Wednesday, September 5, 2018

ESQUIRE: The slick that wanted to be pulp?

For the past couple of weeks I've had a chance to look through midcentury issues of Esquire, the prestigious men's magazine founded in 1933 and still flourishing today. It's been a shapeshifter of a magazine, starting thick with prestige, with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald as regular contributors, and becoming a cutting edge magazine on both the fiction and nonfiction fronts from the mid-1950s forward. But from the end of World War II to about 1952 Esquire made a big commitment to genre fiction. Look at it during those years and you can see what Popular Publications was aiming for when it transformed Argosy from a pulp to a full-sized magazine. Stories are designated as "Mystery" or "Western" when appropriate, and where there had not been proper illustrations in earlier years now there are dramatic two-page spreads, even for stories that are only that long, like the example shown here from June 1949.

Esquire's major contribution to genre fiction was Henry Kane's private eye Peter Chambers, who made his debut in February 1947 and remained an Esquire exclusive through the end of the decade. 1947 - 52 are the peak years for pulp-esque genre ficton in Esquire, and while many of the authors who appeared there also placed stories in slicks like Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post, one suspects that Esquire's status as a men's magazine, and a reputation gained by its showcasing of Varga and Petty girls, encouraged those writers to be, shall we say, more manly in their work. My guess is that erstwhile servicemen, initially attracted to Esquire by the pin-ups during the war, were the target audience for postwar he-man fiction. Along with Kane and numerous top-hand westerners, Esquire also published a good deal of early Ray Bradbury, including "The Illustrated Man." In short, this magazine at midcentury was a cornucopia for pulp or all-around genre fans. But after 1952, once co-founder Arnold Gingrich resumed the reins as publisher, Esquire turned again toward more literary fiction, after a few years of transition that, for example, placed Hugh B. Cave and Norman Mailer in the same issue. Objectively speaking, Esquire's greatest years were yet to come, but its greatness consisted in combining highbrow content with a pop-culture sensibility, with little room for genre fiction in the mix. There was a different kind of greatness in the previous generation, before "men's magazine," Argosy notwithstanding, came to denote something much less classy.

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