A Visit To Science Fiction House

From the papers of Donald A. Wollheim

This is the first in a series of posts that will surface unpublished articles and fiction by Donald Wollheim. These come from a set of papers recently acquired from Lloyd Currey, who sourced them from the Wollheim estate. The provenance appears clear and the content consistent with his other writings of the period.

The notion of a “Science Fiction House” emerged in New York fandom in the late 1930s, and first became real with the establishment of a residence in Brooklyn known as Futurian House. The story of that fabled abode is told in detail in the October 1939 and January 1940 issues of the Jim Avery’s M.S.A. Bulletin, the club organ of the Maine Scientifiction Association. (Full reproductions of that account are found in The Visual History of Science Fiction Fandom.) Given the ages and largely unemployed status of its residents, it’s not too surprising that the story reads a bit like an early draft script for Animal House.

Frederik Pohl in Science Fiction News Letter, v2n14, September 1 1938

But Wollheim had already formed a vision of an idyllic communal living space for fans. This fictional history, sadly incomplete, is dated December 3 1937. (Click the images for full-screen renderings.)

Neil Young comes to mind:

“Oh to live on Sugar Mountain
With the barkers and the colored balloons…”

We can all wish for such a place, these days.

The Earliest Bradbury

In honor of the upcoming centenary of Ray Bradbury’s birth (August 22, 2020), we’re digging through our archive of 1930s fan material to find the earliest appearances of Ray’s writings — in any form. We hope to publish a compendium of these in the next several weeks.

We’re not talking about the well-known and oft-reproduced works such as Futuria Fantasia, or even the somewhat-known and occasionally-reproduced “Hollerbochen’s Dilemma.” We’re seeking anything that appeared prior to 1940 that has rarely surfaced, especially as it was originally printed.

A primary source for Ray’s earliest articles is the Los Angeles Science Fiction League’s organ, Imagination! This zine’s first issue was published in October 1937 — the same month that Ray joined the LASFL. It ran for thirteen issues through October 1938. Through years of ardent questing, we’re fortunate to have assembled a complete run.

There are several items in Imagination! that are explicitly ascribed to Bradbury. We’ll be reproducing all of these. Some are satirical essays, the first of which was printed in v1n7, April 1938.
[Click any of the images to see a more readable full-page rendering.]

All well and good for the work he signed. However, we’re in a quandary over four pieces that we believe could be Bradbury’s, but were published under a variety of pseudonyms or are confusingly attributed.

For example, this page from v1n2, November 1937:

This is the first time Bradbury’s name appears in Imagination! However, we weren’t confident that the signature applied to the entire piece. Based on information from Donn Albright — kindly passed on by Jonathan R. Eller at the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (which is perhaps the coolest thing in the world) — it appears that Bradbury is the author of the article.

This is especially important to sort out because a similar attempt-at-humor appears in v1n1, October 1937.

Scan from the University of California Riverside Special Collections

And in v1n3, December 1937, we find this little unpolished gem.

(Our copy of this issue was originally mailed to Litterio B. (‘Larry’) Farsaci, so the comment in pencil is likely his.)

If one of these spoofy bits was penned by Bradbury, it’s likely that they all were. The seems at least somewhat consistent with other contributions. In considering this, don’t be too distracted by the clipping of words as Ackerman made famous — Bradbury is known to have emulated this elsewhere; e.g. in the verse below from v1n9, June 1938.

One further candidate for Bradbury attribution is this charming ditty from v1n11, August 1938.

The bottom of the page is signed by Bradbury, but “Dead Reckoning” and the associated art at the top are not attributed.

We’d be most appreciative if any Bradbury or LASFL scholars could offer additional insight on these mysteries.

Palmer’s Ascension: A True Story From Early Fandom

Raymond A. Palmer began his pioneering work in science fiction fandom in 1928 at age 18. In 1938, his amateur accomplishments as a club organizer, fanzine publisher, author, editor and promoter of science fiction launched his professional career when he became editor of the iconic pulp magazine Amazing Stories. This is his story, an excerpt from The Visual History of Science Fiction Fandom, Volume One: The 1930s.

