For all that Herb Philbrick led three lives, the indefatigable Horace Chandler Davis puts him to shame, leading at least seven. He is Chan Davis, the writer of a dozen science fiction stories that probe deeply into social and ethical issues; he is the renowned mathematician Chandler Davis, longtime editor of The Mathematical Intelligencer and innovator in the theory of operators and matrices; he is an anti-war activist, having coordinated international protests against the war in Vietnam and been a director of Science for Peace; he is a composer, having cowritten the music for Theodore Sturgeon's song "Thunder and Roses" as well as more recent works; he is a member of the mighty intellectual family that includes his wife, the historian Natalie Zemon Davis, and his daughter, the literary and cultural critic Simone Weil Davis; he is the author of several acclaimed poems; and he is a lifelong civil libertarian who has organized for freedom of expression in Eastern Europe as well as North America.
In 1953, Chandler Davis was served with a subpoena as a result of his having paid for the printing of a pamphlet critical of HUAC. His subsequent ordeal included the loss of his job at the University of Michigan and a six-month imprisonment in 1960 for contempt of Congress. Blacklisted from full-time academic jobs in the US, he ultimately found employment at the University of Toronto in 1962, where he continues to work as Emeritus Professor of Mathematics. He and his wife have each written articles and given lectures recounting his case in the context of the Red Scare years.
At seventy-five, Chandler Davis is handsome and vigorous, remarkably well-informed on current affairs and eager to think about the past in new ways, and sufficiently generous with his time to have given an extended interview to Paradoxa:
Chandler Davis: In the 1950s I was already on my way out of the science fiction field. But I was extremely involved in the science fiction world from 1943 to 1948. That's a relatively short time. So that my effect on it and its effect on me was really prior to the great days of Galaxy and the other things that will be the center of your discussion.
Josh Lukin: Nevertheless, an interview documenting some facts and addressing some issues in your life and writing will he of real value. You are a New Englander originally?
CD: Well, on my father's side, yes. But that's not the reason I grew up partly in New England. I grew up here and there, because my father [Horace B. Davis] was trying to make a career as a professor and to make the revolution at the same time; so he was frequently fired. And we moved to the next job. And it just happened that I spent a lot of time in New England. I lived several years in Bradford, Massachusetts, and several years in Newton, Massachusetts, and by that time I was almost ready to go to college, so I went to Harvard. So you see that it's New England-centered. And the reason I don't have a New England accent is that I learned my English from my mother. She had a Midwestern accent, which I picked up.
I was an undergraduate at Harvard beginning in 1942, when the US was already at war. I supported the war: I volunteered enthusiastically to fight Hitler and was assigned to the US Naval V-12 program, which meant that I stayed at Harvard, but in uniform and under orders. Which meant that I was both able to advance toward officer status and finish my degree. Went to a crash course, US Reserve Naval Midshipmen's School, and got my commission in 1945. And I was on active duty for a year and then was demobilized. So I never went overseas, but I was on a Naval base for a while.
JL: Andrew Ross has written of
... the flourishing of a political community and a subculture which, in the Thirties and Forties, had transformed so many thousands of its members' lives and which, in the Popular Front period, had tried to establish deep roots in American political institutions, cultural traditions, and popular structures of feeling.What influence did the Left culture of the Thirties have on your life? Was it a big part of your upbringing?
CD: Yes. For a brief period, we lived in New York, and then we were surrounded by overt things, and then for the rest of my childhood, there was a sort of dichotomy. There was the culture that I got through the Movement connections of my parents, and there was the popular culture that I shared with my schoolmates. And there wasn't a real good union of the two, except in exceptional situations. I was reading the Popular Front literature — some of it — and the Popular Front literature did get into the general culture too, you know. John Steinbeck, and so forth, which not only Movement people read. The Left-wing literature of the Thirties. But for example, my parents subscribed to the New Masses. This was part of my childhood.
JL: What did the popular culture of Thirties youth consist of?
CD: Well, the Hit Parade. The Hit Parade is a good example because to me there was a strong overlap between my political interest in recognizing the cultural contribution of black people and the popular culture of the swing craze beginning in 1936. So I completely espoused that, including more of an interest in black musicians and more of an interest in small-group Dixieland, as compared with most of my schoolmates. But they acknowledged the legitimacy of the Dixieland stuff, so that was an area where there was not a disjuncture. I could bridge the gap: it was both popular culture and Popular Front culture. I didn't mention to any of my neighbors that I read the Daily Worker. There was a division there.
I was a great admirer of Paul Robeson, but that wasn't a big thing. But listening to Dixieland music when I could get an occasional good program on the radio was important to me. That was an integral thing.
JL: When did you encounter science fiction?
CD: I was interested in the occasional science fiction before 1939. But in 1939, I became an avid reader of Astounding Science Fiction, and got to the point of branching out into other magazines. I had read the occasional science fiction novel before then. But mostly it was starting at the very end of 1939: reading regularly, writing letters to the editor, and attending a science fiction fan club in the Boston area. L. Russell Chauvenet, Bob Swisher, Norman Stanley — who lived in Maine but occasionally came down — Art Widner, who was a major force in science fiction fandom some time after that too; Tim Orrok, who was a fringe member but genuinely interested, and there were others. Some people, like Widner, got involved in national fan things. And I did too, to some extent. So I was a serious fan before I started submitting stories.
JL: One fan historian has characterized you as a member of fandom's Brain Trust.
CD: Really? I hadn't heard the term. In fandom, the people who would have serious discussions of intellectual issues were Rothman, Stanley, Jack Speer: I was definitely in that group. When I submitted my first story to Astounding Science Fiction, Campbell already knew my name.
JL: You'd been in the letter column.
CD: Not only for that reason, but he had met me through Swisher. I think that was true of many people who started writing science fiction for magazines quite young, that they were known through fan connections.
JL: There must have been a sufficiently small community compared to today's ...
CD: That's right. I don't remember what the source of Campbell's personal friendship with Swisher was, but I think it was collecting. Swisher was a great collector, and Campbell appreciated that; and I think Swisher was in touch with him mostly in that connection.
JL: In your early years as a fan, did you have some contact with New York-centered fan culture, the Futurians and so forth?
CD: Yeah. Of course, now I think of some of these as old, close friends; but at the time, my connection with them was through things like fan magazines and correspondence. By 1942, I was a regular correspondent of Milton Rothman and several others. Miltie wasn't from New York I guess. But from the Futurian group, Fred Pohl became a friend quite early. I was never a personal friend of Moskowitz. But then when I did spend a little more time in New York, I met Judy Merril and Ted Sturgeon and Phil Klass. But by that time the Futurians as such were a thing of the past. They were something that I had read about in fan magazines and realized that some people had shared a savvy that I was an outsider to. And their political relations had changed.
At the time that I was close to this group, it was a very exciting intellectual context because of the good communication, the disputation between people whose backgrounds were not necessarily the same and whose opinions about things were not necessarily the same. Judy Merril was in background a Trotskyist, with other interests that took her already outside of that context. Jim Blish was a socialist-pacifist. And those who had been in the CP were not anymore. I was.
People were friends of Dwight Macdonald: I met Dwight Macdonald and Nancy in that social milieu. They of course had several different positions but were very close to some of the pacifists. Phil Klass of course was Hashomer Hatzair,1 whose camps he had attended fully expecting to "make aliyah" and join a socialist kibbutz in Palestine. But he was close to the CP, too. By the time I met him he was still Left but not so Zionist. He was active in what I would consider Popular Front activities.
This was the time when I was entering Harvard, and in my undergraduate career it was the same experience: I met Trotskyists and other varieties of Left intellectuals and found that I was very welcoming to their ideas and very interested in talking with them but at the same time very conscious of the fact that some of my political associates would regard that as quite negative.
JL: You weren't going to approach these conversations as an ideologue.
CD: That's right. If I submitted my ideas to discussion by this mixed bag of Left intellectuals, I didn't consider that I was converting the heathen. I considered that I was talking about ideas.
So that was a very important period in my life. It took me from 1939 to 1942 to get into this social group, and after that, from 1942 to 1948 was the time that I was a full member of this group. Of the New York Science Fiction Left Intellectual group.
Some people whom I didn't know that well were still important to me, like Cyril Kornbluth, whom I hardly knew. But I admired his writing, and his opinion was important to me.
