Pulp Writer: Twenty Years in the American Grub Street
Whether in the form of B movies or 10,000-word stories in the "pulps," Westerns were the most accessible American popular narrative during the first half of the twentieth century. A quarter got you into a double feature, and a dime bought a copy of Ranch Romances, Texas Rangers, Western Story Magazine, and dozens of similar titles at any Roaring-Twenties or Depression-era newsstand. At a penny or two per word, Paul Powers (1905–1971) earned something like $100,000 from the hundreds of stories featuring Kid Wolf, Sonny Tabor, Freckles Malone, Johnny "Fightin' Poet" Forty-five, and other serial gunfighters he cranked out under various pen names for Street & Smith's Wild West Weekly (1902–1943). When wartime paper shortages, shifting tastes, and competition from comic books caused "3W" and its relatives to cease publication, most pulp writers, such as Powers, sank into obscurity. Those whose names (or pseudonyms) are [End Page 100] generally remembered, such as Ernest Haycox and Frederick "Max Brand" Faust, had already abandoned the Victorian morality and shopworn plots of pulp Westerns for the more sophisticated "slicks" and careers as equally prolific paperback novelists.
Growing up in northern California, Laurie Powers (b. 1957) had little contact with the shadowy man she called grandpa. By then, Paul Powers had become an erratic, eccentric Berkeley book collector struggling with alcoholism and family sorrows. He left two boxes of papers, in one of which she found the 1943 autobiographical manuscript published here, a breezy, wisecracking, and almost desperately jaunty account of Kansas boyhood, growing determination to write for a living, and gradual development from freelance jokesmith into footloose short-fiction factory.
A realistic account of the pulp-magazine industry from a writer's point of view, his story is liberally sprinkled with personal anecdotes, sketches of the different western locales where he lived for a season or a few years at a time, and a handful of tips and tricks for beginning writers, such as "the old trial-and-error method of collecting rejection slips is still the best" and "write the [manu]script as if you never intended making a change" (121, 184). He describes in some detail his high-speed writing process: how he outlined stories, created characters, marketed the results, and met the demands of editors and fans. His hardboiled style leaves little room for soul-searching; we learn at least as much about his trusty typewriter as about his two wives and three children, and only occasionally does he allude to the increasingly uncontrolled binge drinking that rendered long stretches of his life unproductive, eventually souring his relations with editors and making him persona non grata among family and friends in his last years. His one published novel, the Western Doc Dillahay (1949), was favorably noticed by major reviewers but sold less than well. His editor at Macmillan encouraged him to write a sequel, but he never got beyond a couple of chapters.
These later details are supplied by Laurie Powers's two essays that frame and elaborate her grandfather's story. In the process of researching and reconstructing his fragmentary and elusive life, she reconnected with her long-lost family and discovered her own identity as a writer. [End Page 101]