Pulp Rises to the Top
Imagine that you are a hugely successful, prolific, and influential writer, a creative powerhouse whose facility and productivity is mind-boggling to others and whose work inspired an entire 20th-century art form and industry. Now imagine that for all of it, nobody knows your name.
Such was the case with Lester Dent.
In a 30-year writing career spent mostly in the realm of pulp magazines, Dent turned out about 175 novels, and yet his name remains obscure to the public at large because all but a few of those novels were published under the name “Kenneth Robeson.” Dent’s signature creation (as Robeson) was Doc Savage, a hugely popular pulp hero of the 1930s and 1940s, who enjoyed a major renaissance in the 1960s and is once again in print today.
Clark “Doc” Savage, Jr. was a near-superhuman physically and a genius in every field of science extant. Independently wealthy, he had his headquarters on the 86th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper (read: The Empire State Building) from which he led a team of five other scientific and legal geniuses in ongoing global battles against bizarre, sometimes supernatural, villains. Because of his giant size, his Roman statue physique, his tanned skin, his golden hair, and his distinctive gold-flecked eyes, he was known to the world as “The Man of Bronze.” If all of this sounds familiar, it is no coincidence: Doc Savage can be seen as the primary source for the comic book superheroes that would begin to flourish in the late 1930s, starting with Superman, “The Man of Steel,” who in civvies was also named Clark, and whose last name, Kent, was a contraction of Kenneth (as in Robeson) and Dent, according to comic book historian Richard O’Brien.
As a young man, Lester Dent never planned on being a wordsmith. He was born in the small town of La Plata, Missouri, in 1904 and attended a business college where he studied telegraphy. After graduation he landed a job as a telegrapher for the Associated Press in Tulsa, Oklahoma, working with two local newspapers. It was there that he encountered a coworker who was supplementing his income as a pulp fiction writer. A voracious reader, Dent decided to give it a try himself. His first published story, “Pirate Cay,” appeared in Top-Notch Magazine in 1929, and Dent’s career as an author was off and running.
Cover illustration for the 1966 Gold Key comic book Doc Savage #1 by James Bama. Beginning in 1964 with The Man of Bronze, Bama created a powerful set of 62 Doc Savage covers for Bantam Books paperbacks, often using as a model actor Steve Holland, star of TV's Flash Gordon (1954–55).
In 1931, Dent and his wife Norma moved to Manhattan at the behest of Richard A. Martinsen of Dell Publishing, who offered him a retainer of $500 a month and a penny a word to write exclusively for Dell. He did so until the two magazines he had single-handedly been filling, Sky Raiders and Scotland Yard, ceased publication five months later. The following year, Dent was invited by Street and Smith Publications, which owned the highly popular character The Shadow, to write the adventures of Doc Savage, a crime fighter with a bent for scientific gadgets. Since Dent himself had a bent for scientific gadgets (as well as a lifelong thirst for sailing, exploring, and adventuring), he readily agreed, instilling the character with the deductive ability of Sherlock Holmes, the bravery and derring-do of Tarzan, and the scientific wizardry of Craig Kennedy (later he would wryly add “the morals of Jesus Christ” to the list).
The first issue of Doc Savage Magazine appeared in March 1933, with Dent hiding behind the byline Kenneth Roberts, which quickly became Robeson to avoid confusion with the like-named writer of historical novels. The opening paragraphs of Doc’s debut adventure, titled The Man of Bronze, offered the kind of evocative narrative description that would become a Dent trademark:
There was death afoot in the darkness.
It crept furtively along a steel girder. Hundreds of feet below yawned glass-and-brick-walled cracks—New York Streets.
Down there, late workers scurried homeward. Most of them carried umbrellas, and did not look upward.
Even had they looked, they probably would have noticed nothing. The night was black as a cave bat. Rain threshed down monotonously. The clammy sky was like an oppressive shroud wrapped around the tops of the tall building.
Like all pulpsters, Dent’s writing was often less than polished, but that mattered little: What the pulp magazine audience demanded were atmosphere, thrills, exotic adventure, and action, and those are what Dent delivered every time. Picking up a Lester Dent story is often like walking into a movie in the middle of a chase scene. And in a marketplace where speed was money, he wrote faster than anybody: He once bragged that, with the help of a Dictaphone, he wrote eight novels in seven weeks.
In a famous how-to article published in the 1936 edition of Writers Digest Yearbook, Dent championed the use of formula, declaring: “Most editors who say they don’t want formula don’t know what they’re talking about.” He broke down the requirements for plotting a saleable story, point by point, so successfully that he later claimed more than 750 fledgling writers had contacted him to say they had broken into publication by following his format.
