Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Doc Savage vs. the Depression

Clark Savage Jr. was probably born around the turn of the 20th century. As Doc Savage, pulp hero, he was a child of the Depression.

Even as someone who reads a lot of history, and who’s been financially desperate a couple of times in my twenties, I’ll never really grasp the gut-level horror that the Depression inflicted on people of the 1930s. Not just one person losing a job, but everyone. Not just my town being in an economic collapse, but every town. People lost money in the 1929 stock market crash, they lost it when banks shut their doors. And it appeared there was no way — none — out of the hole, not for individuals or for the nation.

It’s against this backdrop that Lester Dent wrote Doc Savage. I’ve been rereading and blogging about them for several years (I’m currently up to early 1942, about nine years worth). Reading them in the order they were published, rather than the random Bantam Books order, has made me much more aware how the Depression constantly lurks in the background.

The Czar of Fear, for example, is a blatant Depression allegory. A small town has collapsed economically due to the scheming of the mysterious Green Bell. Doc comes to town, proceeds to buy up all the businesses and restore the town to full employment. After he’s busted the bad guy, he then gives the firms back to the owners at no profit to himself. Oh, and the villain made the money to finance his scheme by selling stocks short, a contributing factor in the Crash of ’29.

Death in Silver is one of the best Doc Savage novels. The Silver Death’s Heads (the hoods of their bulletproof silver body armor resemble skull faces) are engaged in a citywide campaign of robbery and violence. Even they don’t know, however, that this is a front for their boss’s real plan. Damages and destruction during the thefts have forced a couple of businesses belly up; the deaths of wealthy men in the course of the robberies have ruined others. The mastermind buys up the businesses, then uses pump-and-dump tactics (another Crash contributor) to inflate the stock price, after which he sells at a big profit. The Death’s Heads clear tens of thousands; the mastermind pockets a million-plus.

The villains in The Dagger in the Sky turn out to be seven of America’s wealthiest men. They plan to take over a South American country, then turn it into a libertarian paradise (for them — the natives won’t be so lucky) with zero taxes and zero regulations. Once that’s set up, they’ll relocate their corporate and personal citizenship there. One of them, in rattling off a list of oppressive regulations, includes federal bank insurance. For the Depression audience, who’d seen people’s savings disappear when banks collapsed, that would have been a huge red flag screaming I’m A Greedy Shit.

On top of all that, Doc’s charity efforts are a constant, recurring element throughout the 1930s. It’s like the Wayne Foundation, but Lester Dent was a lot more specific about what Doc actually does with his money. Several stories show him running a jobs program out of his skyscraper headquarters. Other stories, such as Mad Mesa, have an unemployed protagonist drifting in hopes of finding a job, a common situation.

Of course a lot of stories show Doc providing acts of charity without tying in to the Depression. In Land of Terror, for example, he stops his hunt for the villains long enough to arrange for a poor blind woman to get a free operation that will restore her sight. The Feathered Octopus establishes Doc routinely buys and improves businesses as he did in Czar, purely to keep the economy humming and the workers employed. Dent doesn’t just have Doc fight crime, he has him fight suffering.

Whatever Dent’s reasoning, this is one of the things that makes Doc Savage stand out from the pulp pack.

Covers are by James Bama. #SFWApro

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