Two Poets and an Engineer
Constance Reid. The
Search for E.T. Bell, also known as John Taine. Spectrum Series.
Washington: The Mathematical Association of America (800-331-1622), 1993. x+372. $35.00.
Stanton A. Coblentz with Dr. Jeffrey M. Elliot. Adventures of a Freelancer: The Literary Exploits and Autobiography of
Stanton A. Coblentz. Borgo Bioviews 2. Borgo Press (P.O. Box 2845,
San Bernardino, CA 92406-2845), 1983. 160p. $27.00 cloth, $17.00 paper; plus $2.00
Albert I. Berger. The Magic That Works: John W. Campbell and the American Response
to Technology. The Milford Series 46. Borgo Press (P.O. Box 2845, San
Bernardino, CA 92406-2845). 231p. $30 cloth, $20 paper; plus $2.00 S&H.
Of the three books listed above, the first is what might be called a metabiography, a
fascinating account of the author's search for the truth behind the silences and lies of a
prominent mathematician;1 the second is an embarrassing combination of puffery
and sentimental memoir;2 the third is a major contribution to the history of
science fiction.3 Taken together, the three books provide ample justification
for the received wisdom on the origins of "modern science fiction" as opposed to some
recent revisionary arguments.
In early 20th-century America poetry was everywhere: not only in books, literary
magazines, and schoolrooms, but also in general magazines, pulp-paper fiction magazines,
mass-circulation slick-paper magazines, Sunday supplements, and daily newspapers. The
Browning Societies flourished, earnest women gathering in small towns and large to study
the sometimes obscure works of the Victorian masters. The extent to which schoolchildren
today read, memorize, and recite poetry I do not know, but in my day it was a major part
of one's schooling.
Although Eric Temple Bell (1883-1960) was to set something of a record in the
publication of mathematical papers (more than 200), he seems to have turned to research in
mathematics only after failing as a poet. In England he had excelled in mathematics at a
"modern school" and, with private tutoring, mastered Greek,4 "his earliest
ambition" being "'to know the Greeks at firsthand through their literature'" (89). In
1902, 19 years old, he came to California and entered Stanford University, where he took a
BA in mathematics in 1904. He worked at various things in and around San Francisco for
three years, spent a year as a graduate assistant at the University of Washington (MA
1908), taught school for two years in a small California town, and then, in 1911, set off
for New York and Columbia University with just enough money for one academic year.
Accepted as a candidate, he enrolled in a few courses, submitted the dissertation he had
already written, won his doctorate (1912), and then refused an instructorship at Columbia
in order to return as an assistant professor to Washington, which was not yet a research
university. He published one mathematical paper at this time, but locally rather than
nationally, so that it went unnoticed by serious mathematicians (159-60).
All this time he had also been writing poetry, including ambitious book-length poems.
During his first five years at Washington he seems to have regarded the teaching of
mathematics only as a way to make a living:
In addition to his teaching, there is only one thing that
I can say for certain Bell was doing. He was writing poetry. Reams of poetry. And trying
very hard to get it published commercially. Typescript copies of poems written at this
time [were] sent out to publishers and regularly returned..." (168).
We are not told whether the "publishers" included newspapers and magazines, the
readiest avenue to winning a reputation as a poet. In 1915-16 he published two volumes of
verse through a vanity press at a cost of $1350 (a year's salary). There is no evidence
that these volumes, published under a carefully guarded pseudonym, found any readers or
that he became acquainted with other poets. In these years, then, he had isolated himself
both from the world of serious mathematicians and from the world of poets, perhaps wishing
to be known as a poet only after achieving great success and in the meantime guarding his
anonymity so that in the event of failing at poetry he could try his hand at mathematics
free of any embarrassing reputation as a scribbler of verses.