Art by Mark Wheatley (Breathtaker, Doctor Cthulittle, Song of Giants).
Click the crossed-arrows for a full-screen view!

You can read more about Palmer’s early adventures as a leading fan at The Cosmos Project. His full life story is told in engaging fashion in “The Man From Mars: Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey” by Fred Nadis (Tarcher-Perigee, 2013).

Our sources for this narrative comic include Harry Warner’s “All Our Yesterdays,” which recounts the timeline of Palmer’s first day at Amazing Stories. Also informing the text is an article Palmer penned that appeared in Stardust, v2n2, November 1940. From here we get Ray’s triumphant quote at achieving his position as editor:

“You can imagine how I felt. Here at last I had it in my power to do to my old hobby what I had always had the driving desire to do to it. I had in my hands the power to change, to destroy, to create, to remake, at my own discretion.”

In his autobiography “Man of Two Worlds,” Julius Schwartz related how he came to use Palmer’s name as the real-life moniker of DC Comic’s The Atom:

“An accident had damaged [Palmer’s] spine when he was a youngster, so Ray never was able to grow to full adult height… So I called up Ray and asked his permission to appropriate his name for the civilian identity of the new Atom, and he graciously assented. (An added bonus of the call was that it inspired me to come up with one of the Atom’s unique powers, where he could travel from place to place along the phone lines as if he was one of the transmitted sound particles.)”

Are Young People Interested in Early Fan History?

Boskone 57 took place over Valentine’s Day weekend, and as Boston locals we had the great opportunity to attend and participate. This was my first Boskone and David’s first return visit in several years. Team member Sam McDonald made the trip up and joined us for the weekend.

The convention was a blast and I want to congratulate and thank the organizers for an amazing experience. We set up a two-bay exhibit of early fan art, participated in two programs (Activism in Fandom and Fan History for Beginners), and spent a lot of time at our dealer table talking to anyone who would give us their ear about our project. 

Over the course of the convention we had the chance to meet an incredible group of fans. Some we knew already from past conventions or through previous collaborations; some were fans we had only interacted with online through email or discussion groups; and some were entirely new to us. 

Particularly interesting to us, we got to meet and speak with a few younger fans who stopped by the table to talk about the project. Young fans are interesting to us because the audience of people who have been most interested in our work so far is relatively small and skews to an older demographic. We cherish this community of long-time fans with some existing connection to the history we study, but we are also interested in reaching a younger audience who have little to no connection to early fan history.

This begs the question… 

Are Young People Interested in Early Fan History?

This is a question we ask ourselves often..

Although almost none of the First Fans of the 1930s are still with us, we fortunately can learn something of their stories through the people that knew them. This is the core community of collaborators and readers that we have interacted with through the course of this project so far, and is one primary audience for our work. 

But what about, for lack of a better phrase, young people? Do Millennials and Gen Z, born into the chaotic fullness of modern fandom, have any interest in the origin story of the SFF fan community?

For some context, I am a millennial. I was born in 1989, the same year that Hyperion was published and Cyteen won the Hugo for best novel. Cyberpunk was in fashion. The Berlin Wall came down. I read science fiction voraciously growing up and made a lot of friends who were in the same boat, but I think I can speak honestly for us all when I say that we were almost wholly ignorant of science fiction literature before the Golden Age and completely unaware of the history of fandom.

My study of the history of science fiction fandom began when I started to work on First Fandom Experience with David. I knew almost nothing about the genre or its fandom beforehand, save for a few exceptions — Bradbury, “Doc” Smith, Asimov, Pohl, and a few other names stand out. In retrospect I am somewhat embarrassed to have not known anything about Ackerman, Kornbluth, Palmer, Weisinger, and so many others whose work helped build a genre I love and feel very close to.

When talking with the few younger fans who stopped by our table, I learned that their experiences are similar to mine. They are fans and avid readers of the genre, but because they are young they are mostly familiar with the more modern history of the genre and fandom. The same general cast of authors whose work has remained popular over the years stands out as a point of connection, but overall the early history of science fiction and fandom was a mystery.

