Plantation Pulps: Time for a Revival?

When I was a kid, I learned to love pulp fiction mostly because grown-ups tried to stop me from reading it. My mother had a thing for potboilers and “trashy” historicals with their godawful, oversexed covers and lurid descriptions. My father found such books appalling, so Mom hid them. I found them and devoured them. Along the way I fell in love with history. History classes in school bored the snot out of me. Pulp historicals brought history alive–forget the dates and the data. Give me real people living real lives.

Another Union general of concern to Wilkens was Ben Butler, a bartender politician with a genius for stuffing ballot boxes. Lincoln, as a political favor to Governor Andrew of Massachusetts, had put Butler in military control of Baltimore. In addition to his vote-getting skills, Butler was quite adept at trampling on the feelings of important personages. That nearly cost the Union the State of Maryland. Lincoln quickly removed Butler to Fortress Monroe, where the general promptly launched “an attack on Richmond,” a debacle that cost the Federals two hundred lives. Lincoln sent Butler to the North Carolina coast.

The Confederacy at this time was laughing at the blockade ordered by the gaunt stringbean from Illinois. A paper blockade if ever there was one, for the Union would be lucky if what passed for her fleet stayed afloat long enough to reach the coast—and if it did, the Confederate chain of fortifications was impregnable. A man, Lord Nelson once said, who attacks stone forts with wooden ships is a fool. Ben Butler had barely heard of Lord Nelson. He ordered Union Flag-officer Stringham to strike against Fort Hatteras. Fort Hatteras fell.

One sub-genre my father objected most strenuously to was plantation pulp. These were generally set in either the ante-bellum South or doing the Civil War, and a great many of the characters were black. They became popular during the Civil Rights movement in the late 60s. I was too young at the time to know who exactly they were popular with–black or white readers–and I didn’t really care. I do remember when Mandingo was published in the early 70s and it was a runaway bestseller and my mother refused to hide it even though its cover was horrendously trashy, so there was an argument with the book ending up in the trash can, and then ending up stashed under my mattress.

I’m sure many thought these books were exploiting blacks, denigrating them. The covers did, certainly. I bet the real objection was to how subversive these books were. Back then no one would have cared if the books were about happy slaves singing spirituals and loving Massah and eating watermelon and spouting humorous lines. The only shucking going on in these stories were to cast off the stereotypes and accepted thinking about how blacks should act and think and talk. Most frightening of all to the establishment was that many of the characters dared to be angry.

And then came the dream within the dream. The grass was all green and soft. Flowers sprouted everywhere. The dogwoods and magnolias and rosewoods were in bloom, and the air was fragrant with their perfume. It was a temperate, pleasant day with fluffy clouds scudding through the sky and thrushes singing. A towering white man would loom into view, crossing a meadow with giant strides. His face was indistinct and nothing could be told about it save that it was white and that it was kind and that it was benign. Around him gamboled his slaves, the tallest of them barely reaching his shins. Labe was among them, and so were many others that he knew and thousands upon thousands more that he did not know. The white man laughed, stooped now and then to softly scratch someone’s wool. He was their loving benefactor. He clothed them, he fed them, he housed them, he cared for them when they were ill and he desired their happiness at all times. And then the slaves were no longer about his legs, but lying prostrate on the meadow—an unbroken carpet of black mat stretched as far as the eye could see. The white man was treading over them, his huge booted feet rising and falling, crushing their juices and their lives out, and nothing could be told about his face save that it was white and that it was kind and that it was benign.

That is some subversive shit.

Add to that, the writers (some good, some not-so-good, but some truly great) dared to treat all their characters as real people–good and bad.

