their adobe cabin on the Taos reservation. The only piece of literature in the house was a copy of Spicy Detective. On the wall the white man’s art was represented by an oleo of the Good Shepherd and a very large colored photograph of the late Jean Harlow, dressed mainly in silk stockings and reclining upon a sofa. In the rancho of a Guatemalteco or Mexican Indian, I reflected, one would have seen only the Good Shepherd; Jean Harlow and Spicy Detective were symptoms of the higher state of culture attained by the Red Man in the United States. Nothing, not even Indian conservatism, can resist the march of civilization.
Ours is the first cultural dispensation, so far as I am aware, under which large numbers of men, women, and children have contracted the habit of taking regular doses of dilute literary sadism. The absence of historical precedents makes it impossible to guess what the results of this particular form of imaginative drug taking are likely to be. Quite possibly, of course, there may be no results—at any rate none so striking as to be observable by the sociologist It is equally possible, on the other hand, that addiction to a literature which links violence with sensuality and consistently associates ideas of cruelty with images of pleasure may lead to a perceptible decline in the strength of those humanitarian sentiments which have been built into the structure of our minds in the course of the last two centuries. Indeed, it may be that the recent rise to popularity of this sadistic literature is itself a symptom of that decline—an effect which acts in turn as a cause for further decline in humanitarianism.
“Real progress,” to use the words of Dr. Marett, “is progress in charity, all other advances being secondary thereto.” In the course of recorded history real progress has been made only by fits and starts. Periods of advance in charity have been followed by periods of regression. The eighteenth century was an epoch of real progress. So was most of the nineteenth—in spite of the horrors of the early industrial era, or rather precisely because of the energetic way in which its men of good will tried to put a stop to those horrors. The present age, as Dr. Albert Schweitzer has repeatedly insisted, is an age of regression in charity. For example, eighteenth-century thinkers were unanimous in condemning the use of torture. Not only is torture freely used by the rulers of twentieth-century Europe; we also have political theorists, who are prepared to condone and even sanctify, in the name of their black or red political creed, every form of state-organized atrocity, from the flogging of individuals to the wholesale massacre of dissenting minorities and general war. Another significant symptom is the equanimity with which the twentieth-century public responds to written accounts and even to photographs and moving pictures of slaughter and brutality. By way of excuse it may be urged that, during the last twenty years, people have supped so full of horrors that atrocities no longer excite either their pity for the victims or their indignation against the perpetrators. Closely associated with the decline in humanitarian feeling is the decline in our regard for truth. Without truth, there can be no progress in charity. Men cannot behave better unless they know the facts in regard to which better behavior ia expected of them. But at no period of the world’s history has lying been practised so shamelessly or, thanks to modern technological progress, so efficiently, or on so vast a scale as by the political and economic dictators of the twentieth century. Yet another point charity cannot progress towards universality unless the prevailing religion of the world is monotheistic—unless there is a general belief that all men are “the children of God,” or, in Hindu phraseology, that “Thou art That.” The last fifty years have witnessed a notable retreat from monotheism towards idolatry. The worship of one God has been abandoned in favor of the worship of such local divinities as the nation, the class, and even the deified individual.
Such is the disease of which, perhaps, Spicy Detective and Peppy Mystery are the minor and still apparently negligible symptoms. A cheapening of pulp will make it possible for millions, who cannot at present afford the price, to acquire the habit of sadistic day-dreaming. That is why the news of this latest technological victory over the southern pine is so depressing.
Mr. Huxley’s latest book, “The Olive Tree,” is a collection of literary and travel-essays.
Some of the more lurid Pulp Fiction covers Huxley might have seen in early 1937:
A 1953 paperback re-issue of Huxley’s most famous work, Brave New World