Two of our interactions at Boskone illustrate this gap.

First, we met a young man (about my age) who was primarily a comic fan. He meandered by the table, something caught his attention, we started talking, and inevitably comics came up. We had our touch point. He was aware of people like Mort Weisinger, but unaware of his involvement in early fandom. He was vaguely aware of the origins of Superman, and we were able to show him the original “Reign of the Superman” story and to talk about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s early fanzine. He had heard of Ackerman, but didn’t know much about him besides his work from later decades.

We were able to add some color to the history of a genre that he is clearly close to, largely by unpacking the stories of the individuals involved and how they helped shape the industry. 

Second, a young woman who is a student at Harvard stopped by and spoke with us for about an hour on the last day of the convention. She did not seem like an out-and-out science fiction reader, but was interested in the historical nature of our work. She spent some time flipping through the book and connecting things she did not know about to things she did know about, or had at least heard of. She commented on the Great Depression, the history of women in fandom, printing technology, and (of special interest to us) political activism.

Although she had no prior experience with the esoteric history of science fiction fandom in the 1930s, she was still able to connect to it through her general knowledge of history and her interest in topics that are timeless.

So… are young people interested in the history of science fiction fandom?

I believe (or hope?) that most everyone is (or should be) interested in history writ large, To garner interest in a particular facet of history, it’s necessary to make that history accessible and to find the right touch points — the places where people with no prior knowledge can connect with it. 

I find the history of early fandom to be compelling and interesting in its own right.  Anyone, regardless of age, could become interested if the ‘barriers to entry’ are lowered. This history is valuable because it enables readers to contextualize and more fully appreciate their relationship to the genre. Fans of science fiction ought to at least be familiar with the origins of fandom. 

We hope to help revitalize and preserve the early history of science fiction fandom, and we believe we can reach an audience of younger fans who can become interested in and engage with the rich, fascinating stories therein.

A Very Mysterious Photograph

Among the surviving papers of John V. Baltadonis, prominent First Fan of the Philadelphia persuasion, is this odd little photograph.

From the collection of Steve Baltadonis

I say “little” because the print is perhaps 1″ x 2″.

We’d love to uncover the what, why, when and where of this image. Recent spelunking revealed an appearance in the Program Book for the Fifth World Science Fiction Convention, held from August 30 through September 1, 1947, in Philadelphia (“The PhilCon”).

The photo was found next to other snapshots that appear to date from 1939 or 1940. An additional clue on the date is that the robot appears to be astride the cover of an issue of Charles D. Hornig’s Science Fiction, which ran from March 1939 through September 1941.

Please let us know if you have an insight that can further identify this peculiar piece of fan ephemera.

Also, just for fun, here’s an early William Rotsler cartoon from the same PhilCon Program Book, which found its way to us via Dave Kurzman and John L. Coker III.

In 1939, Lithography Came To Fanzines — But Why?

Print quality mattered in early science fiction fanzines. The credibility of the editors and authors was projected by the appearance of their publications — and this sometimes translated into professional opportunities. Access to a printing press in the 1930s was a luxury most couldn’t afford.

Beginning in 1932, Conrad H. Ruppert reshaped the world of fan publications with the printing press he bought with money saved by working in his father’s bakery. He printed issues of the most prominent fanzines of the period, including The Time Traveller, Science Fiction Digest, and Charles D. Hornig’s The Fantasy Fan. It’s not unreasonable to assert that the professional appearance of Hornig’s leaflet-sized ‘zine contributed to his ascension to the editorship of Wonder Stories at the age of 17. (You can read much more about Conrad H. Ruppert here.)

Without a friend like Ruppert, fans were limited to the only only affordable means of duplication at the time — the hectograph and the mimeograph. Both were limited in the quality and detail of reproduction. Many fanzine experimented with both, as seen in the evolution of Walter E. Marconette’s Scienti-Snaps.

But in early 1939, a new printing technology — lithography — began to radically transform the look and feel of fanzines. I say ‘new,’ because we haven’t seen any examples of this technique used in fan publications prior to 1939.