The early life of Stanton A. Coblentz (1896-1982) is more typical of the youth of a
litterateur. Having won prizes with his poetry, having taken a BA and MA at Berkeley, and
having enjoyed some success as a literary journalist in San Francisco, he moved to New
York in 1920, where he earned a modest living by contributing poems, essays, and reviews
to various periodicals. His "adventures" as a freelancer were mostly misadventures:
agreements with editors and publishers who failed to do what they had promised or
contracts with publishers who thereupon went bankrupt, so that the books, if published at
all, were never adequately promoted. But he had moderate success with two anthologies (Modern
American Lyrics, 1924, and Modern British Lyrics, 1925) and a caveman story
(The Wonder Stick, 1927), and might also have enjoyed some success with a
critical volume, The Literary Revolution (1927),5 if its publisher had
not been one of those that immediately went out of business.
In 1917, Bell began to publish mathematical papers and to participate in professional
conferences. His rise was rapid. There were visiting summer-session professorships at the
University of Chicago and offers of permanent positions at Harvard and Columbia as well as
at Chicago, but he would not leave the west coast. In 1927 came the ideal offer: a
professorship at the California Institute of Technology. He had become a leader in his
field and was later to win wider fame as a popularizer, especially with Men of
Although Bell had in 1917 abandoned serious efforts to establish himself as a poet, he
had not abandoned writing on non-mathematical subjects. In 1919 he devoted three weeks to
what he called recreational writing and produced the first of his "scientific adventure
stories" (Green Fire, 1928). Once or twice a year thereafter he allowed himself
a three-week period for writing novels, of which five or six were written, rejected by
publishers, and filed away by 1923.
In the mid-20s Coblentz was also writing novels that were rejected by publishers and
filed away--novels that "owed a debt to the fantasies and satires of Swift, Voltaire,
Twain, Butler, Wells, and others" (78).
In 1923, Bell's The Purple Sapphire, was accepted by Dutton for publication in
1924, as by John Taine. Its moderate success led Dutton in 1926 to contract for a second
novel and for the publication "within the next three years of four other works of the
same nature and already written" (223). Bell acknowledged Haggard as an influence on his
fiction (183), which is obvious in The Purple Sapphire, but a more abiding
influence on characterization and plotting would seem to be M.P. Shiel.
In "late 1927 or early 1928," Coblentz, having become aware of the magazine's
existence, submitted one of his filed-away novels to Amazing Stories:
"half-a-cent a word, though exceptionally low payment even in those days long before
inflation, was measurably better than no cents at all" (78-79). In late 1929, with Dutton
preparing to wind up its contractual obligation and refusing to publish any additional
John Taine novels, Bell also turned to Amazing Stories. Coblentz's The Sunken
World appeared in the Summer 1928 Amazing Stories Quarterly, followed by,
among others, After 12,000 Years (Spring 1929), The Blue Barbarians
(Spring 1931), and "In Caverns Below"/Hidden World (Wonder Stories,
March-May 1935). Bell's "White Lily"/The Crystal Horde and Seeds of Life
also appeared in Amazing Stories Quarterly (Winter 1930, Fall 1931), followed by The
Time Stream in Wonder Stories (Dec-March 1931-32), all as by John Taine.6
What interests me at this point is, first, that these are the best book-length works,
aside from reprints, to appear in any SF magazine up to 1940, and, second, that all these
novels were written before the establishment of Amazing Stories in 1926 or at
least before either Bell or Coblentz was aware of the SF magazines as a possible market.
When we add that E.E. Smith's The Skylark of Space was also a rejected and
filed-away work exhumed for the new market, we may begin to see how little influence Amazing
and Wonder had on the actual writing of SF as opposed to simply opening a market
for SF written in ways and on subjects already traditional.
By 1926 two traditions had already developed in science fiction, as may be seen by
contrasting the thoughtful sensationalism of Wells's The War of the Worlds with
the thoughtless sensationalism of Garret P. Serviss's Edison's Conquest of Mars,
which was written on order as a newspaper serial to follow the serialization of Wells's
novel. In tales of the future, the same sort of contrast may be seen between Wells's When
the Sleeper Wakes and Victor Rousseau's sentimental, melodramatic response, The
Messiah of the Cylinder. From its beginning Amazing Stories was a magazine
with a split personality, reprinting Wells on the one hand, Edgar Rice Burroughs on the
other, and in the middle Hugo Gernsback's own Ralph 124C 41+, in which the
depiction of future technology is dramatized by the crudest of melodramatic plots: the
heroine kidnapped by the villain and rescued by the hero.
