Friday, April 05, 2019

Racial Slurs in 1930's Pulp Fiction

I'm currently reading a wonderfully fun 'G-8 and His Battle Aces' pulp novel from the mid 1930's. G-8 stories are slightly different from other pulp hero titles of the times because they take place during World War One with main character G-8 as an American spy and fighter pilot stationed in France. Another element that sets this series apart is that supposedly all 110 of the stories in the run were written by one (probably exhausted) guy - Robert J. Hogan. Hogan came by his aerial knowledge legitimately as a flight instructor after first learning his skills in the US Air Service. He was well known as a great storyteller and I suspect he dreamed up the mad adventures of G-8 in much the same way that a person making up a tall tale might try to keep his drinking buddies entertained in a bar. They have the crazed forward momentum of something barely held in control as it gains speed and detail in the telling.

This is the third pulp novel from the 1930's that I've read in the past couple of months and it's this one that has made it impossible for me to slide by something that crops up in many of them. Something in these books that I find fascinating is the unvarnished window they provide into our nation's past. One of the main reasons that I read these books is not just for their action and adventure but because they offer a strange, nostalgic view of a time and place that I find fascinating. As a fan of this type of fiction I have to admit that on occasion they present some things that I have to either choose to ignore or simply look at as part of the times in which piece of fiction was created. The fact that I love an older style of writing and its characters' more archaic ways of speaking means that occasionally I'm going to have to struggle to understand a reference or idea that is nearly a century out of date. This is true, of course, of films made in previous decades as well which can add some unexpected spice to a night in front of TCM.

In general, even if the creators of these works were not hideous people, their work does reflect the general attitudes of the times. And to say that the times in which these stories were written were - shall we say - less racially diverse or, to be blunt, racist as hell is understating the matter. I usually find it easy enough to move past the more odious aspects of these stories to enjoy them for what they were intended to be but I have to say that this particular G-8 story has surprised me a bit. G-8's tales usually involve supernatural or mad science based creatures (sometimes both at the same time) and in this one the monsters are murderous Leopard Men. The heroic characters' constant references to them as 'savages' first struck me as a way of describing their violent actions within the story but then things became clearer. The leopard men in question are understood to be from an African nation and their origins are discovered when they are unable to fight in hand-to-hand combat 'as a white man would'. Oh my!

I guess I shouldn't be too weirded out by this especially because there are certainly enough nationalistic slurs being slung around in the story with Germans being described as Heinnies, Frenchman called frogs and even the Brits get labeled a few unpleasant things from time to time. But this attitude toward the darker skinned natives of Africa has knocked me back a little. In general I'm used to this kind of thing in literature from an earlier time with the subtle and not so subtle racial attitudes being part of the experience of these works. It's often especially difficult to miss the racial overtones of a lot of the pulp writers that I love when they insult native Americans or Jews or Picts or whatever villain is the subject of the tale of the moment. But for some reason this story's slightly slicker 'savages' got past me until a second detail made it's racial overtones evident. I can't decide if I'm not as savvy as I thought I was or if this writer was more clever than average. Or maybe I just don't react to this particular word as the insult it was meant to be because I'm overly used to it being used in pulp fiction? Cluelessness through repetition? I suspect I have friends of a darker skin tone that would have figured this out much quicker than I.

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