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‘Detectives’ scour rare periodicals for clues to 20th century life

James Madison University students are gaining new insight into American popular literary genres by poring over a growing collection of old pulp magazines. Called “pulp” because they were printed on rough paper stock made from wood pulp, the magazines’ very form led to their rarity as readers discarded their copies after reading them.

Students enrolled in Dr. Brooks Hefner’s American Pulp course are the first beneficiaries of the university’s collection of 60 Black Mask magazines, which includes three of the five issues that include the serialized version of Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon.” “These are among the most important, if not the most important, texts in American popular fiction and detective fiction of the 20th century,” said Hefner, an assistant professor of English.

Hefner’s students are each researching an issue of The Black Mask to produce a critical introduction to the respective magazine, focusing on editorial policy, writers, use of artwork and story themes, such as questions of race, nationality, masculinity and culture.

Additionally, they are writing text for a display to highlight the JMU Libraries Special Collections recent acquisition of Black Mask magazines. JMU holds the third largest collection of Black Mask magazines in the country, after UCLA and the Library of Congress, Hefner said.

The students are also learning about appropriate use of primary sources in Special Collections, which is housed in Carrier Library. “In literary study, there is a renewed attention on the material contexts of publication,” Hefner said. “Seeing literary works in specific forms changes the ways we understand them.”

In researching the September 1929 issue, senior English major Alexandra Pearsall of Millburn, N.J., has not only studied one of “The Maltese Falcon” issues, but has also delved into the very copy of the magazine once owned by Erle Stanley Gardner, himself a Black Mask contributing writer – and later creator of the Perry Mason character.

“Reading an original copy of The Black Mask has allowed me to put myself in the shoes of the people who would buy these editions in early 20th century America,” Pearsall said. “Each edition of Black Mask is full of action-packed stories that hold your attention because of all the crime, chaos and suspense.”

The first installment of “The Maltese Falcon” was interesting to Pearsall for Hammett’s sharp dialogue and clean prose. “The protagonist, Sam Spade, is a rough-and-tough detective, the typical ‘hard-boiled’ detective that is so characteristic of the detective genre in American pulp fiction. I also found it interesting that ‘The Maltese Falcon’ was published as a hardbound novel one year after its initial appearance in The Black Mask.”

Andrew Mabon of Pittsburgh, a senior majoring in public history, studied the May 1920 issue. “It is only the second edition of the magazine to have been published. Therefore, much of the stories within aren’t quite the same kind of pulp fiction that you find in stories such as “The Maltese Falcon,” Mabon said. “My issue of The Black Mask is mainly a noir crime narrative, and still projects a late-19th century Victorian perspective on the traditional values and roles of manliness.”

“What’s most interesting in this issue of The Black Mask magazine is how the stories, the characters, the plots, are really reflective of the time in which they were written,” Mabon said. “Historical context plays a huge part of the content of the magazine’s stories, especially in ‘Receipted in Full’ by Hamilton Craigie and ‘The Mystery of the Missing Finger’ by Valentine Williams. These two stories address the anxieties and fears many working class Americans were experiencing as the nation shifted from primarily rural to primarily urban. These stories portray the city as a dark, mysterious and ancient place full of horrible secrets. So, in my issue of the magazine, the most interesting part is the parallels that can be drawn between the stories’ plot and new demographic-urban trends.”

“Researching The Black Mask magazine (April 1922) has given me incredible insight into American culture,” said Erica Figert of Leesburg, a junior majoring in English. “The inclusion of strong female protagonists in a few of the stories is very fascinating when viewed in tandem with American history, for women had only received the right to vote two years prior to the publication of my issue.”

With the acquisition of the magazines, “students at JMU have access to some of the most important documents in 20th century American popular culture, a unique collection that other universities just don’t have,” Hefner said. “The Black Mask collection can be studied across disciplines and can also draw scholars to JMU Special Collections.”

In addition to the library display, Spring 2012 semester will find The Black Mask collection in the spotlight in Hefner’s graduate-level course on American magazines.

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