As a boy, John W. Campbell (1910-71), the son of an electrical engineer, was
ceaseless tinkerer with neighborhood bicycles and electrical appliances, an inadvertant
destroyer of the family basement with the assistance of his chemistry set" (15). He
"bought Argosy7...regularly, and Weird Tales when he was
certain that that fantasy magazine contained some science fiction" and became a
reader of Amazing Stories" beginning with its first issue in 1926 (16). When he
reached college age, he chose the Massachussets Institute of Technology. There is no
evidence that he had any interest in poetry or in literature in general. The dominant
interest in his life seems always to have been the practical application of scientific
knowledge. His first stories, written while a freshman at MIT, were written expressly for Amazing
In his early fiction Campbell was more Gernsbackian than Gernsback himself. That is to
say, if the Gernsbackian model is Ralph 124C 41+ and the Gernsbackian ideal E.E.
Smith's The Skylark of Space, melodramatic romance in which the narrative is
frequently interrupted by passages of scientific or technological exposition, Campbell's
super-science epics differ in that it is the exposition that is interrupted by the
melodrama. In "When the Atoms Failed" (AS, Jan 1930), the first 7500 words are
devoted to discussions of social, scientific, and technological matters. Then, following a
paragraph in which we learn that Martians are about to invade Earth, we have another 4600
words of calm discussion before we reach the pages in which the battle is fought and won
in about 5000 words.
Since Campbell entered science fiction less as a writer of action-adventure stories
than as an expounder of the possibilities opened up by science, it should not be
surprising that he soon turned away from super-science epics in order to devote himself to
writing articles on scientific subjects (20 in Astounding 1936-37) and to
attempts at SF of a more serious kind (the Don A. Stuart stories).
When compared to stories in the popular magazines of the time, most of the stories in Amazing,
Wonder, and the pre-Campbell Astounding were distinctly old-fashioned in
structure and theme in that they begin with a leisurely preface rather than with a
narrative hook, are narrated in the first person by a participant in the action or by an
"author" who has investigated the matter rather than in the third-person omniscient, and
exploit simplifications of Haggardian, Vernian, or Wellsian themes.
Such stories as were original in concept (reprints excepted) tended to be vitiated by
crude handling of the old-fashioned techniques. Brian M. Stableford put his finger on this
weakness in his article on David H. Keller in E.F. Bleiler's Science Fiction Writers
Keller's worst fault as a science fiction writer [is that]
his stories frequently fade away into irrationality. It may seem curious that Gernsback
found such sloppy writing acceptable, but he never worried in the least about the rational
development of hypotheses in his fiction--he was interested only in the imaginative appeal
of the hypotheses themselves. This is why the advent of John W. Campbell, Jr. (with his
emphasis on rationality), as editor of Astounding Stories made such a dramatic difference
in the nature of pulp science fiction. (121)
The phrase "modern science fiction" was given such terminological status as it has
(or once had) by Sam Moskowitz in his SF histories and anthologies of the '60s, especially
in the introduction to Modern Masterpieces of Science Fiction (1965). A few of
the shorter stories in Amazing and Wonder (especially those of Stanley G.
Weinbaum) and in the pre-1938 Astounding (especially Campbell's own Don A. Stuart
stories) can qualify as "modern science fiction," but "modern science fiction" as a
dominant type had its beginnings in Campbell's Astounding. It was "modern"
partly because of the rationality with which its originating concepts were developed,
partly because it abandoned many exhausted themes (fourth-dimensional, infinitesimal, or
jungle worlds inhabited by monsters and/or priests and princesses, simple-minded world
saving and/or world wrecking, giant ants, human termites, bug-eyed monsters), partly
because it brought to SF the narrative techniques of popular fiction, but mainly because
it jettisoned most of the writers that had found a home in Amazing, Wonder,
and Astounding for new writers of real talent.
The passage of time and the development of new techniques and new themes have made
"modern science fiction" seem to readers in the '90s as old-fashioned as the pre-1938 SF
magazines (or such current magazines as Thrilling Wonder Stories and Ray Palmer's
Amazing) seemed to readers in the '40s and '50s, so that we would do better to
speak of a Campbellite or golden-age period.
