Today, can we tell a book by its cover? The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
When I was a kid, my parents
trafficked with the artsy intelligentsia of St.
Paul, Minnesota — musicians, actors, writers. We
left all that behind when we moved to Oregon. It no
longer suited my parents as they grew older, and
it'd never suited me. I was bent toward the visual
world from the beginning. Words left me baffled,
but I loved and understood pictures. More
on that in a moment.
My closest contact with the literati came through
ping-pong. The Wandrei brothers, Donald and Howard
were family friends. They wrote high-end science
fiction and, in those days, you found the best
science fiction in the pulp magazines. Since
younger brother Howard died young, Donald is better
known today. When they visited, Howard and I played
ping-pong. We were pretty evenly matched.
Now all that comes back in a Smithsonian
magazine article about the 1930s and '40s pulp-magazine
cover art. During the Depression, some of America's
best artists did covers for science fiction and
detective stories — at roughly fifty dollars each.
The style was wonderful. I was too inept a reader
for the articles themselves, but, Oh, the fine
lurid art on the covers! Intense colors and high
theater drew us in as Odysseus was drawn by the
whirlpool Charybdis. Those artists had Remington's instinct for hooking
us right upon the apex of action. We see a
fiery-haired woman, in a yellow dress, racing away
on a bright red motorcycle. A man struggling to
gain his balance in the cycle's sidecar, clutches
bundles of five-dollar bills in one arm. He juggles
a gun in the other hand. The woman fires her gun
over his head at unseen pursuers. A sold black
background dramatizes the colors.
We know half the story already, and we need to know
the rest. Indeed, an artist sometimes produced a
picture; then the editor hired someone to write a
story that would match it. Ernest Chiriaka, one of
the few pulp artists still living, signed covers
with only his initials — he'd hoped no one would
recognize him. N. C. Wyeth did cover art. The irony
is that, today, the surviving covers are often to
be found in art museums.
New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was so
offended by some of the detective magazines that he
required covers be torn off and destroyed before
the magazines were displayed. (Beyond the airport
named after him, LaGuardia is lovingly remembered
for reading the Sunday comics to children on the
radio, during WW-II.)
In any case, I
played ping-pong with Howard Wandrei and wondered
how all the words he wrote did justice to those
covers. I built model airplanes and wondered how
soon we'd go to the stars — the way the pictures
promised we would.
Howard died the year before Sputnik, but he'd known
we'd leave Earth. And despite recent setbacks, my
hopes still ride upon those pictures — so strong
in their primary colors, so raw in their promises,
so correct in catching the clear hard light of
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
D. Stewart, Guys and Molls. Smithsonian,
August 2003, pp. 54-59.
For bibliographies of Donald and Howard Wandrei,
(It's difficult to do a full accounting of Howard's
writing because he also wrote under a dizzying
variety of pseudonyms.)
Examples of Pulp cover may be seen in this website
about important pulp artist, Graves Gladney:
And the image above may found in this excellent
This 21st-century NASA image of a conceptual
remarkable in the way it captures (or reflects —
it's hard to tell which) the style and content of
the 1930's Pulps.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.