JL: Many professors cite Dwight Macdonald to justify their contempt for popular culture. What was his attitude toward all this science fiction going on?
CD: That would have been a good question to ask him, but we didn't. And Jim Blish and Virginia Kidd and I, for instance, did take serious culture seriously, too. It's a good question: what was our relationship to popular culture as such? Now this was the time of formulation of Sturgeon's Law, you'll remember. Sturgeon was challenged, not by Dwight Macdonald but by Respectable Suburbanites: "Do you really read that stuff? Isn't most of it crap?" And he said, "Ninety percent of everything is crap," and that's the context in which Sturgeon's Law was created.
JL: Sturgeon took science fiction with a remarkable degree of literary seriousness.
CD: Sturgeon and Bradbury were people who really tried to watch their prose. Sturgeon also took John Campbell-type science fiction as a vision of the future quite seriously. Maybe he was ashamed of it later — although I never knew Sturgeon to say that he was ashamed of anything he'd done — but he might have been embarrassed after the fact: he wrote a little piece which appeared in Astounding soon after [August 1945], exulting at the vindication of science fiction which the construction of a nuclear bomb represented. Well. I considered that somewhat wrong. Campbell obviously didn't. Campbell published it as if he were endorsing it.
Worries about nuclear weapons appeared before, in "Solution Unsatisfactory" by Heinlein, under the name of Anson Macdonald. And after Hiroshima, first in a story by Sturgeon —
CD: Yeah. And then a story by me, and then a couple more. So that simply regarding this as a great triumph of science fiction over the unimaginative was a short-lived thing. But it was a reaction that Sturgeon had. And which I had, too, for a couple of days. I became a strong anti-nuclear peacenik on reflection. But my first response was, "Heyyy, we did it!"
The other thing that's wrong with it is that John Campbell didn't make the bomb. And Robert Heinlein didn't make the bomb. So there's a little bit of a misattribution there.
JL: There have been in more recent years people who have claimed to have drawn their inspiration for weapons work and military campaigns from science fiction.
CD: H. Bruce Franklin has written of that in a couple of books.
JL: Did he write in War Stars of people who derived their military technophilia from science fiction?
CD: Great book. I don't know for sure, but I think it quite likely that it's true and that he said it.
I, in retrospect, am sorry that I didn't declare myself a conscientious objector. Not at the beginning of the war, because if you are ever going to use military force for anything, that was a situation in which I would happily do it: I was wholehearted about that. But once I knew about the destruction of Dresden and the other massacres of civilian populations by the allies, I think the ethical thing to do would have been to declare myself a conscientious objector. Which Robert Lowell did, and a few other people did. But it didn't occur to me at the time, even though I had some Quaker ancestors. Knew a few conscientious objectors. And after the war, met some people in the science fiction community who had as socialist-pacifists spent years in prison. So at that point, realizing that I recognized and that I respected their decision, I had the possibility to re-examine my own.
JL: In May 1946, you broke in. You had the cover story in the same issue of Astounding in which Phil Klass made his debut.
CD: Of course I didn't know I was going to make the cover. At the time, I was a committed fan; I was in the Navy; I had written and submitted a couple of more or less juvenile stories, which Campbell had rejected with very kind letters. Personal letters. I was working on an article about the work I was doing for the Navy, but, not surprisingly, this was not approved for release by the Navy. This was Naval mine countermeasures. It's interesting stuff, and it's not classified anymore; but it's not surprising that the Navy routinely forbade me to submit that.
But then I sent ["The Nightmare"] in, and Campbell was enthusiastic. I don't like the story very much any more. But the things which Campbell liked in it were mostly things that were genuine virtues, I guess. I think that Campbell accepted as legitimate and dramatic the magnitude of the danger of nuclear war. And he accepted the genuineness of the threat of nuclear terrorism.
The reception of the story was very good, and I was very pleased with the cover. I'd tried to write a story on the citizen's responsibility to curb our own government, that it wasn't very good dramatically and didn't make very much splash, but Campbell happily accepted it. Campbell accepted all my stories for the next year or two, I think.
JL: Isaac Asimov talks about when he first joined the Futurians and then went to Campbell and naively began regaling Campbell with all these wonderful Marxian ideas that he'd gotten from them, which Campbell obviously was not amenable to. Did you encounter political friction in your first dealings with Campbell?
CD: No. No. Later. At the early time, the astonishing thing — and I've discussed this with Bruce Franklin and of course with my old friends — was that socialist ideas appeared in Astounding Science Fiction, the author being not Asimov or Pohl or myself but Robert Heinlein. Of course Heinlein, having a rather elitist mindset which came out in other things he wrote, wrote about socialism with somewhat of an authoritarian side to it. But stories which I think of especially are "Coventry" and "If This Goes On —," which are essentially militant socialist.
JL: "If This Goes On —" certainly posits a small elite...
CD: Yeah. And Sixth Column is, like "If This Goes On — ," about the good of the people being in the hands of a secretive elite. So that if he'd been there in 1917, he would certainly not have supported Kerensky; he would have been a Bolshevik. Now, I didn't know Heinlein personally; but he was very important to me, an important source of ideas, and I thought about what he wrote (I hope I was supposed to. He wrote very fast, but I think that he considered himself at that time at least a writer of ideas, as I did). Heinlein was raising things that we Reds didn't raise, even though they were more our natural topic. He really brought ideas out. Of course, he also brought out ideas of eugenics and things which I had a different attitude toward.
JL: It became evident in the late Forties that he'd become a Rightist.
CD: Yes, quite militarist. And this ties in somewhat with the earlier Heinlein in "If This Goes On —." But he's hard-boiled. He's always hard-boiled even in the earlier things; so the sentimental, quietist things that you can find in Sturgeon or even Bradbury you don't find in Heinlein.
I think to a certain extent it was compartmentalization, that there were some things that we might talk about with our fellow Marxists that we weren't able to trot out for the general public. I can't read my own mind; it's too long ago. But if we get to 1946 and we talk about 'The Nightmare" and "Memorial" and these other stories, at that time my main political concern was international control of atomic energy. And support for the UN. And these were Left-wing causes which Campbell supported. Or at least was not opposed to. Campbell was quite pro-UN! And not until the following year would I feel that I was at odds with any part of the core science fiction establishment.
And of course, the international control of atomic energy was spiked from both sides, and ceased to be an issue. In 1948 I was enthusiastically propagating the Stockholm Peace Pledge — No First Use. The US was against it and the Soviet Union was for it. Therefore it was a Communist petition. Well, sure it was a Communist petition. I was a member of the Communist Party again at that time. And so there was at that point no conflict in my political thinking. The Party position and my position, with its science fiction and pacifist inputs, were not in any conflict at this point, in supporting the Stockholm Peace Pledge. I wouldn't have considered asking Campbell to sign it. But only one year earlier, I would have assumed that Campbell was in support of the Baruch plan for international control of atomic energy.
JL: Phil Klass has written that Sturgeon served as a mediator between him and Campbell, between a number of people and Campbell. Did you have such a relationship with Sturgeon?
CD: No, I didn't need it. I already had Campbell's ear via Swisher.
One of the things involved there was Campbell's antisemitism. Some people, like Isaac Asimov, just ignored it and got along okay. Sturgeon advised Judy Zissman to be Judy Somethingelse when she submitted to Campbell, and she did. And he advised Phil Klass to be something else when he submitted to Campbell, and he did.
JL: But when Campbell met Klass, he told Klass that he believed Jews were the Superior Race.
CD: Campbell was nervous about Jews, and Sturgeon just felt, rightly or wrongly, Don't Raise The Issue. I think that Campbell, by the time he met Judy and Phil, knew that they were Jewish. But Sturgeon might have been right, that it was simplifying life for them.
JL: It was clear that Campbell had problems about race from his dealings with Chip Delany in the Sixties — his refusal to publish a novel with a black spaceship captain.
CD: Yeah, Campbell was a racist. His thoughts were confused on that. I talked to him a great deal over the years 1941 to 1948. He was quite a believer in genetic determinism, much more than I ever was. I was more interested in eugenic ideas then than I was later, but Campbell still more so; and he was more than open to the idea that the whites and maybe especially the Jews were somewhat superior to the Yellow Races and much superior to the Africans. And in Beyond This Horizon, I think it is, the superindividuals of the future have names, some of which sound Jewish. So it's clear that Heinlein is suggesting — and Campbell, I'm sure endorsed it — that if we just have the cream of the cream, some of them will be Jews. And he can feel that, and be anxious about the quality of Jewish intellect. And that's the way he was. And this led to the end of my friendship with Campbell.