Lithography was invented in the late 1700s, when slabs of limestone were inscribed with grease pencil and rolled with ink. Rotary offset lithography using metal plates was developed in 1875. Technology for Photostats, an early version of photographic reproduction, was developed in the early 1900s.

In 1939, Larry Farsaci was an active fan and a founding member of the Fantasy Amateur Press Association (FAPA). In the March FAPA mailing that year (#7), he included a single-sheet lithographed image. This is the earliest example we’ve seen in fan-produced material.

Lithographed image by Larry Farsaci, March 1939, FAPA mailing #7

The difference in clarity and resolution between this litho image and previous hecto or mimeo reproductions is immediately evident. Later in 1939, Fantasy News published a lithographed image on its cover. Ad Astra followed suit in its January 1940 issue with an image described as a “planograph.”

In 1940 and 1941, the first fully-lithographed fanzines appeared. A notable example is the successor to Scienti-Snaps, Marconette’s Bizarre.

Another ambitious example, the “semi-professional” magazine Stardust, edited by William Lawrence Hamling.

Stardust, v1n1, March 1940

Fanzines using lithography gave the publications a step-function upgrade in attractiveness and readability. Great! But it’s not like lithography was new to the world. The question we’re working to answer is: What changed that made it possible for fanzines to utilize this method of printing?

  • Did the cost of lithography (aka offset printing) significantly decline, perhaps due to some technical innovation?
  • Did fans have more money to spend? Possible, since the Great Depression had largely abated.
  • Was there a “Conrad H. Ruppert of lithography?” Marconette gives credit to the staff of Stardust for assistance in the production of Bizarre.

After substantial digging and help from a number of printing historians, we’ve been able to stitch together a strong hypothesis for this transition. The primary factor appears to be the growing availability of low-cost, easy-to-operate offset lithography equipment through the mid-1930s and early 1940s. Other developments also likely contributed, including new “photo-resist” (light-sensitive) coatings for creating lithograph plates via photography.

A major clue was provided by Walter J. Daugherty’s fanzine Fan, number 7, March 1946. The issue was dedicated to a single article titled “How to Print an Amateur Paper.” We sourced our copy from two collectors: John L. Coker III provided a partial copy that led us to the material, and Sam McDonald was able to supply the critical pages that refer specifically to offset lithography.

Fan, n7, March 1946, edited by Walter J. Daugherty

From this we know that by 1946 offset photo-lithography was available in “all large cities” at reasonable rates — $3 in 1946 translates to about $42 today. Most fanzines had circulations well below 300.

One word in this article led us to a key insight: “Multilith.” This isn’t a generic term for a printing technology. It’s a brand name, and refers to a line of offset printing presses manufactured by the Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation of Cleveland, Ohio (hereinafter AM).

This company is a fascinating case study of a firm that prospered during the Great Depression, at least in part by continuing to invest in research and development. From their annual reports, we can see their introduction of a series of offset presses that were central to the more general and affordable availability of lithography.

In 1933, AM patented and introduced the Multilith Model 1227, likely the first office-sized, electrically-powered offset printhead.

Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation’s Multilith Model 1227
From the 1933 Annual Report of the Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation

In 1938, AM reported that the Multilith had become a substantial part of their business — an indication that this equipment was reaching a wider audience.

From the 1938 Annual Report of the Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation

In 1941, AM advanced this product line with the introduction of the Multilith Model 1250. This press and its namesake successors appear to have dominated small-shop and office lithography for the next few decades. Some of these machines are still in use today.

From the 1941 Annual Report of the Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation
Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation’s Multilith Model 1250

This is almost certainly the model of offset press referred to in the 1946 article.

By 1939, the First Fans were mostly young adults. Some had jobs (though many did not) and so were in a position to take advantage of this superior and now-accessible printing technology. The ability to easily replicate finely-detailed originals through photography enabled new levels of artistic expression. It seems apparent that these factors came together in the late 1930s to spur a dramatic advance in fan publishing.

Holiday Greetings From 1930s Science Fiction Fandom

…and from First Fandom Experience. We wish all a safe and joyous holiday season.

