Monday, March 16, 2015

REAL PULP FICTION: Arthur Leo Zagat's "Thunder Tomorrow," ARGOSY, March 16, 1940

We resume our survey of pulp magazine fiction with a sequel to one of the most popular and controversial stories of 1939. Arthur Leo Zagat's "Tomorrow" imagined the coming of age of an isolated band of American refugee children who had survived a devastating invasion of the country, but had reverted to primitive simplicity and virtue. Sequels that year made clear that America had fallen to the "Asafrics," an unholy coalition of black and yellow men, in an apocalyptic race war. At least one Argosy letter writer called Zagat out for the racism of his premise, his heroic "Bunch" being lily-white. "Thunder Tomorrow," the first sequel to appear in several months, hints that Zagat took that criticism to heart. His effort to duck the racism charge is fascinating for an apparent sincerity that's partially undermined by a racism of less malignant but perhaps more intractable sort.

By the time of this newest story, the Bunch, led by Dikar (born Dick Carr) has joined forces with some of the underground resistance that had developed despite all odds, and with colonies of "beast men" who are, for all intents and purposes, white trash. The Asafrics announce that all Americans must make a fresh loyalty pledge of face deportation to the wastelands of Africa and Asia. To boost American morale, the resistance decides that the small army coalescing near the Bunch's mountain in downstate New York must score some sort of symbolic victory. Their target is the old military academy at West Point, now used as an Afrasic base. Dikar's early attempt to scout the site goes bad quickly and he's imprisoned inside the fortress. Captured by two black soldiers, presumably native Africans (described by the resistance as "the best soldiers in the world"), Dikar is turned over to a jailer. He notices that the jailer "was brown-faced, not black like the other Asafrics." Readers familiar with pulp dialects would quickly notice that the "brown" jailer talks differently from the "black" soldiers.

'Washton,' the Asafric with Dikar said, 'this one fellah special prisoner for Colonel Wangsing. Something happen to him, all our skin get flogged off. Unstan?'
'Yassuh, Sahgent,' Washton answered, his eyes gleaming white in the dimness as he goggled at Dikar, 'Ah unnerstands. You wan' him put in a cell by hisself?'

The Asafrics talk in something like standard pulp pidgin English, while Washton talks in something pulp readers would recognize as American negro dialect. Zagat is ready to answer a question at least some readers must have asked since his series started: what happened to the American blacks? His answer, in this case at least, is that African Americans are among the resistance's most effective inside men. Washton -- born Benjamin Franklin George Washington -- surprises Dikar by arranging for his escape from West Point. He surprises our hero even more by identifying himself as Agent X-18 of the resistance's Secret Net of operatives. Dikar either doesn't remember seeing, or has never seen, an authentic African American. He can't comprehend why an "Asafric soldier" would help the Americans. Washton explains:

'Dat's the beauty paht of it. See, w'en de Asafrics fust came, dey figgered us cullud people would want to jine up wid dem against de whites, and dey sent out word we'd be welcom. Dey foun' out dey figgered wrong.

'Dey foun' out we wuz Americans fust an' cullud after. But dah wuz some of us got de notion dat we cud mebbe fight 'em better from de inside, so we did jine up.

'But suppose they found you out?' [Dikar asks]

'Dem what dey fin's out,' Washton said, 'takes a long time to die, but dem what dey don't jus' keep on wukkin. Lots uh de sabotage dat's been happenin is de wuk of cullud men.'

Washton has accumulated detailed knowledge of the West Point defenses in the forlorn hope that it would be of use to a real resistance army. Learning that a real army is actually on the way, his response is "Glory be to the Lawd!" To our eyes, Zagat is working at cross purposes. Washton is clearly meant to prove that neither Zagat nor his story is racist, yet this resistance hero talks like Amos or Andy. Dialect is more problematic now than it was 75 years ago. Today we perceive a stigma of inferiority when Zagat may simply have felt an artistic imperative to write black speech as he thought he'd heard it. There's no excuse, however, when Dikar temporarily leaves Washton alone in the forest on their way to the resistance camp, and our black patriot says, "It's awful dahk, heah, an' it's just come to me dat dey says dese heah woods is ha'nted." Really, Arthur Leo Zagat? Washton has been risking his life spying in the belly of the beast, not to mention breaking Dikar out, but because he's a Negro he's skeered of ghosts?

The point Zagat wants to make with Washton is a welcome one, but the way he writes this black hero (who predictably enough sacrifices his life for Dikar before this installment ends) tends to remind me that even D. W. Griffith had good blacks in The Birth of a Nation. They were the ones who stayed loyal to their old massas and defended them from the depredations of the carpetbaggers and the more vicious blacks. Zagat actually deserves more credit for emphasizing that infiltration was African Americans' own idea, but he'd deserve more still if he could imagine free blacks as ongoing protagonists in his epic rather than the faithful retainer type that Washton unfortunately resembles. Washton's heroic intervention alone doesn't change the essentially racial nature of the Asafric war against the U.S., but to be fair Zagat has several more episodes of the "Tomorrow" series to go in which to refine if not redeem his vision of American resistance.

No comments: