Before we continue with the Scribner’s YA books, I’d like to talk a bit about Heinlein’s older writing—including the above-named books. There have been endless discussions about whether this book or that book—this story or that story—represents RAH’s actual opinions about things; about men, women, the military, politics, religion or whatever. I’ve gone on record, and I’m not the only one, as saying you can’t judge an author’s mental processes—or attitudes—by what he or she puts down on paper.
Before 1984, when the Heinlein houshold became computerized and, rather than having a form letter duplicated they/she (when I say “she” I’m referring to Virginia Heinlein) could just open a boilerplate letter and just add a person’s name/address and a relevant line; before that, RAH had a form letter that he would use to reply to letters. As you can guess, he probably got dozens, if not hundreds, of “fan” letters; that is, letters from people he didn’t know and had no business dealings with. My own copies are buried in my office—which at this point resembles that warehouse one sees at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with boxes of letters, memorabilia, etc.—so I will copy the text of said letter and post it here (I thank Kevin Kelly for the link). In practice, Heinlein (or, more likely, Virginia—if you got annotations in green or red ink, it was he; otherwise, it was she) would check one or more boxes that pertained to your letter, and whomever had done it would initial. (All bold italics are mine; underlines are RAH’s.)
Robert A. Heinlein
Care of Mr. Lurton Blassingame
60 East 42nd Street, Suite 1131
New York, N.Y. 10017
An ever-increasing flood of mail forced me to choose between writing letters
and writing fiction. But I read each letter sent to me and check its answer.
( ) Thanks for your kind words. You have made my day brighter.
( ) You say that you have enjoyed my stories for years. Why did you wait until
you disliked one story before writing to me?
( ) Renshaw: Saturday Evening Post, You’re Not As Smart As You Could Be, April
17th, 24th, and May 1st, 1948.
( ) Essay Mental Telegraphy, Mark Twain’s Works, Harper & Brothers
( ) Don’t send books to be autographed; too many have failed to reach me.
Registering or insuring is no answer; the post office is a 30-mile round trip.
( ) Story ideas come from everywhere and anything and writers are self-taught.
The book WRITER’S MARKET tells how to prepare manuscripts and lists markets.
( ) My agent handles all business; your letter has been sent to him.
( ) I don’t discuss my colleagues’ works or my own. A novelist writes from
many viewpoints; opinions expressed even by a first-person character are not
necessarily those of the author. Fiction is sold as entertainment, not as fact.
( ) The item you want is herewith/not available/: Ask your reference librarian.
( ) I don’t sell books. All my books are in print and can be bought or ordered
at any bookstore or directly from publishers. Bookstores have “in-print” lists.
( ) I get 4 or 5 or more requests each week for help in class assignments, term
papers, theses, or dissertations. I can’t cope with so many and have quit trying.
( ) It is not just for a student’s grade to depend on the willingness or capacity
of a stranger to help him with his homework. I am ready to discuss this with
your teacher, principal, or school board.
( ) Science fiction: stories that would cease to exist if elements involving
science or technology were omitted. For full discussion see my lecture in
THE SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL, Advent:Publishers, Chicago.
( ) Who’s Who in America; Encyclopaedia Britannica 1974; IN SEARCH OF WONDER,
chapter 7, Damon Knight, Advent:Publishers; SEEKERS OF TOMORROW, chapter 11,
Sam Moskowitz, World Publishing Company; Current Biography magazine; reference
books about authors. I don’t discuss private life, politics, religion, philosophy
( ) Your question: Yes/No/No Comment/My publishers announce new works/
( ) Please do not write to me again.
( ) Thanks for the stamped & addressed envelope—a rare courtesy today.
( ) Pressure of work causes me to avoid interviews, questionnaires, radio and
television appearances, public speaking.
( ) For legal reasons I do not read unpublished manuscripts.
( ) Don’t plan to call at our home; we work very long hours every day of the year.
( ) Your letter was most welcome!—loaded with friendliness and with no requests
or demands. You suggested that no answer was expected but I must tell you how
much it pleased me. I wish you calm seas, following winds, and a happy voyage
Robert A. Heinlein, by ____
Note the first item I have put in bold-italic: A novelist writes from many viewpoints; opinions expressed even by a first-person character are not necessarily those of the author. Fiction is sold as entertainment, not as fact. That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? You might extrapolate from an author’s work, if the same opinions are expressed by many characters (or narrators, or even auctorial “voice” not assigned to any narrator) that it’s the author’s opinion, but to assume that it is—and/or to act on that assumption—is, in my opinion, sheer folly. Yet many people read, for example, Starship Troopers, and assume that because of things Johnny Rico is told or thinks, added to the fact that Heinlein was in the military, it’s a book espousing either war or universal military service. I don’t believe it’s either.
Of course, over the course of a career, it is possible to discern many of an author’s unspoken core beliefs and/or influences. For example, RAH was born in Missouri in 1907; you can rightly assume that he was inculcated with the prejudices and beliefs prevalent at that time and place; he graduated (according to Wikipedia) from Annapolis (the Naval Academy) in 1929, and you can assume he was also indoctrinated in many of the military beliefs of the time, with assurance that you’d be at least partially right.
But that doesn’t mean he will always hold the opinions he was inculcated with as a child; as we grow we all make up our own minds about things—about things like social morés, religion, patriotism and so on. Although it gets harder to change as you age—I think it might be part of the human condition—it doesn’t mean your attitudes and opinions necessarily have to calcify. For example, Heinlein became a nudist at some point in his life, which would probably have horrified the good churchgoin’ folk of Butler, Missouri back in the nineteen-twenties when he was becoming an adult. He married three times (Virginia was his third wife), which would have been against church teachings, probably. I haven’t read the Patterson biography, so I don’t know what his religion was—I will be rectifying that when volume two comes out—but if you can overcome early religious teachings (and those are some of the more deeply-rooted social values), then you can probably change anything about yourself if you try.
Here’s an actual recent (April) Facebook thread—I asked in advance, and nobody objected to their names being used here—about Heinlein and partially about attitudes and morés in his early writing:
Patricia Williams-King: I think he (Heinlein) mentioned all the old values, didn’t he?
Steve Fahnestalk: Pretty much, but he also mentioned some not-so-old ones.
Garth Spencer: Perhaps referred to them, but perhaps did not fully explicate them. In any case, the impression Heinlein leaves is that he made an exemplary effort to stretch himself, to get into the minds and hearts of utterly different characters—an ardent establishment Bible-Belter forced out of his mould; an engineer and inventor; an actor, and other creative artists; a statesman; female intelligence agent; businessmen and engineers as well as servicemen—but he still showed certain limits. He remained in some ways a conservative Midwestern gentleman of a certain generation, even when he was reacting against the conventions of his time and place.
Steve Fahnestalk: Pretty much, Garth. And I find it laudable that he made the attempt.
Garth Spencer: Yeah, the way he stretched himself as far as he could, to get his head into different potential worlds, was setting a good example for us all.
Ed Beauregard: Have you read the Heinlein biography? It is quite remarkable how radical left-wing he was in the ‘30s, a veritable fire-brand socialist. Since volume 1 stops in 1948, the transformation to a conservative viewpoint is only hinted at (suggestions that Virginia Heinlein had a lot to do with it). I am waiting for the second volume.
Garth Spencer: Thank you; I sit corrected. No, I hadn’t read the biography, and shame on me for darkening counsel without knowledge. I inferred too much merely from his fiction and his articles/essays.
Steve Fahnestalk: Spider’s (Spider Robinson) read both halves. He said the second part is really good.
Garth Spencer: One awaits its publication with baited breath. Fishermen come to me with air sacs and take samples of my breath to release in the water and scare away sharks. I have to raise my rates….
Christopher Carson: And here I re-read Space Cadet just about a week ago. (Christopher Carson is somewhat of a public figure himself.)
Steve Fahnestalk: And did you enjoy it?
Christopher Carson: It’s as good as it ever was, although I think Starman Jones is probably a bit better overall. Enjoyable, certainly, even if certain parts have become quite strange with the passage of time—the aggressively single-sex environment, for example (my cousin & his wife are both Annapolis graduates).