John V. Baltadonis, late 1930s. From the collection of Steve Baltadonis
John B. Michel, The International Observer, v1n4, December 1934
Science Fiction News, v3n9, December 1935. Illustration by Frank Underwood
R. Henry Drucker & Sidney Schachter, Arcturus, v1n2, January 1936
R. Henry Drucker, Arcturus, v2n1, January 1937. From the collection of Alistair Durie
Richard Wilson in The Science Fiction News Letter, v3n5, December 24 1938
David A Kyle for Richard Wilson, Jr.’s Christmas card, 1939
David A Kyle for Richard Wilson, Jr.’s Christmas card, 1939
Le Zombie, v2n7, December 16 1939
Le Zombie, v2n3, December 30 1939
Willy Ley (fan, author and rocket scientist), c1939

They’re Grand, But…

In some ways, early science fiction fandom was like a family. Think Leave It To Beaver meets Jersey Shore. The love and hate in the complex web of relationships often played out both in person and in fanzines. A shining example: a 1938 late-night road trip worthy of Scorsese’s After Hours.

In February 1938, Samuel A. Moskowitz penned a saccharin homage to his brothers and occasional sister in the fan community. “They’re Grand” appeared in The Science Fiction Fan (v2n6).

Little did Sam expect that his open embrace would be taken by some as an open door. The very next month, certain intrepid fans embarked on an epic soiree, as described in Richard Wilson’s The S-F Dividend (n2, distributed with the April 2 1938 issue of The Science Fiction News Letter). It’s also a delightful tour of the New York Area public transportation system of the day.

Seems Moskowitz might not have been overjoyed at the pre-dawn intrusion. In the March-April 1938 issue of The Science Fiction Collector (v3n6), he posted a somewhat evolved view of his fannish comrades under the (sadly faded) title, “They’re Grand, But They Have Their Faults.”

It’s not completely clear that Sam is referring here to the March 13 home invasion, but it seems likely. The “perverted brain” is pretty clearly the arch-nemesis Donald A. Wollheim.

Of course Richard Wilson wasn’t going to let this stand. He responded in the June-July issue of The Science Fiction Collector (v4n2).

Text transcribed below.

Sam Apologizes – By Proxy
by Richard Wilson, Jr.
This is written to set at ease the minds of Milton Rothman, Oliver Saari and any other who were apologized by the article, or a part of it, written by Sam Moskowitz: “They’re Grand — But They Have Their Faults.” The question most frequently asked seems to be: “Who were the two drunks that visited Mr. Moskowitz’ Newark that fatal night?” The question as such, cannot be answered. No inebriated individuals visited the Home of Helios that night — or rather, morning. Two stf fans undertook the perilous journey that day. But they weren’t drunk. They may have been crazy, but they weren’t cozzled. I should know; I was one of them. Jack Gillespie was the other. And why didn’t Samuel give our names? Self-defense, most likely. So that, should we become indignant and sue, he could smile ingratiatingly and say, oilily, “Why, I wasn’t referring to you boys. Heaven forbid! I was talking about two other fellows.” You know the gag,
Nor was it our fault we arrived so late — or early as you will. We left N.Y. at a reasonable hour; midnight or so, I think it was. The blame should be laid at the door, or doors, of the many transportation co.s to be found between Manhattan and Newark: ferries, railroads, tubes and taxis.
Let this serve to absolve G. Hahn of all suspicion of being an occasional, or otherwise, tippler. When the much discussed incident took place, George was, more than likely, at home (in Buffalo, or whatever the name of the place is) tossing Noddish sheep over fences.
Sic transit gloria mundi! And on Sunday mornings, too.

George R. Hahn appears to be the fifteen-year-old fan in question, a seemingly precocious lad who’s credited with publishing his own fanzine as early as 1936 at age 13 (The Asteroid (II), per Pavlat & Evans). He had a brief run as a professional writer beginning with the January 1939 publication of “The Fifth Candle” in Weird Tales (as Cyril Mand, per isfdb.org).

Interesting that we find this obscure reference in Fancyclopedia:

(Hahn, je crois; Dockweiler called it the New Science Fiction Special) – “At about four-thirty ack emma, while leering a trifle crookedly at the murals, Harry got The Idea. Why not a Rummy’s Stf Special? After a little thought, and some help from his fellow sot and Jack [the bartender], he decided upon the concoction. # He simply took the old, well-known gin-and-ginger ale, and added a touch of bitters. # Now, lean close. Fill a Tall Glass — not completely, you yap, unless you think you’re good – half gin, the rest ginger ale. Then, a dash of bitters …. Two drinks had Harry (who detests Efjay) admitting that Forrest might not be such a bad guy after all. A couple more and he went off on a crying jag over an old, lost love of his.” — From an unpublished manuscript by Harry Dockweiler, written probably in 1937.

Since the inception of the institution in 1938, the spontaneous all-nighter remains a fannish tradition to this day. Anyone that’s stayed at a hotel hosting a science fiction convention and attempted to sleep can attest to this based on the all-hours and boisterous hallway traffic outside their door.

Thus passes the glory of the world… of fandom.

Dessert of the Day: The Science Fiction Special

Illustration by Shannon Noah (shannonnoah. com)

We have the word “experience” in the name of our project for a reason. We’re hoping to bring early fandom to life in a more visceral, accessible and interactive way than previous histories of the period. To that end, we’re always searching for examples of what fans of the 1930s did when they weren’t slaving over a typewriter, mimeograph machine or steaming vat of hectography gelatin.

One thing some of them did is eat ice cream. Not remarkable in itself, but we’d assume that hard-core science fiction fanatics would find a way to make dessert a part of their primary fixation.

As we can see from this article by future-Futurian Frederik Pohl in the The International Observer (v2n7, January 1937), we know that they did just that.

Illustration by Shannon Noah (shannonnoah.com)

Donald A. Wollheim and John B. Michel published an enhanced and refined version of the recipe in The Science Fiction Bugle, May 1937.

Illustration by Sara Light-Waller. Read about Sara’s experience developing this illustration here.

We’re tempted to believe the stain on the Bugle is chocolate sauce from 1937. Untangling the references:

  • The “last Clayton Astounding Stories” was March 1933, pictured above, the ship on the cover apparently sliced up banana-wise.
  • “The Affair of the Brains” by Anthony Gilmore appeared in the March 1932 issue of Astounding Stories. “Five human brains lay all immersed in the glowing case, each resting in a shallow metal pan.” Seems like we should have two more scoops to be fully aligned with the story.
  • “The Last Evolution” by John W. Campbell is from Amazing Stories, August 1932. Humans build machines that evolve into sentient beings of pure force, obsoleting men who can’t change as fast. Just like whipped cream?
  • “Derwin” is the D in Charles D. Hornig, then-Editor of Wonder Stories and an object of scorn among Wollheim’s posse. We do not know the particulars of the “Gorong Gun,” and can only presume that things did Go Rong, the cherry syrup representing poor Derwin’s spilled blood.
  • “The Brain-Eaters of Pluto” by Kenneth Sterling appeared in the March 1934 issue of Wonder Stories. It was written by Sterling when he was thirteen years old. “…a parodic collection of puns, wise-cracks, contemporary slang, period references, etc., loosely draped on a rescue plot…” (Bleiler & Bleiler, The Gernsback Years).
  • “The Brain Stealers of Mars” by John W. Campbell was published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, December 1936. Here we met the shape-shifting creatures who would later inhabit Antarctica in “Who Goes There?” and the film The Thing.
  • Pecans look like tiny brains, obviously.

In an interview with John L. Coker III, David Kyle recalled this treat as a regular feature of meetings of the International Scientific Association, one of the warring fan-factions of New York at the time:

“I went to a meeting of the ISA and there I met Donald Wollheim, Fred Pohl, Dick Wilson, John Michel, and a few others who came a little later, like Robert W. Lowndes, Chester Cohen, and Cyril Kornbluth.  After the meeting, which was on a Sunday, we did what all young guys did in those years: we went to a soda fountain.  Somebody said that they wanted certain flavors, with nuts and a cherry, custom-made by the ice cream shop.  It was called the ‘Science Fiction Sundae.’  It was a small store and we went there regularly.  You didn’t have to go through a routine of the ingredients, we’d just ask for it by name.”

