Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Robert Heinlein, the Authorized Biography

Robert A. Heinlein: in dialogue with his century: vol 1, 1907-1948: learning curve
William H. Patterson Jr
New York

Any reader of Mr Heinlein’s has been served pieces of the Old Man’s mind already; Mr Patterson’s magisterial work, so far, finally shows us the whole man, the author, his friends and his times and makes the picture whole. I learned a lot.

I was not previously aware that western Missouri had been depopulated by the Union army during the Civil War. The Heinleins were not bred Southerners, but post-war immigrants from far north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Mr Heinlein’s difficult history at Annapolis is fascinating, but only a part of a rather brittle young man’s slow, painful education in human failings. Mr. Patterson’s work here is complete and interesting, and I have only a few quibbles with some of his interpretations. It is also at the Academy that we read Heinlein’s voice for the first time: simple, direct, powerful, missing only the stories.

I was aware the Old Man was on the Left in the Depression, but the depth of his involvement here is nearly alarming. The Old Man seemed to be born sneering at “red Fascists” (Communists, to you) and “black reactionaries,” but was surprisingly devout in his devotion to Edward Bellamy and H. G. Wells‘ Socialist visions of The Good Life.

We learn much about his second wife Leslyn, as large a figure as Lt. Virginia Gerstenfeld, ending volume one by suffering with the Old Man in his painful divorce from the former and then (we know in advance) happy marriage to the latter.

Isaac Asimov dismissed Heinlein’s politics as uxorious, an Upton Sinclair Progressive with Democrat Leslyn, then a stern conservative with Republican Ginny. But the Old Man was always a fervent Jacksonian, disgusted at the thought of wasting American lives in a useless war for the British against Germany, whether in 1916 or 1939, then driving himself sick (Leslyn did the same) serving his country after Pearl Harbor (which battle gains fascinating depth here).

He advocated a world government to manage the post-Hiroshima threats and would always regard atomic weapons with a bitter heart. He was fascinated by general semantics throughout his life. His first, unpublished novel followed social credit theories before he decided that the theory threatened private property and thus individual autonomy, a Heinleinian non-starter. He mined that book for the rest of his life.

Mr Patterson does not bother to “explicate” the Old Man’s crystal-clear short stories and (with few exceptions) novels, he simply details Robert’s life and the people he shared it with. We learn little about “where the stories come from” that we hadn’t already read in Expanded Universe. But just as we hear an utterly familiar voice in Annapolis, so too is Our Hero unmistakably Robert A. Heinlein ab initio. Time may chasten him, people may force him to abandon positions untenable, but the Old Man is One throughout. Mr Patterson could not fake that inimitable voice. I thank him for letting it speak again, and placing again a pearl of great price in its proper setting.

Friday, July 04, 2014

“Visit secluded Shangri-La”

Title: Lost Horizon
Author: James Hilton
Date: 1933
Publisher: Macmillan & Co.
Place: London

I am not surprised to learn that Franklin Roosevelt adored this novel, naming both an aircraft carrier and his weekend getaway digs Shangri-La, and less so that his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, immediately changed the latter’s name to Camp David. (CV-38 vanished even sooner.)

Another found manuscript adventure story with a taste of meditative Utopia and post-Great War ennui, Lost Horizon became a success only after Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips did. Both are specimens of the novel of sentiment, which may be called the romance novel only without the latter’s nominal goals. Not for nothing was Frank Capra chosen to film it.

Hilton’s small novel (61,000 words) charms us still, nailed to its perch and period by its opening line:
Cigars had burned low, and we were beginning to sample the disillusionment that usually afflicts old school friends who have met again as men and found themselves with less in common than they had believed they had.

This disappointed presence is dated and constant, but minimal.

The ending is a bit muddled. One imagines that Hilton did not want to write the murder of an escapee, and, of course, given the format, he needed someone to escape with the tale. He doesn’t quite pull it off, but it hardly mars the book as a whole.

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