In the past four months Williams had taught him a good amount of reading and writing and some geography and some history and even a smattering of economics. And Williams had become frightened of Vulture, because though it was unlikely Vulture would ever bridge the cultural gap between them, would ever equalize the education that a life of freedom combined with the profligate aid and encouragement of idealistic whites had given to Williams, Geoffrey Williams knew Vulture was the more intelligent of the two, inherently so, and it embarrassed and hurt Williams to reach a point where the only alternative to throwing up his hands in frustration and saying, “I don’t know!” was to find an excuse to become angry with Vulture and break off the conversation.

“So why the Furies come after him?” Vulture was saying.

Williams leaned forward, staring into the fire, which had been reduced to embers. “Because he committed matricide—that is, he killed his mother, Clytemnestra. That is the word for killing one’s mother—matricide. It was an unthinkable crime.”

“But she killed his daddy, an’ the law say he s’pose t’ take revenge.”

“It was unforgivable,” Williams insisted. “The gods would not tolerate it.”

“Seems t’ me, these Greeks o’ yours, there weren’t any way they could keep they gods happy.”

“No, that’s not true. Certain forms of behavior were proscribed, but—”

“Proscribed?”

“Forbidden.”

Vulture repeated the word and nodded

I had the pleasure of reading The Long Tattoo, by Jerrold Mundis (the above excerpts are from that book). He’s reissued his Civil War series, The Shame & Glory Saga, as ebooks. I do believe I may have been a fan of his way back in the day. I’m glad that epublishing makes it possible for a revival of the genre.

Do we need a revival? I don’t know. They’re fun books to read. I know they brought history alive for me when I was a kid and I learned a lot more about our country’s back story than from any textbook. Many of them are written far better than the original pulp format would lead you to believe. Moreso, we need subversive fiction. Our current culture of Political Correctness holds potential for its own brand of evil. It’s a culture that divides people into groups and howls in outrage when an individual dares to act like, you know, a real person as opposed to a demographic. It’s divisive and short-sighted and lazy. Novels like The Long Tattoo are anything but that. People are people, these novels said. Black or white, male or female, they all have their flaws and strengths, and if you oppress them and treat them as less than, watch out. This is what history shows us will happen.

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10 responses

  1. I loved these books and they were totally subversive! Thanks for reminding me. Now I have to go find them all and reread them. The quality of the writing was superb and the way the authors pushed the boundaries thrilled me.

    1. they still push, Julia. 😀

  2. Interesting…I have heard of these, but never read them. I will try, but I’m a little suspect. Thanks for putting them on my radar screen!

    1. They were fun back then, and now, as an adult reader, I can appreciate better how good they are. Go ahead, Nila, give them a shot.

  3. Seems like the best (and maybe only) place to publish subversive fiction is indeed in the indy realm.

    1. I’d certainly like to see more subversive fiction. All that is, really, is telling the truth–even or especially when people don’t want to hear it.

  4. I had no idea that this sub-genre even existed. The idea of treating all characters as flawed humans, instead of stereotyping or caricaturing, is probably still subversive in many locales. I believe that the purpose of art at large, and specifically of fiction, is to get people to see the world differently than the way we are taught we are ‘supposed’ to see it. Any book that does that has done its job. It’s a real bonus if the book is as beautifully written as the excerpts you share.

    -aniko

    1. Hi, Aniko, indeed. I think there is something subversive about all pulp fiction, even more because a lot of people didn’t take it seriously. They judged it by the covers and the low production values and dismissed them as fluff. Millions read them, though, and personally I think they had a good influence. I’d like to see more indie writers get brave and start hitting the truth as hard as it should be hit.

      As to whether “plantation pulp” is an actual sub-genre or not, who knows? It’s what I always called it.

  5. Many thanks for this blog post, Jaye. I appreciate your kind words about the book. The last two titles in this five-book series (the Shame and Glory Saga) will go up as eBooks for Kindle and Nook, et al, in August and September. Thanks again. This was generous of you. And I’m glad you enjoyed the reading.

  6. Hi, Jerrold, thank you. It’s a terrific book and I’ve got more on my TBR to dig into.

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