This promotion for the fans’ favorite soda shop appeared in the fanzine Arcturus (v1n3, February 1936). Fanzine editors sometimes convinced local business to run ads — likely with little return on the marketing investment.

Records of K. Pivoroff’s Brooklyn establishment appear to be lost. From newspapers of the day, we know that 880 New Lots Avenue was occupied by a Funeral Home.

We also know that the East New York Science Fiction League — Chapter #3, formed in June 1935 — had its headquarters just down the street from Pivoroff’s.

Arcturus, v1n1, December 1935

Be on the lookout at upcoming conferences for a “Science Fiction Special” ice cream event sponsored by First Fandom Experience!

Illustration by Shannon Noah (shannonnoah.com)

A Remarkable Letter — John W. Campbell’s 1937 Job Search

In May 1937, John W. Campbell, Jr. was looking for work. He was in good company — the unemployment rate in the United States was fluctuating around 15%, reflecting the lingering economic malaise of the Great Depression. Despite his degree in Physics and some success as a writer of science fiction stories, Campbell hadn’t found a steady gig.

This was to change in the Fall of that year when Campbell was hired as the Editor of Astounding Stories, where he reigned until his death in 1971. His Wikipedia entry describes his subsequent impact on science fiction:

“Referring to his time spent as an editor, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction wrote: ‘More than any other individual, he helped to shape modern sf. Isaac Asimov called Campbell ‘the most powerful force in science fiction ever’ and said the ‘first ten years of his editorship he dominated the field completely.’ In his capacity as an editor, Campbell published some of the very earliest work, and helped shape the careers, of virtually every important sf author to debut between 1938 and 1946, including Robert A. HeinleinTheodore SturgeonIsaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke.”

As a tribute to Campbell, in 1973 the World Science Fiction Society established the “John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.” This prize has been awarded yearly ever since — until Tuesday, August 27, 2019.

The award still exists, but on that day was renamed the “Astounding Award for Best New Writer.” As reported in the New York Times and elsewhere, this shift was driven by renewed attention to Campbell’s well-known, publicly-expressed racism. Jeanette Ng, winner of the 2019 Best New Writer prize, called out Campbell to cheers from the audience:

“John W. Campbell, for whom this award was named, was a fucking fascist. Through his editorial control of Astounding Science Fiction, he is responsible for setting a tone of science fiction that still haunts the genre to this day. Sterile. Male. White. Exalting in the ambitions of imperialists and colonisers, settlers and industrialists. Yes, I am aware there are exceptions.”

As we seek to tell the story of science fiction fandom in the 1930s and 1940s, repugnant attitudes among early fans and professionals are impossible to miss, should not be missed, and should not be dismissed or ignored. By documenting this period in what some might deem a celebratory way, we’re in no sense endorsing these views — nor will we shy away from them.

Through our research, we have an opportunity to share insight into Campbell’s life prior to his work at Astounding. The letter presented here in full was penned by Campbell on May 15 1937, several months before he was hired as an editor. The recipient, Robert D. Swisher, was himself a research chemist and early science fiction fan. Swisher and Campbell corresponded regularly through the 1930s and 40s. It’s presented here by expressed permission from Perry A. Chapdelaine Sr., who acquired the letter from the Campbell estate. The San Diego State University watermark isn’t original to the letter — it’s an artifact of the archive where many of Campbell’s letters are physically stored. We appreciate the assistance of Alec Nevala-Lee and Doug Ellis in sourcing and establishing the provenance of this document.

Notes and my perspective on the content of the letter follows each page. Click the individual pages to view them in full resolution.