One hundred eighty-one Doc Savage novel-length adventures were published between 1933 and 1949, of which Dent wrote 165, usually in two weeks or less. For the rest, ghostwriters were used, though Dent still had a hand in plotting and editing, and on occasion he produced a total rewrite. In addition to the responsibility of turning out a novel a month for the lead story of Doc Savage Magazine, Dent continued to write short stories for other publications, notably Black Mask, Crime Busters, and Argosy, often using other pseudonyms, such as Cliff Howe or Tim Ryan. He even contributed to The Shadow as the ubiquitous Maxwell Grant. Dent created other series characters, including two-fisted PI Curt Flagg, scientific detective Lynn Lash, Foster Fade the Crime Spectacularist, and Click Rush, the Gadget Man. Although another Street and Smith series titled The Avenger was attributed to Kenneth Robeson, Dent had nothing to do with it.
By the mid-1940s the tone of the Doc Savage stories had changed. Gone, or at least reduced, were the fantastical globetrotting adventures and supervillains, which by then were the province of comic books. They were replaced by more realistic detective, PI, and spy fiction. One of the last Doc Savage adventures, In Hell, Madonna, which was set against the backdrop of the Cold War, was so realistic that it was bumped from the magazine in 1948 and did not see publication until 1979, as The Red Spider.
Doc Savage Magazine folded in 1949, and while that meant a loss of regular income for Dent, he was at least able to work under his own name (the only Doc Savage story to carry the Lester Dent byline was 1944’s The Derelict of Skull Shoal, and that was by mistake). Dent managed to break into the slick magazine market, publishing stories in Collier’s Weekly and The Saturday Evening Post, all the while turning out gritty, hardboiled fare for Doubleday Crime Club, Ace, and Gold Medal. His raw, tough 1952 Gold Medal opus Cry at Dusk alone would have been enough to turn the Boy Scout–ish Doc Savage from bronze to crimson!
Having sailed, adventured, and written his way through the Great Depression and the Great War, and having survived the trenches of the pulp-fiction marketplace almost to its bitter end, Lester Dent’s heart finally gave out in 1959. He was only 54. He left a number of unpublished manuscripts, including Honey in His Mouth, which finally saw publication in October 2009—a half-century after the author’s death—as a Hard Case Crime title.
Bantam Books began reissuing the old Doc Savage adventures as paperbacks in 1964 (featuring those great James Bama covers showing Doc with a severe widow’s peak and a perennially shredded shirt), but retained the Kenneth Robeson byline, ensuring that Lester Dent would remain anonymous. His obscurity was further exacerbated by the fact that, unlike so many of his pulp fiction contemporaries, including Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, Leigh Brackett, and Steve Fisher, Dent never had a presence in Hollywood, either as screenwriter or original author.
In the mid-1970s, however, the ongoing success of the novel reprints prompted veteran producer George Pal (The War of the Worlds) to formulate plans for a series of Doc Savage feature films. Only one was released, 1975’s Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, which starred Ron Ely, then best known as television’s Tarzan. The six-foot-four, blonde, and muscular Ely made a suitable Doc, but audiences at the time did not know what to make of the breezy, old-fashioned, serial-style adventure, which except for Ely featured a cast of complete unknowns (they would be much better prepared for this sort of film six years later when Raiders of the Lost Ark hit the screens). The film’s failure at the box office cancelled any further plans for a series, though over the years, Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze has grown in reputation, and with its just having been released on DVD through Warner Archives, an official reevaluation of it is in order. (Ely, incidentally, turned to writing in the 1990s and authored the Jake Sands mystery series.)
Walter Baumhofer was responsible for the Doc Savage Magazine (published by Street and Smith from 1933 to 1949) covers.
The ultimate truth is that Lester Dent was one of the very best yarn-spinners to emerge from the pulp jungle, serving up full-throttle escapism for the kind of readers who thought a metaphor was something that soared through the night sky in showers. But because of his protean ability as a storyteller, his work has survived to the present day. Dent would never be hailed as a master in Manhattan literary salons, but he managed to pack more adventure—actual and fictional—into 54 short years than most of his peers could even dream about.
Work Well Done
Nothing has given me more real pleasure, more the feeling of work well done, than the preparation of these volumes on the life and exploits of Doc Savage and his companions.... I have no doubt but that you will thrill to this story, as hundreds of thousands of readers have thrilled to this and the previous accounts. That is the one purpose of these tales. But there is something else which I know you will get out of them; something greater than the enjoyment of this volume. It will leave with you the feeling of doing better in this world; of making your own life approach that of Doc Savage as nearly as you can in your own existence. Though you may not find it possible to leave your daily existence in search of adventure; though you cannot go to the far ends of the world to aid others; you can do as much good in your own neighborhood by doing right at all times, helping your fellow men as much as possible even in the smallest of things. In this way you will find life more livable, and you will be accomplishing as worthwhile things as any one can expect.
May the work of Doc Savage go on forever, repeated in countless episodes through the individual efforts of each one who reads this volume.
—From Lester Dent’s Forward to The Ideal Library edition of Quest of the Spider (1933)
The Code of Doc Savage
Let me strive, every moment of my life,
to make myself better and better, to the
best of my ability, that all may profit by it.
Let me think of the right, and lend all my
assistance to those who need it, with no
regard for anything but justice.
Let me take what comes with a smile,
without loss of courage.
Let me be considerate of my country, of
my fellow citizens and my associates in
everything I say and do.
Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #116.