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American Women: Resources from the Serial & Government Publications Collections

Pulp Fiction

Shealah Craighead, photographer. Collage of pulp fiction covers from the Library of Congress collections. 2013. From "Saving Pulp Fiction" in the Library of Congress Blog, 2013.

Please note: The titles linked below display fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog.

Pulp fictions covers frequently depict women as femmes fatales, damsels in distress, or the objects of either desire or torture. Few women artists are identified in histories or checklists. Margaret Brundage, an artist for Weird Tales, is one of the few women artists that we know of in the field. According to Tony Goodstone, author of The Pulps: Fifty Years of American Pop Culture (New York: Chelsea House, 1970; PZ1.G6524 Pu N&CPR), Brundage's highly erotic covers were controversial even for Weird Tales readers. Researching women writers of pulp fiction is equally difficult. As with comic books, writers wrote under several names, used initials, and in some cases made every attempt to conceal their gender. Some women, however, did achieve recognition in the field. Mary Elizabeth Counselman (1911-1995) wrote supernatural stories in Weird Tales. Dorothy McIlwraith was editor of Short Stories until 1938. In 1940, she joined the editorial staff of Weird Tales, where she served as editor until 1954.

As one kind of American popular culture, the pulps are a rich source for researchers to discover the place of women in American society and imagination. The stories and cover art in the division's collection capture a period of American history in which readers looked for escapism, titillation, and armchair adventure.

Using the Pulp Fiction Collection

The pulp fiction collection at the Library of Congress consists of issues received for copyright deposit at the time of their publication, dating from the 1920s to the 1950s. The collection consists of approximately 310 titles and 14,000 issues. The majority were held by the Serial and Government Publications Division until preserved on film. Three extremely rare and valuable titles are available in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division: Amazing Stories, Black Mask, and Weird Tales. Microfilmed titles, available in the Microform Reading Room, can be found by searching the Library's online catalog. For these, the division retains all original color covers in preservation sleeves.

An inventory of the collection is available in the Newspaper and Current Periodical Room in a card file arranged by title. Each issue (and any duplicates) received was checked in on a card and assigned a box location. “Pulp Fiction in the Library of Congress: A Finding Aid” compiled by Janelle M. Zauha in August 1992 (N&CPR Reference Desk) provides holdings information and notes on the collection that supplements the card file index.

Secondary sources provide overviews, histories, and bibliographies for the pulps. Lee Server's Danger Is My Business: An Illustrated History of the Fabulous Pulp Magazines (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1993; PN4878.5.S47 1995 N&CPR) is a profusely illustrated, highly readable overview of these “fabulous” titles. Server highlights the most prolific and most accomplished writers and categorizes pulps by genre—such as adventure, private eye, romance, horror, or science fiction titles. In contrast, Cheap Thrills: An Informal History of the Pulp Magazines by Ron Goulart (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1972; PS379.G6 N&CPR) relies less on illustration and concentrates on one particular period, detailing the “heyday of the pulp magazine” from 1920 to 1940. Cover art is also a subject of interest, as Jaye Zimet's Strange Sisters: The Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction, 1949-1969 (New York: Viking Studio, 1999; NC973.5.U6 Z56 1999) documents.

One of the most exhaustive indexes and checklists to the pulp magazines is The Pulp Magazine Index compiled by Leonard A. Robbins (Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, 1988; Z1231.F4 R54 N&CPR), a multivolume set with indexes by author, artist, character, and magazine. Other indexes to pulp fiction focus on specific genres, as does Mystery, Detective, and Espionage Fiction: A Checklist of Fiction in U.S. Pulp Magazines, 1915-1974 by Michael L. Cook and Stephen T. Miller, in two volumes (New York: Garland Publishing, 1988; Z1231.D47C66 1988 N&CPR).

Search Strategies: Subject and Genre Headings

To find information about the pulps, the following, very general Library of Congress Subject Headings searches are useful, but they obviously apply to other literary topics as well:

Pulp fiction tends to be classed by genre, and there is no subject heading for “pulp fiction” per se.

Useful genre heading browses for pulp fiction include:

  • Detective and mystery stories, American
  • Spy stories, American
  • Crime in literature
  • Western stories
  • Science fiction--American