The vital role played by Mort Weisinger in launching Capmbell’s career as an editor demonstrates the vivid connection between fandom and the pros. Fanzines such as Weisinger’s Science Fiction Digest and Charles D. Hornig’s The Fantasy Fan served as the Grapefruit League for the draft class of professional editors recruited by the pulps in the mid 1930s. Weisinger’s relationship with Campbell was further brought to life by Julius Schwartz in an interview with John L. Coker III:

Before he became an editor, John W. Campbell used to write science fiction, what is referred to today as hard science fiction, much in the vein of “Doc” Smith stories.  He tried to broaden his market, so he submitted stories to Mort Weisinger, but Mort rejected them.  Finally, Campbell says, “Mort, what is wrong with my stories?  Why aren’t I writing the type of stories you’re looking for?”  Mort says, “You’re writing the type of scientific stories that I don’t want to bore the readers with.  I want you to get to where you’re going, tell an exciting adventure story, and don’t load it down with too much science fact.”  Campbell says, “I’d like to take a chance on it.  Can you give me an idea what style I should use?”  So Mort says, “My favorite writer is Stanley G. Weinbaum.”  They were human interest stories.  They were believable.  Campbell read the stories of Stanley G. Weinbaum, and he submitted a story and Mort bought it.  Campbell was very happy and he started writing a series of stories along the same line. 

The issue came out with the first story in it, and Campbell went up to see Mort.  Campbell says, “Mort, what did you do to the story that appears in the current issue?”  Mort says, “I’m an editor, I get paid to edit, so I edited it.”  Campbell says, “Does that mean you can change the title of a story of a script that I sell you?”  Mort says, “Of course, if I don’t like the title I change it to a title that I like, or something that I think will appeal to my young readers.”  Campbell said, “You mean you can take the title of a story you bought and change the title?”  Mort said, “Yeah, didn’t you look at the back of the check?  It says we can edit and make it suitable for publication.”  Mort said, “I cut out the dull parts and got into the action.”  I don’t remember the title of the story that Campbell had, but Mort changed it to “The Brain Stealers of Mars.”  Any young person must read a story entitled “The Brain Stealers of Mars,” even a few of you adults would want to read a story like that. [Campbell’s original title was ‘Imitation.’ We have to agree that Weisinger’s title is a more likely hook. – dhr]

Campbell said, “I didn’t know you could do that.  Let me ask you a few more questions.  Why did you change so much of my copy?”  Mort says, “John, I told you that I didn’t want to be burdened with your science facts.  Get to Mars, don’t tell me how much oxygen there is or isn’t.  Let’s get to the story and the damsel in distress.  Let everything roll.  Get the action going.  So, I put that stuff in there for you.  I have to do it.  Leo Margulies, the editorial director, looks over all our scripts to make sure we’re earning our money, so there’s plenty of rewriting.” 

Mort asked him if he had any other problems he wanted to hit him with. Campbell said, “I don’t think that it was the world’s greatest illustration.  Those stories had illustrations to excite the reader to read it.”  Campbell asked, “How is the selection made for the artist to draw?”  Mort said, “I give the artist the story to read, pick out an exciting scene.  I will write a description and give it to the artist, and he will draw the story as I instruct him to do.”

Campbell asked Mort, “After you edit the story, and make all the corrections, what do you do with it?”  He said, “Send it to the printer so he can set it up in linotype.  When we get it back we proof-read it for typographical errors.”  Campbell said, “I know your magazine has one hundred sixty pages.  How do you make it come out even?”  Mort said, “That’s the easiest part of all.  All you have to do is put in all of the stories and ads for one hundred fifty two pages, then put in eight pages of letters, and you get one hundred sixty pages.” 

John W. Campbell patted Mort Weisinger on the shoulder and said, “I want to thank you very much for these instructions, and I want you to be the first to know.  I’ve just been made the editor of Astounding Stories and I didn’t know what an editor does.  Thanks to you, I know.” 

I told that story when Fred Pohl was present and he said, “No, that’s not true.  Mort told a lie.  All John W. Campbell did was go to Leo Margulies and Margulies told him exactly what to do.” 

Campbell’s letter appears to support Schwartz’s version of events.

The current intense discussion of Campbell’s definitive influence and his deep personal flaws should continue. We hope this contribution adds to the beautiful bonfire.