It was autumn 1949. We were in the habit of corresponding freely with each other, and he said some stuff that I didn't like; and I said to him, "Now listen here," and "Don't you see that there's a problem here," and he wrote back and said something which still sounded nasty to me. Now he didn't know at that time that my wife was Jewish; he knew that a lot of my friends were; but he was writing to me in a way that he wouldn't have to somebody he knew to be Jewish.
And it was too creepy.
So I wrote him more sternly than I ought to have, I guess. He accepted a couple of stories after that. But we never exchanged a friendly letter after that.
This was the same year that I wrote an article which appeared in the Vanguard Amateur Press Association, which included a lot of the Futurian gang — Damon Knight, Jim Blish, Virginia, Doc Lowndes, and so forth — in which I said, speaking as one science fiction author to others — because I think that a lot of the fans in this organization were also professionals, people who weren't necessarily prolific authors but were professionally in the field — and I said, It's not satisfactory for all the characters in stories obviously to be white and to have Anglo-Saxon names.
JL: You made that evident in the protagonist of your very first story: Ciccone is not an Anglo-Saxon name. Neither are the characters in "Blind Play" or "Share Our World."
CD: Yes, I was doing that systematically. And later on, Hollywood began doing it systematically, too. But at the time I wrote this article, in 1949, it was still common for authors, even if they were German-Jewish refugees like Eando Binder, to let their heroes be white and have English names. And I said, "The future's not going to be like that." And, "Even the present isn't like that." Mix 'em up. This was the main message, but I said some other things, which were potentially more controversial. I also acknowledged problems with the treatment of women in science fiction stories, but suggested that perhaps science fiction was somewhat ahead of the other pulp genres in its women characters. But I said look, you may have a character named Selmer Hirshman in present fiction, and that's fine; but in the future things were going to be more mixed up, and you might maybe have Christine Hirshman in the future.
JL: Hymie Kelly.2
CD: Yeah. And furthermore, if you have a character who is Italian or Jewish, don't have them speak with exactly the stereotyped accent that they're supposed to have if they have that name. And I said, even a sympathetic story like "Trouble with Water" by H.L. Gold bothers me, because the characters are presented in the form of butts of racist gibes.
JL: Music-hall caricatures.
CD: Yes. Of course, Horace didn't agree with that. And Isaac Asimov didn't agree, and he pointed out that he'd made his character in Second Foundation escape suspicion as the mastermind by having him speak in dialect. And of course, I had noticed that he had given him a particular idiolect, but he said, "I just had him speak like my father." That was cute. But it's not really germane. He was just thinking about a conversation around the dinner table when he was growing up, and he thought that he'd give Preem Palver a Brooklyn Yiddish accent without labeling it as such. It's an interesting anecdote.
The piece got a certain amount of disagreement, a certain amount of discussion, and obviously interested people. I wasn't the only one who was calling for this at that time, but I was ahead of my time.
Unfortunately, the example that I chose for a hard example to tie the thing together — maybe I should have had five instead of just one — but I had one, which was by L. Ron Hubbard. Of course, L. Ron Hubbard, who was not known to me personally, but was known to a lot of my friends personally, wouldn't stand for that; and so he struck back.
JL: He put you into a story.
CD: Yeah. But he didn't really put me in a story: he had the story all finished, and the Bad Guy was supposed to be Swedish. And he changed his name to Chan Davies and made him a Communist. And this was transparently tacked onto the story afterward, because there was nothing about Communism in the story. Just a way of sneaking in a little slander. It happened that I was in the Party at that time. I think I was in the Party from very late 1943 to the time I went into the Navy, December 1944; and I think I was in the Party again from Spring 1947 to summer 1953. So that's not very long — seven years. But it didn't make any difference that I was in the Party, because he didn't know I was; and it was something that could damage you, to be called a Communist. And in principle, it was something you could collect damages for. Obviously, I wasn't going to go to court. So:
My agent at that time was Fred Pohl. And Fred Pohl wrote to the editor of the journal, which was Fantastic Adventures, and said, "Look, it's no big deal, but this is, um, unethical; and wouldn't it be appropriate for you and the author to, um, enclose a note in an early issue of Fantastic Adventures, saying that you regret the, blah blah, and the similarity of the name, blah blah blah"?
So the editor wrote back and said, "Oh, come on: you can have as nasty a character as you want in a story named Ramón Chandler, and Raymond Chandler is not going to complain." Of course, he thought of Raymond Chandler because of the similarity in our names; but his point was simply that he didn't have to publish an apology and he wasn't going to. And that was the end of that. It might have been Howard Browne; I can't remember [Howard Browne is said to have had the most fiercely anticommunist of editorial policies and to have often had Raymond Chandler on his mind — JL].
Once again, the politics of this kind of antiracism are quite accommodating. This was a reasonable thing that I was advocating. It was not a very militant thing. But it was completely wholehearted. In other words, a complete consonance between the militant side of my political thinking and the reformist, accommodating side.
JL: At the time you wrote "The Nightmare," did you feel with respect to nuclear proliferation that, as the story says, "the truck was big and it was going too fast," or did you feel that was merely a potential for the near future?
CD: Oh, no. I was scared. And I remarked in 1986 that, looking back forty years, if you had told me that we would escape a world war, I would have believed you, and I would have said, "Oh good." But if you had told me that we would arm to the teeth, and have forty years of violent hostility, and still not have a nuclear war, I would have said, "Ridiculous." I thought it was nuclear disarmament or die, in 1946.
JL: You wrote that in your essay, "The Purge. "
CD: That's right.
JL: Your second story in Astounding followed hard upon: "To Still the Drums" in October '46. It alludes to an author named E. Phillips Oppenheim. What was he known for?
CD: The Great Impersonation. Great book. I recommend it. It's a thriller, but it's a good one.
JL: The story includes the line, "no nation puts weapons like these into production unless it expects to use them. Offensively," which ties in to the observation you just made, that you were so astonished that the US hadn't.
CD: Yeah. And it still is ridiculous to have these weapons if you're not going to use them offensively. And the contradiction is a hundred million dollar scam.
JL: There's a good deal more money involved than that.
CD: Yeah. And it's preposterous. And very dangerous.
JL: The story's "radar-rocket-atomic bombs" were a good approximation of what we ended up making.
JL: "The Journey and the Goal," Astounding May, 1947, is a story containing a secret political organization with a cell-system that keeps its members only partially informed. There's something of an atmosphere of paranoia and pursuit, as in "To Still the Drums."
CD: That's right. I don't think it's a good story. It's not a good story dramatically, and it's not well-written. And even if the framework of the story had been good, in order to write it properly from a literary point of view, it would have to have been three times as long.
JL: It ends kind of abruptly.
CD: Yeah. I regard that as a flop.
JL: But there are some attempts at irony which you would develop in later years to good effect. And there's also the line which the protagonist delivers toward the end: "No resentment at all." That's a statement of an ethical strand that runs through a lot of your writing.
CD: You mean non-grudge-holding.
JL: Yes. Opposition to ressentiment. The idea that, yes, we have these goals, we want to see them achieved, but they do not depend upon our humiliating our opponents or perpetuating our enmity. In your September, 1999, letter concerning the case of Dr. Chun, you said in effect, "We want restitution for Dr. Chun — we don't particularly need an admission of racism on the part of the university or an admission that they promoted scholars less qualified than he."
CD: Yeah, that's correct. That's a correct association. You're right.
And I was right in "The Journey and the Goal" that living a long time at reduced gravity makes you weak. Otherwise I don't think that was a very exciting story.
JL: Then you came out with a story that turned out to be very popular, "Letter to Ellen." Why was it a big hit?
CD: Well, it's a good story. Campbell liked the story very much, and he proposed a switcheroo, in which the lady is also a constructed genome. I said, "NOOOO!! You miss the point!"
JL: He wanted a Fredric Brown ending. Were human beings in fact thought at the time to have forty-eight chromosomes, as it says in the story?
JL: Were discussions of bioethics and biotechnology rare in science fiction at that time?
CD: Yes. But as I say, there was more interest in eugenics among the science fiction people than among the general population. And Bruce Franklin, again, has tracked that more than I have. But it's definitely so; there was interest.
JL: That comes out dramatically and pervasively in "The Aristocrat" (October 1949), which also takes a dig at the Heinlein small-elite story.
CD: That's right. It's an anti-elitist story. I don't think it's terribly well-realized. I don't know why I never wrote on a large scale. "The Aristocrat" is called a novelette, but it's pretty short, considering the kind of canvas it pretends to work on. I think that my better stories are all stories which were naturally short. I don't know why this is, but I never felt comfortable expanding. Although I started novels a few times.
JL: You and Borges, right?
CD: Yes, well, but Borges knows what he's doing.
JL: Then you broke out of the Campbell field with "Blind Play" (Planet Stories, May, '51).
CD: I suppose Campbell must have rejected it. At this time, Pohl was already my agent, and he just sent 'em around anyplace. Maybe Jerome Bixby was the editor who bought that.
JL: Your determined avoidance of Anglo-Saxon names even extends to the ship, Tang Chiu-Chih.
CD: Yes, I do that a lot. Did anyone tell you the story of A. Bertram Chandler? Chandler resolved sometime in the Forties that he was going to get a hammer-and-sickle onto the cover of Astounding Science Fiction. And he did. He had a story in which the ship of the future was a Soviet ship and had a hammer-and-sickle on it. I don't know if he had to whisper in the ear of the cover artist in order to do it, but he slipped that past John. But that was just playing games. This was not. And one of the characters was mixed, was said to be part Malgache and part Brazilian. That was a routine thing.
And of course, the point of "The Individualist" [the story's original title — JL] was ideologically committed and slightly wrong. It's not true that arrogant individualist types don't remember about social networks; they do. They take advantage of them. So in some sense the plot is nonsense.
JL: But among the people who preach Libertarian doctrine...
CD: Yes, some of them do forget about social arrangements.
JL: "It had never occurred to him that even when he was alone, as thoroughly alone as anyone can ever be, his life could depend on dozens of other people." Over the past ten or more years, that's become quite a popular religion in the US.
CD: You mean, intentionally and systematically ignoring your interconnectedness. Yeah, that was the point of the story; and I didn't think that was terribly successful either.
And then I had "The Statistomat Pitch," which I did like. And that attracted no attention. I gave it to a few friends, just to make sure somebody read it.
JL: The line in "Blind Play": "There were no homestead farms to be settled by lonely pioneer families." Is that a jab at the Heinlein ethos, with its pioneers and freeholders?
CD: Well, it's a reminder that you have to reject a certain image, yeah. I don't know that it's especially Heinlein. Somebody I like very much, in some ways even better than Heinlein, is Robinson Jeffers. And he has this ideal, very strongly, of living alone. So I can appreciate it and respond to it, and at the same time answer it.
JL: 1953 was when your troubles were starting, and your father's as well.
CD: That's right. My father's testimony was in 1953. My subpoena was in 1953, and I had a lot of postponements. So I didn't testify until 1954. Ellen Schrecker chose to spend a lot of time discussing my case in No Ivory Tower, and she mentions my father at less length. And I think we're also both in David Caute's The Great Fear. But he gets so many things wrong: Ellen is much more reliable.
JL: Most of these books discuss you and your fate at greater length. What happened to your father after Kansas City?
CD: That's interesting. There's no reason it shouldn't be remembered. He was fired, and Ralph Spitzer was fired. Spitzer was young and a famous scientist, so he just went off to Canada. And my father didn't know what to do for a job. He did odd jobs for a while, and then he tried something which I did not try when I was blacklisted; I don't know whether it would have worked for me. He went to primarily black institutions in the South.
JL: Well, Lee Lorch tried that.
CD: Yeah, Lee Lorch had a very successful though brief career in black institutions. My father did pretty well also. He taught in Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina. And he was redhunted out of there by this Senator or somebody who thought he would make political capital, and he went to Shaw, in Raleigh, North Carolina. That's where he was living when my mother died. And after that, already past retirement age, he became the Dean of Social Sciences at the University of Guyana, in Georgetown, Guyana. And he stayed there as long as the Left-wing government stayed in power. And then when the CIA-supported regime took over, they turned out most of the higher appointees; the university was not destroyed, but it was seriously crippled. After that, he still taught for several more years on a contract basis, one year at a time. Mostly at Hofstra.
He was really a labor historian; but due to the historical accident that, when he got his degree in the 1930s, there was no such field as labor history, he was called an economist. And some of his writings are what we would still call economics today. But it was more labor history.
And at the end of his life, he wrote about the Marxist tradition. He has three good books, which not too many people read: two of his own about the history of Marxism and nationalism, and one that he edited and wrote an introduction to, of essays by Rosa Luxemburg on nationalism, which had not previously existed in English, and which had not been much read because the original language was Polish. That was in the latter part of his career, post-retirement; like me, he was not washed up at sixty-five.
JL: "Share Our World" was your last appearance in Astounding. A multi-ethnic spaceship crew with a large number of principals in the cast, not just a small group of Leaders. In which the scientists record their observations in a medium that would be a hypertext today.
CD: That's right, and little did I know what a headache jpg's and .pdf's and the like would be!
JL: How did it get past Campbell, with its alien species being a good deal quicker on the uptake than the human beings?
CD: He didn't have a thing against that. "The Touch of Your Hand," by Theodore Sturgeon, has mystical aliens who just happen to be able to neutralize anything you throw at them. In that case, they're sympathetic. But there are also stories by Kuttner and others where aliens are superior. "Creation Took Eight Days," by Cleve Cartmill.
JL: But Asimov and Klass, among others, write of Campbell having given them trouble over stories with superior aliens.
CD: That's interesting. But contradictions are what life is made out of. As in the case of Campbell's attitude toward Jews, there's something contradictory there. The end of the road in the case of my contact with him was that the antisemitism prevailed. But I think there was a logical contradiction which was never resolved in his thinking.
JL: Perhaps several.
JL: Then you became a satirist. No doubt as a consequence of what you were going through in life.
CD: No. "The Statistomat Pitch" was written earlier.
JL: But it only appeared in 1958.
CD: That's important. Pohl was having a terrible time selling my stories. Some of them he didn't like, and I guess he didn't try; he just sent them back and said, "No, this isn't good enough." But some of 'em he really liked, and he had a hell of a time marketing 'em. And I think I accused Horace Gold — which is awfully impolitic if I did — of being afraid to accept stories from me. But privately, Fred certainly said that people were afraid to accept stories from me. I don't know whether that began before my case became public in 1954 or not, but "The Statistomat Pitch" was written before 1954. And it's important that it was, because what it's satirizing is something with which I was much more familiar after 1954.
After I was fired in July, 1954, I thought, "Well, I don't know what I'll do for a living now, it'd be pretty hard to get a professorship without leaving the country, and I don't want to leave the country. I have a court case which will take a year or so to get rid of (ha!), and so for now I don't want to leave the country." Of course, I didn't know it was gonna take all those years. But I can always write science fiction. And I sat down, and quickly wrote — I forget in which order — what became "Adrift on the Policy Level" and "The Star System." And they didn't sell. And you left out "Last Year's Grave Undug." It was written earlier; it was essentially completed before my father's case, and definitely completed before March 1953.
JL: There are ways in which that was eerily prophetic too.
CD: Y'uh-huh. But that was of its time. See, that was my attitude then. Not necessarily later. So I was very sorry that it didn't appear until later. But it was on the market before my case was public, for sure. "The Statistomat Pitch" I think may have been as well. But Fred, privately, was saying even before my case was public that people were afraid to touch me, and I think it was true.
"The Statistomat Pitch" went to Infinity. Larry Shaw, I think. And that was, of course, you'd think no problem. It was taking a satirical knock at something which a lot of us felt positive about, but which had its downside; and I think it was a very legitimate story. But not terribly read. And I should think that not only Larry Shaw but Doc Lowndes and Jerry Bixby and a lot of other editors at the time would have liked it. And I think it's strange that it was hard to sell, but it was.
And the way in which it was anachronistic is this: after I was blacklisted in 1954, I looked around for jobs. And one of the things that I advertised myself as, was someone who sort of knew something about and could find out more about and could become expert at mathematical models in the social sciences. So I was dealing with people who were making pitches like this. I'd had some contact with the field, but I hadn't had any contact with the hucksterism of the field at the time that I wrote the story. So that's the anachronism I'm talking about.
So then I sat down and wrote these two good stories, which I think are among my best. One about salesmanship predominating over the technical feasibility of a project ["Adrift on the Policy Level"], and one about gender roles ["The Star System"]. And Fred tried and tried to get somebody to take them. And finally he put them in his own magazine, when he briefly had one, Star. And that spun off into a series of anthologies, and those didn't get many readers. But in the case of "Adrift on the Policy Level," it was picked up by anthologists right and left. And the other one was not.
I wrote each one in a week. With all the faults that they have, they're good stories. I could have sat down and written another one as good the next week. And I didn't know yet that the stories wouldn't sell. But I decided that I was not going to be a science fiction writer at that point. Because I decided, "Even if I can continue to do this, week after week, that's not what I want to do." And it was a turning point, because I might have decided, "Yeah! This is what I want to do! This is working nicely!" Cause it was working nicely! And Poul Anderson did. He kept on writing up a storm, year after year. And ... I didn't.
Maybe Fred can explain that, but I can't explain it.
And I told Fred at the time, I said, "Look, I can see that being a professional science fiction writer is very nice, and it's something that I could do; but I'm not gonna do it."
I want to tell you about the most significant interaction between me and Fred Pohl in our life, for which he's never apologized. Without telling me, he rewrote both stories. "Adrift on the Policy Level" he rewrote in trivial ways. He gave it the title "Adrift on the Policy Level," which was better than the title I gave it. And he introduced a couple of good lines, and he introduced one stupid line, which I succeeded in getting anthologists to take out again. And I left in Fred's other improvements. So on that, he has nothing to apologize to me for except not telling me.
JL: That's the Horace Gold method of editing. Gold made drastic changes in stories without telling the authors. I think Phil Dick, among others, stopped writing for him on account of that.
CD: That's interesting. Because he certainly published some beautiful stories, and maybe some of their virtue was owing to him. But in the case of this rewrite by Fred, the one thing he put in that was utterly wrong was wrong in the same way that the proposed snappy ending for "Letter to Ellen" was wrong. That is, it was a little gag that was out of character. So I took that out, and it's essentially a better story than the one I wrote.
Then the other one, the sex-roles one, Fred loused it up royally. And I told him so. And he, as I say, never apologized. He may have felt it was weak in some ways; maybe it was weak in some ways; but he loused it up.
In 1959, ludy Merril was compiling the best science fiction of 1957 and let me know that she was giving an Honorable Mention to "It Walks in Beauty." And I said, "You know, it was better before Fred rewrote it." And she said, "Oh, good: well, let me see the original version." So I gave it to her. And she read it, and she said, "You're right. It was better before he rewrote it." But that doesn't appear in the anthology: she still left it as Honorable Mention. And she doesn't mention that if you want to see it right, you can get it from the author.
So I was sorry she didn't include it in the Best of 1958, because it would've got some readers. And as it is, it got essentially none. A couple of times I got it on the reading list of Peter Fitting's science fiction course here at the University of Toronto. The first time, we had a little discussion of it in class; the second time, they didn't pick up on it particularly. So I still feel that it hasn't got read.
JL: They 're both powerful pieces. "It Walks in Beauty," as it appeared in Star Science Fiction, still packs quite a wallop. Along with "Adrift on the Policy Level," it has a very substantial sociological side to it.
CD: That's right. It's a serious story. It's done tongue-in-cheek, but that doesn't mean I'm kidding. Among other things, I think it's one of the first appearances in print of the emotional problem of homophobia. Because, although there are no homosexuals in the story, the principal character's rejection of his own sincere feeling for somebody who he now learns is not supposed to be acceptable as a love-object...
JL: Yes! That's the affect there. That is what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick would call homosexual panic.
CD: That's right. That's right. I think that's the first appearance, at least in a prominent way, of that emotional problem.
JL: We-e-ll, Sturgeon comes close, in his two gay stories...
CD: That's right, that's right! Sturgeon was very interested in that. Did "The World Well Lost"...
JL: 1953. And according to Frank Robinson, Howard Browne was so appalled by that story that he called all the other editors and asked that Sturgeon be blacklisted from the magazines. Which is what Howard Browne was like at the time. His third detective novel seethes with homophobia, which he apologized for in a preface to it forty years later.
CD: Oh really? That's interesting. "The World Well Lost" is in some ways a beautiful story. And it's a beautiful title, which doesn't go with the story. That's sort of too bad. He should have saved that title for another story. It was his own title. I read it in typescript. I should have told him.
There were stories about sexual tolerance in this period. There was "Venus and the Seven Sexes," much earlier. No homosexuality, but it was inviting exploration of sex images, in a very tongue-in-cheek way, that was not threatening.
And there were several other things about sexual danger in the Fifties. I would say that in the same category, in a way, was "No Woman Born" by C.L. Moore. There was one earlier one that wasn't so good, [Lester del Rey's] "Helen O'Loy." Because it wasn't evoking a genuine emotional problem. You could say that "Venus and the Seven Sexes" wasn't either, but I took that as opening up the question of sexuality and thereby confronting people's sexual fears.
JL: Well, it's about media stereotypes of what sex would be, which has something to do with "It Walks in Beauty."
CD: Yes. But "No Woman Born" is a beautiful story. And there's a question of the aesthetics of sex. And I think that's opening up real problems.
JL: The whole Organization Man sociology that informs "Adrift on the Policy Level" was big in that decade. As was, by the end of the Fifties, the sociology of the emotions, which has a lot to do with the way the protagonists of this story are treated, or manipulated.
CD: About the same time was "The Luckiest Man in Denv" by Simon Eisner, who was Cyril Kornbluth. That's a very good story. And I think that some of the issues in "The Statistomat Pitch" and "Adrift on the Policy Level" come into that. It's dramatically much more stark. This is an anti-hero.
JL: Kornbluth — or the Kornbluth-Klass-Sheckley Jewish Schadenfreude group — did great things. Kornbluth, Klass, and Sturgeon wrote the great Red Scare science fiction stories. Kornbluth in 1958 wrote "Theory of Rocketry," about a student who, for his own advancement, gets his professor caught up in a HUAC-like web of political persecution.
CD: I should have read that. Of course, by 1958, it's not surprising if I didn't, because I was reading less. I didn't go to a world science fiction convention between 1951 and 1989. I was out of the science fiction world, relatively speaking. I still read some, and I was in touch personally with Judith Merril and Virginia Kidd and Fred Pohl and to a lesser extent Theodore Sturgeon. Phil Klass. I was still interested in science fiction, but more at arm's length.
JL: Merril also seems to have been someone who was eager to engage in conversation not from an ideologically-bound or proselytizing point of view. And not from an exclusionary point of view either: she was friends with Cordwainer Smith, for Heaven's sake, who couldn't have been close to where she was, politically.
CD: Yes, that's right. The question of having some conservative people in the science fiction world as well — it's always been true, not only Campbell. But Judy was more interested than I was in mysticism. I had a false identification of mysticism with supernatural religion. She was interested in ancient philosophies, as was I. But I had a rationalist bias, which at that time already put me in a rather different direction from her. That... changed later. The radicalism from which she started was Trotskyist. But where she went from there was the counterculture, including its interest in mysticism.
JL: Does that connect with Campbell's psionic program?
CD: I wonder. See, I was shocked and horrified by Dianetics. And I think that most of the rest of this gang were too. Dr. Winter and Campbell espoused Dianetics, and otherwise it was sort of an embarrassment for many people in this science fiction pro group.
JL: But Merril was interested in ESP and the Rhine experiments...
CD: That's right. And I was impatient with that. First when Campbell did it occasionally. I discussed it in many letters and fan magazine articles with people, and I remained sort of averse to all that.
An over-simple dichotomy which I was prey to in the period 1946-49 or so was: Unknown Worlds and Weird Tales represented the wrong side. They were representing fuzzy mysticism. And irrationality. Now of course, that's not fair, because things which present themselves as hard science fiction are sometimes fuzzy Freudian sentimentality or whatever, too. And sometimes fantasy is as hard-edged as any "Campbell Science Fiction Story." A story like We by Zamyatin: I don't know whether you should call it fantasy or science fiction. It's social criticism in a world that does not pretend to be a future projection. So I don't make that dichotomy any more. I think it's a false one.
I still read some science fiction in the late Fifties, and I loved some of the stories I read. I had a little bit of trouble with later developments in science fiction, partly because they were vague, impressionistic, and mystical. And I continued to see some stuff that I just loved. But the main thing is that my life wasn't revolving around it any more. I had many friends.
JL: By the end of the decade, the big community around you was the mathematical community.
CD: Oh yeah, sure. But that was true before 1954, too. In fact, it was more true before 1954, because I had this period of isolation from 1954 to 1957 — 1956 anyway — when my connections to the mathematical world were attenuated.
There's a gap that I can't very well fill, in my account to you, between late 1954, when I decided that I was not going to be a full-time science fiction writer or anything close to it, and 1968 when Judith Merril came to Toronto on her way home from the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, and we had a long talk about how crummy the world was. Between '54 and '68, I've just given you scraps of contact with the science fiction world, and haven't really given you much of a picture of my relations to it, which were certainly not trivial.
So in '68, Judy, with whom I was not out of touch, was protesting the war in Vietnam outside the Democratic convention, and so was I; but we weren't there at the same time. We didn't see each other there. However, we both were very happy to have done it. I came back to Toronto, and she, by prearrangement, stopped off with her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend, and visited us, in Toronto, en route back to New York. So we had a long talk about everything and politics and the US, and she began her decision to move to Toronto at that time.
JL: At the end of the 1950s — you wrote it in '59, it appeared in '60 — your essay on your experience came out, "... From an Exile." It makes a distinction between professional dissenters and amateur dissenters, and expresses the hope that
... diverse parties should dwell side by side, not with the tolerance of indifference, but embattled and cherishing each other; each should know that in its quest, the contest with those who disagree will bring faster progress than would an unobstructed route.
CD: Yeah, that's a sentiment that draws from the experience of Greenwich Village in the 1940s.
JL: It's an ambitious goal.
CD: Yeah, but ya gotta.
JL: One reads of some fierce academics on the far right...
CD: They might not be the people that I would choose to talk to. I think there are some people that are very hard to talk to. But you don't ignore them, or suppress them either.
A better example than we usually choose, when we're discussing this, is something that I mentioned earlier to you: genetic determinism. Which has been a right-wing lie and associated with terrible crimes. But the biological facts are complex. Genetics determine something. This is something the complexities of which I've been insisting on since I was a teenager, and which I've discussed with a great many people, with an assortment of different biases. And I've been very interested to see what people said who came down on what I would regard as an oppressive side of some political issues.
JL: Very explicitly oppressive, as some of Heinlein.
CD: Yes, certainly. Once again, I don't think you expect people to be consistent, and I don't think that everything Heinlein wrote is consistent with everything else that Heinlein wrote. But if I were to say, "Oh well, I can't talk to a eugenicist," then I would be refusing the enlightenment which could be obtained from listening to some intelligent, sincere people, who believe some of this stuff. I guess I don't know that there is as much to be learned from people who know that what they're saying is crap. I mean, obviously, you also have people who promulgate a racist theory which they know is not factual. And maybe there's not much to be learned from them. Right? But people who are trying to say something true... you can probably learn something by talking to them. Anyway, I've often tried. One of the members of the Brain Trust was racist, and in some sense Heinlein was racist. And I patiently and inquiringly pursued dialogue on these things.
JL: You wrote, "One professor tried to write a book on the exiles, but became one before it was finished, which seriously impeded its progress. We exiles have been systematically studied, sometimes misleadingly, by a few novelists."
CD: The professor was Arthur Davis. No relation. He finished the book eventually: it's a good, good book. The novelists I identified in a later lecture. The Groves of Academe by Mary McCarthy. Terrible book. Silas Timberman by Howard Fast. As my friend Ray Ginger, a first-rate US historian, who was in those years sharing the life of an exile from academe enduring Madison Avenue, said, "He knows not whereof he speaks." The Searching Light by Martha Dodd, which is a good book. Martha Dodd knew whereof she spoke, but it was a little bit obfuscatory, because she wrote it as if she were presenting characters she knew. And she was presenting a more typical academic freedom situation than her own, which was, you know, an Ambassador, as an unusual case. So it wasn't as good as it seemed to be. The Howard Fast was intermediate in quality: it wasn't an abject, squalid thing like The Groves of Academe, but it wasn't a good book either. Mary McCarthy has written a lot of good stuff, but The Groves of Academe is Really BAD.
And the fourth one was Faithful Are the Wounds by May Sarton. Now that was a good book. It's not terribly well-written, and it's not terribly revelatory; but there again, she was writing about F.O. Matthiesen, and she knew whereof she wrote. And she's a decent person. So there's a lot to be said for the book.
Of course, there's some pretty good nonfiction about the era. You know I like No Ivory Tower by Ellen Schrecker. Another book which does include me but is mostly about cases rather different from mine is Red Scare by Griffin Fariello. That's a good book. It's got a different focus. And there's a lot of interesting sidelights.
A book which I like pretty well, which most people haven't read, is The Survivor by Carl Marzani.
JL: Recent years have also seen a flood of Right-wing revisionist books about the Red Scare.
CD: Well, right. There are books attempting to show that the Rosenbergs were guilty as charged, and books attempting to show that Alger Hiss was guilty as charged, and this and that, this and that...
JL: I.F. Stone and Albert Einstein have also been implicated ...
CD: Haha. Yes. I was never a student of the spy accusations. It was interesting to me years after to realize that some of what Whittaker Chambers did may have been true. Because Whittaker Chambers was so obviously spouting lies and half-truths at certain points, that it was really startling to realize that some of the things he said were true, too...
JL: Ellen Schrecker accepts the idea that Julius Rosenberg committed espionage of some sort...
CD: He seems to have. And of course, Whittaker Chambers was talking about Alger Hiss and J. Peters, and now it appears that J. Peters may have existed. It's sort of interesting. However, there's another variable, which is important in the life of people like me, which is not what the present debate focuses on.
I think that we should have said already in 1953 — as I did say, starting fifteen years after that, but I didn't say then at all; I didn't even take account of it — that there could have been a person who spied for the Soviets with the motivation that Julius Rosenberg was said to have had. Part of the indignation that people felt in 1953 was, "How dare they suggest that someone so much like me spied for the Soviets? Why, I would never spy for the Soviets!" Well, it's perfectly true that Julius Rosenberg was very much like me. And it is perfectly true that I would have refused if I had been asked to spy for the Soviets. But! It would require only a small amount of self-examination of my experience in the Movement to realize that there were some people who would cheerfully have spied for the Soviets, on the same basis that Julius Rosenberg was said to have. And the fact that the evidence against him was not very convincing doesn't alter that. So that I feel that it's too bad that we didn't think this through and have a different social stance. Toward the spy accusations in the Red Hunt.
Now sure enough, it turned out not very long after Julius Rosenberg was arrested, and I guess before he was executed, that Klaus Fuchs had spied for the Soviets, with the same motivation that Julius Rosenberg was said to have had. But Klaus Fuchs wasn't interesting to the redhunters. Julius Rosenberg, they loved him: He was an American Jewish Communist. And Klaus Fuchs unfortunately wasn't Jewish and wasn't American. So he was useless! He wasn't what they wanted. And then it turned out, many years later, that Ted Hall and a friend of his had given the Soviets information still more valuable than what Klaus Fuchs did, which in turn was much more valuable than what Julius Rosenberg may have. And their motivation was similar too.
They were both Jewish.
But they weren't members of the Communist Party.
So they were useless.
And the present retrospect on this is so poor, because the official position is that we couldn't reveal about Fuchs, and especially Hall, we couldn't reveal it without admitting that we were breaking the code. But that's not the real reason. The real reason was that they loved Julius Rosenberg. He was a New York Jew member of the Communist Party: that's what they wanted.
JL: The people on the other side at the trial were New York Jews as well, weren't they?
CD: Yeah, that's right. It was sort of a Jewish monopoly.
A lot of this has been said, but what people don't say — and I'm bringing it up because it's what people don't say — is the distinction between proving that Julius Rosenberg did something, which I think was not terribly well done, and as to his wife, not done at all, and conceding that it was a conceivable scenario. And I know a lot of people who would have been willing to hand stuff over to the Soviets if asked at the time, my goodness! And what Al Slack did, I would have done! Al Slack, with whom I was in prison for a few months in 1960, was asked by a Russian naval attaché to go to the patent office and copy out some patents for him. The Soviet Union was an ally, Slack was sympathetic to Bolshevism; and it seemed to him perfectly reasonable to go to the patent office and copy this stuff out. He knew why the Soviet naval attache didn't want to do it: he knew he'd be shadowed, and he didn't want American counterintelligence to know that the Soviets wanted that patent. But the patent was on the public record [and had been for over thirty years — JL].
So the righteous indignation which greeted the spy accusations was partly wrongly based. Well. I wish that was the only mistake I ever made in my life.
It's true that the Rosenberg case stinks, but not for that reason.
JL: And what would the ideal stand have been for the Left to have taken?
CD: In the first place, they didn't cause the war in Korea; they didn't betray their country. If they did exactly what the prosecution said they did, what they did was share some information with an ally. It's illegal, but it's not causing the deaths of millions of Americans. Furthermore, it's being used to draw conclusions which are false. I think we could have said that, and some of it we did say; but it would have been stronger if our position had been clearer.
JL: You wrote that "Radical students felt a bread-and-butter pull toward politically neutral vocations." That's what "The Great Fear" means, doesn't it? A campaign of intimidation that, according to Ellen Schrecker, deprived the country of a huge segment of the discourse that could have done it some good.
CD: That's right. That's very important. [Professor Davis addressed this issue in his 1995 lecture to the AAAS, "'Shooting Rats in a Barrel': Did the Red-hunt Win?" — JL]
JL: You wrote, "We do not accept the fate of a pariah group. Most of us yearn for the masses, for the mainstream, and lack the patience to guard a peculiar flame through generations of persecution." Your father can be credited with having guarded that flame, as a labor historian.
CD: That's right. It is true though that some people, including myself, felt a little more comfortable when associated with massive institutions. That's only part of what I'm saying in that quote, but that is one thing that's true. I was always embedded in some huge organization, whether it was the US Navy or a university. Until 1954 — then I was suddenly cut loose. As I say, I might have become a science fiction writer at that point. (I don't know what I would've done, unless Fred'd had better luck selling my stuff. Maybe I would've gone to a pen name the way the blacklisted screenwriters did.) If I had done that, I would have been living in a way which was familiar to Fred — when he wasn't editing for a big company, which most of the time he was — and familiar to my friends, who spent many years not being taken care of by a large organization. I didn't have that experience. So when I settled down again, in 1962, it seemed like a more normal way to live, to me. And I continued to do so for the rest of my life.
That's not exactly the same as the point that I'm making there, but it's similar. That some people's personalities are more congenial to living in a self-employed way, with a less clear reference group.
JL: Much later, in "The Purge," you wrote of your eight-year struggle,
A broadening time. The experience of marginality is good for the soul and better for the intellect. And throughout, the joy of watching my children grow; always mathematics; always political struggle. My political activity in 1954-1960 was mostly surrounding my court case. I fumed, even more than before, that defense of civil liberties was pre-empting all my energies though it was only one of the burning issues. After my release from prison, it was relaxing to go on an anti-Bomb march with my wife again.
CD: That's right. That passage about the experience of marginality expresses my true feelings.
In the collection of my poems, Having Come This Far, is one I wrote in 1961, not long after I did time, admiring and half-envying the civil rights movement defendants going to jail ["On Bail (Wisconsin, 1961)"]. It ends, "During my thirty-five years of unearned happiness / A generation of heroes has gasped and died." Some of my friends said, "Why should YOU feel like that?" I note that Don West, who would seem to almost anyone to have taken his full share of lumps, wrote a poem when my friend and his, Carl Braden, was going into prison, expressing chagrin that he, Don West, was not doing the same.
JL: "Last Year's Grave Undug": what's the source of that title? It sounds like it comes from a line of iambic verse...
CD: Yes, and it sounds like a line that might've been written by a Modernist poet in the Twenties. But it's not a quote: I made it up. I think that's a very good story. I don't know why I was able to write such a good story so young. I'm not sure it's a good story, but I feel it's a good story. And I commented in later years to Judy and Virginia — and I've said this in print too — "The reader may wonder which of the young men the author identifies with: the answer is, both."
JL: You wrote that in "The Purge."
CD: Yeah, but that idea doesn't originate in "The Purge": that idea originates in conversation with my friends.
JL: Most of our good ideas do.
CD: Yeah. I wrote a poem, which is also one of my best poems, about 1964, in which I said the same thing. It's the pariah and the safe-and-sane resident of the Establishment, confronting each other. Judy and Virgina hashed it out, between themselves, "Which one is him?" And the answer again was both. Note the dates. I wrote the first version of the poem in 1960, before I had again a secure job; the final version in 1964, after I did. In any case, even in 1960, I already felt both the vantage of the allrightnik comfy in the arms of the establishment and that of the pariah — as Judy and Virginia figured out when they read the poem.
NOW I FACE YOU
How many must it have been,how many midnightswere you out there, before you breached the wall,
before our invitation, belated, grudging.
Your earnest focus on such meager bread
did not make us unable to love you, but
to see you. Now I ask, Were you cold out there?
And now I ask, How many midnights was it?
Now that we're face to face, now I wonder.
With nourishment like that — how does hate grow?
In width, to fill your view, invisible
itself while through its screen you're seeing
all this knob-jawed life? Or just in density,
puckering into a white-dwarf cocksure core?
How many was it? How far can you count?(Don't countthe nights, but what counts: separate spurts of gall.)
I wonder do you lose sight of clean-slate zero.
Once past omega, you can not count backward.
I wonder has it a negative, that number.
Now that we're face to face, now I ask you.
That's not to say I'm not afraid of you;
you chill me through. Not to run away from you
is all the charity I have to offer.
Not that you've asked for it, or anything.
I tell you what: I swear that if you wept
I'd match your weeping.Not that you've asked for it
JL: That's the Chandler Davis ethos. You have to be able to put yourself in the other's place in order to see your interactions as other than dichotomous, good-and-evil confrontations.
CD: That's right. But that makes it sound as though I identify with one of them but have some empathy for the other. Whereas when I say that in "Now I Face You" I identify both with the speaker and with the pariah, and that both the young heroes are viewpoint characters in "Last Year's Grave Undug," I mean just that.
There were other post-Nuclear Armageddon stories which were circulating at the time that I wrote it, some of which were published, and it seemed as if it might be publishable; but its content was clearly anti-Cold War. So you may say that people were afraid of it. But the other stories that Fred had difficulty placing for me were troublesome because of my being a pariah. In other words, they were pieces that you could imagine his being able to place if he were to say, "Oh, these are by an unknown science fiction writer whom Virginia and I happen to have discovered."
And once "Last Year's Grave Undug" appeared, nobody attacked it as Communist propaganda. Obviously, some people must have disagreed with it.
JL: Perhaps the people who disagreed with it were smart enough to realize that if they styled it Communist propaganda, they would be putting themselves in the position of the villain in the story. Who also seems to be an exemplar of the individualist pioneer ethic.
CD: But so are the heroes. In "Last Year's Grave Undug," it's a question of taking refuge from the cities.
The danger of the survivalist ethos is something that I never have confronted. I think it is dangerous, and I think it's interesting that some nuts, Right-wing and other, identify with survivalist science fiction. Another impact that science fiction has had...
JL: There are Nazis who write survivalist science fiction...
CD: Yeah. But I mean, the science fiction from my time has this theme; and I think it appealed to some people, to some Right-wing people.... Some of the science fiction of Rugged Individualist Capitalists from my period, the time that I was paying most attention to it, sounds suitable for Ayn Rand; and in fact, Sturgeon did love The Fountainhead.
JL: There were a lot of contradictions in that man.
CD: Yup. Yup. We had a vigorous, vigorous correspondence about it. I couldn't stand it.
JL: Not a lot of Sturgeon's fiction would give one the impression that...
CD: That's right. It's surprising.
JL: You published a story in 1970 that has a very Sturgeonesque feel to it: "Hexamnion."
CD: Yeah. I wrote two other stories [since the Fifties], which I think were good. I thought so at the time and still think so. "The Names of Yanils" and "Hexamnion." That's the order in which I wrote them. "The Names of Yanils" was accepted by Harlan Ellison and then never published, so that had only marginal publication [twenty-five years after it was written — JL]. And "Hexamnion" had the same problem of people not wanting to touch it; people still didn't want to publish a story by me. Of course, Harry Harrison was very happy to publish it, but it didn't get very many readers.