Garth Spencer: James Hogan’s early fiction still reads strangely, given the prevalence of smoking: in his story universe.
Taral Wayne: Are they still good? I guess so, but they were written for a simpler age with many patronizing institutions, and show it.
Garth Spencer: Noted.
Joseph T Major: Yes. (Joseph T. Major wrote a book of critical examination of Heinlein’s YA books. Click above link for Amazon information.)
The above is just an illustration of how, even years after his death, Heinlein’s works continue to inspire as well as create controversy.
Yes, many of his early books featured things like the military being the sole province of the masculine gender; they were written in a time when such was the norm, and nobody of that time could imagine something like Annapolis (a male bastion similar to West Point) being integrated, or women serving aboard submarines. Similarly, cultural biases show: in Space Cadet the Academy’s regulations specify that all cadets’ hair must be no longer than two inches; the idea of a Sikh cadet would have been unthinkable, let alone a female cadet. If you look at the Scribner’s cover for Citizen of the Galaxy, young Thorby—who has been a slave in Jubbalpore as well as one of the richest young men on Earth—has a haircut fit for a ‘50s high school. They could not conceive of the various hair lengths and styles seen today as being “proper” in the near future.
Other assumptions—for example, that people will continue smoking in the far future, as smoking is in many of his earlier books—might trip up today’s readers, let alone future readers. Heinlein also made projections for the future and then made them part of his “Future History,” in which many of his books and stories shared a common history. Some of those projections—like moving sidewalks and roads, as well as “sleep learning”—became unlikely during his later writing career and were never again referred to; others, like making verbs or nouns out of people’s names he was certain would be or become famous in the future—like “Renshaw,” “Winchell” or “Lippmann.” Samuel Renshaw invented a method, using a tachistoscope to flash pictures at 1/100th of a second, to help people identify words and pictures which, it turns out, also helped them memorize; Heinlein thought “Renshawing” would become a common method of learning. (It didn’t.) Walter Winchell was a newspaper, radio and, for a short while, TV “journalist” whose recorded greeting, “Good evening, Mister and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea,” was familiar to all radio listeners in the ‘40s and ‘50s; although his style of journalism didn’t survive exposure to TV. Walter Lippmann was a writer and political commentator who invented the term “Cold War” to describe the uneasy detente between the Soviet Union and the West. His fame is also lost to history, though his name became a noun in Stranger in a Strange Land.
Holy cow, this is going to be longer than I thought at first—we haven’t really even touched on much of what I wanted to say, but I don’t want to hijack Amazing Stories’ column space for what amounts to personal opinion for more than a couple-dozen column-inches (an old newspaper term) at a time. It’s personal opinion, as I don’t want to—and see no need to—add a bunch of footnotes and scholarly links to back myself up. I’ve been reading these books since Caesar was a pup, as the saying goes—and like most everyone else, I have opinions. You don’t necessarily have to agree with me, but I do appreciate your sticking around to read them. (See my standard disclaimer at bottom.) So I guess we’ll have to pick this up next week.
I have to run off to Oregon for the weekend, as my son (Stephen Patrick Bradshaw—the last name is different because he was adopted by my ex-wife’s new husband) is getting married. Kind of a point of pride, really—he’s a tall drink of water (three or four inches taller than his dad) who also served in the US Navy, and who is an expert mechanic. I hope you’ll join me in wishing Stephen and his new wife-to-be RayLine Minthorn the best for their future life together and the happiest of wedding days!
*Figure 2 was taken off the internet; I’ve no idea who took the picture. When I tried to follow the page links from Google Images, I was taken to a Japanese page with some young ladies who were seriously underdressed. No attribution. Again, if someone knows who photo credit goes to, let me know and I’ll change it.
I’m always interested in other people’s opinions of my work—so if you’d like to comment on this week’s entry, you can either do so here, or if you haven’t already registered—go ahead—it’s free, and only takes a moment. You can also comment on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups (i.e., SF Fandom, Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy, etc.) where I publish a link. All your comments—positive or not—are welcome, so feel free to disagree. I might argue a bit, but that’s just me. My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners/editors. See you next week!