I think it's a very good story; I think it's well imagined. Fred, or somebody in that gang, pointed out that the ethics of subjecting the kids to this artificial environment, without direct contact with adults, was dubious, and I agree; and I agree that I didn't think about that when I wrote it. I was creating an artificial given, like H.G. Wells. I was saying, "Now suppose, suppose such-and-such" and then we run with it. But my supposition concealed an ethical difficulty, which I concede. But I would have been happy if that had had more notice.
And "The Names of Yanils" is another case of writing something as a short story because I never unlimbered myself to write longer stories very well. I think it goes okay as a sort of compressed novel, but that's what it is: it's like a digest.
JL: Inasmuch as its power depends on the irony, the compactness helps.
CD: Yeah, that's right: it brings the ending closer to the beginning. That's what I said to myself when I was writing it, that it was snappy and ironic. My sister is an anthropologist, and I admire her very much; and I care about her reaction. And her reaction was that my not being an anthropologist didn't hurt me, that I had a pretty good anthropological sensitivity. But she still didn't like the story.
JL: You have an anthropologist sibling just like Phil Klass did.
CD: We've noticed that similarity.
JL: "Hexamnion" is striking because it's another no-villains story. In fact, that's part of its theme.
CD: That's right. But this criticism, which may have come from Fred Pohl, would say that the villain is the insititution that put them there.
JL: "To consider it was not so hard; but to rest easy on such a conclusion with nobody to support it was very hard." — "The Names of Yanils." That's the isolation of the heretic.
CD: And that's why I say that it was a compressed story. Because I take it through stages. And each stage cannot be understood without the stage before. And if that's the case, and if I'm going to write it in that small number of words, I have to rely on a great deal of agility on the part of the reader, because the context at the beginning of the story is not the one by which to judge the end of the story.
JL: And you have to write it in epigrammatic lines like that one.
CD: That's right. And of course, I'm not the only one who's ever written such a story, but it's an uncommon genre, to write that elliptically. I'm talking about condensing the generations and specifically, that plot turns are done in a very small number of words.
JL: It's among your darkest stories. It has the flavor of some of the satires of Klass and Kornbluth...
CD: Yeah. There is no escape. Certainly, there's no escape.
JL: It presents the deterioration of a society without using the gimmick of a cataclysm, a catastrophe...
CD: That's right. Nor a malevolent force. The society is not oppressed by any force trying to deprive them of their customs or their food.
The particular point I was making, nobody else made — being trapped by tradition. It doesn't mean that the tradition was wrong. But you can still be trapped. And I don't think people usually say that.
JL: Trapped by the outward forms of tradition, and losing the content...
CD: Yeah. And I think that it can happen in the real world, and that if it happens in the real world, it's not noticed. So I think it's a story that says something that I wish would be received, and I'm sorry that more people didn't read it.
Unfortunately, a lot of the things in literature which end up with a trapped feeling do so on the basis of some dystopias: that the system is oppressive. And this story attempts to say something different. You're trapped. But — the tradition with which the story opens is oppressive in the way tradition is supposed to be oppressive: it's obscurantist. And tyrannical. I guess it's a no-villain piece in the sense that where they end up is not willed. There is no Bad Guy who willed the trap at the end.
JL: But it's a no-hero piece. There's no Campbellian figure who uses his ingenuity to find a way out.
CD: And maybe that's one of the reasons for not writing it at greater length. You would not have been able to do without an even more resourceful protagonist. I have resourceful protagonists, you see, but they are trapped anyway. In this story, I have honest people doing their best, limited by the society in which they find themselves. In a larger scope, just in terms of number of words — not in terms of number of centuries, but a larger framework — I might feel I'd have to have a character with greater insight.
JL: Even in the great Naturalist novels, there's usually someone, however marginal, who has some of that insight. Even Studs Lonigan has Danny O 'Neill.
CD: Who has a perspective on it. But Journey to the End of Night by Celine...
JL: Okay, okay.
CD: I guess the trapped feeling in my story is dependent on the successive protagonists being as aware as it was possible for them to be in the context which they had.
JL: Did Harlan Ellison commission you to write a bleak story?
CD: No. I wrote the story because it was in my soul. And Virginia liked it, and several people liked it. And then Virginia, who was my agent at that time said, when Harlan Ellison gave everybody the opportunity to pull out, "Don't pull out: it couldn't possibly appear in a better place than The Last Dangerous Visions." So I left it there. This was '76 maybe.
JL: Only a few people pulled out.
CD: That's right. If a lot of people had pulled out, then he would have been able to publish the remaining ones.
JL: He would have had a manageable volume, yes.
One of the reasons that "The Names of Yanils" is important is that it depicts a situation in which a whole way of thinking can be obliterated. We 've seen that in our history, how a formerly vibrant discursive space can be shrunk very small. How an idea can be reduced to a media caricature.
CD: Phil Klass was once talking to somebody about the Civil Rights Movement in the Sixties, and he said, "When I was a Freedom Rider in the early Fifties —" And they said, "You mean Sixties," and he said "Fifties." The Negro Congress had demonstrations, and everyone got the shit beaten out of them — I don't know if Phil ever got the shit beaten out of him — but they started ten years before the famous ones started, and some people were present at both.
My sister had exactly the same conversation in a class she was taking as an older graduate student at the University of California in Berkeley. She said, "When I was arrested in a demonstration against discrimination in hiring in 1949 —" They said, "You mean 1969"; she said, "I mean 1949."
JL: Racial discrimination.
CD: Yeah. She was arrested outside a store in Boston, where she then lived, which wouldn't hire black people. So she and Phil Klass both had this experience of having been in the Movement before it was known to exist. Of course, it was for the same reason: it was because the Movement prior to the New Left, which means in effect prior to 1960, was redbaited not out of existence —
JL: But out of history.
CD: Yeah. To the point where people felt that they could dismiss it, because "Oh well, it's just those Communists." And of course, some of us were Communists.
JL: Where else were you going to find an association that took all of those stands back in that time?
CD: That's right. So there were these actions, and they were protests against lynching, protests against discrimination, protests against segregation — they took place in the Thirties too, and many thousands supported them. When they took place after the Red-hunt began, after 1947, the numbers were smaller, and not only because the numbers were smaller but because people were afraid to acknowledge connections with the Communist Party, they were written out of history. Even the ones that were organized entirely by Trotskyists were written out of history.
JL: It happens. Chip Delany, Terry Gilliam, Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins) have written of peace demonstrations in the Fifties, Sixties, and Nineties that were attended by thousands of people and were reported in the press as having involved a few dozen.
But in the case of the Civil Rights Movement, it begins getting some attention in the Forties, when historians have to explain why Strain Thurmond broke with the Democratic Party. Something made an impression on Truman in his first term such that he would talk about these issues.
CD: Yeah. That was a striking thing, that at the same time as, apparently, a swerve to the Right, segregation in the armed forces was very largely discarded.
JL: Thanks to some black activists who got Truman's ear.
CD: That's right. That was an advance, in that respect. And Brown vs. Education happened in that era.
JL: Some people have said that Truman only addressed civil rights issues and labor issues because [Henry] Wallace brought them into the conversation.
CD: Certainly Wallace brought them into the conversation. But that wouldn't have been a reason for Truman to bring more than superficial attention to them. And in some areas, he made no progress; but in the military, he did. It was quite striking, and it was important.
One of the things on which I'm active now is organizing a conference to discuss the defense of civil liberties in Canada. Which has been the subject of some pretty good conferences, and one good book. But the conferences that have taken place invited almost no defense lawyers. It's a way of minimizing the problem, not to listen to the people who experience the sharpest form of it.
Canada introduced, at the US Government's behest, extreme measures withdrawing the right to counsel, withdrawing this, withdrawing that, immediately after September 11. And this was opposed by the Bar Association and everybody else, and ran into trouble in the Senate. But essentially, it was written into law; and they haven't begun applying the worst provisions yet. So the Establishment would like to say, "Well, we're just ironing out the details," so it's necessary to expose the fact that the whole program is wrong. It requires a lot of work.
Copyright 2003 Paradoxa.