No one has ever argued that the detective-story, western-story, and love-story genres
began with the establishment of Detective Story Magazine in 1915, Western
Story Magazine in 1919, and Love Story Magazine in 1921, and why anyone
should imagine that the science-fiction genre began in 1926 with the establishment of Amazing
Stories is beyond me. In a history of SF concerned with themes and literary
techniques rather than the mere expansion of the field, the crucial 20th-century event was
not Hugo Gernsback's establishment of Amazing Stories in 1926 but John W.
Campbell's assumption of the editorship of Astounding Stories in 1938.
Albert Berger tells the story of John W. Campbell's career and of the American response
to technology in 12 chapters. The first deals with Campbell's childhood and youth and with
the origins of the SF pulps. The second and third take up "The Pulp Writer as
Philosopher" and "as Editor." Chapters 3-11 are concerned with "The Editor": "as
Celebrant,... as Suspect," as "Validated," "as Psychologist," "in a Changing
Market," "in the Age of Space," "and the Problem of Unorthodox Science," "as
Elitist," and "as Authoritarian."
The developing moral of this sad story is summed up in the final chapter,
"Conclusions." The American response to technology has been typically one of enthusiasm
for the machinery itself mixed with apprehension and regret over the effects of the
relentlessly developing technology on social relationships. Campbell and his writers
celebrated such backyard tinkerers as the young Edison even while the tinkerers were being
drafted into such large research institutions as the one established by the older Edison
at Menlo Park. In retrospect it seems inevitable that the conflict between their longing
for individual independence and their actual dependence on corporations growing ever
larger and more impersonal would lead the Campbellites away from orthodox science and
technology to such heterodoxies as psi, Dianetics, and the Dean Drive, where tinkerers
might still triumph, and in politics away from liberalism and depression-era radicalism to
elitism and authoritarianism.
From 1937 to 1950 Campbell's Astounding was the only SF magazine of any
intellectual consequence. To be sure, good stories sometimes appeared in the other
magazines, but they were few and far between. In the 50s, even though faced with the
competition of Gold's Galaxy, the Boucher-Mills Magazine of Fantasy and
Science Fiction, and a host of short-lived magazines generally more mature than those
of the earlier era, Campbell's Astounding still held its own. As Analog
in the 60s, it found its prestige declining in SF circles. The partisans of the New Wave
sought a new kind of SF; some veteran readers, such as Alva Rogers in his A Requiem
for Astounding (Chicago, 1964), longed for the good old days; and many readers were
put off by the intellectually idiosyncratic or politically reactionary campaigns in which
the magazine indulged.
It should also be pointed out, as Berger does, that it is possible to exaggerate the
depth of Campbell's prejudices and the viciousness of his ideology: "there is one aspect
of his character, personality, and modus operandi that ought to be mentioned in this
conclusion, and that has to do with his joyously cantankerous appreciation of argument for
its own sake and entertainment value, and for what he believed to be its utility" (196).
Campbell sought always to take the unfashionable side. In some issue of Astounding/Analog
in the late 50s or early 60s, at a time when Americans were not yet especially agitated
over Vietnam, there appeared an editorial in which Campbell opposed our intervention
there.8 It was not until 1967, when opposition to the war had become both
widespread and fashionable, that he editorialized in its support. The editorial in
question, "Peace in Our Time" (79:5-7,174-78, April), would probably surprise most
younger readers (those who know Campbell the editor only by reputation) with its generally
broad-minded discussion of political and economic systems.
Although Campbell enjoyed unmatched prestige in the SF world (other prestigious
editors, such as Boucher, Gold, Mills, and Pohl, came and went while he remained), he
failed in his endeavors to bring SF, as represented by Astounding/Analog, to a
wider and more upscale audience. And much of the crankiness and bitterness of his last
years surely resulted from this failure. Berger remarks in passing that Campbell
not make it [Analog] an advertiser-supported futurist journal" (193) but does
not go into detail on this last attempt to win respectability. As advertising media, the
pre-war pulp-magazine combinations could offer advertisers large if downscale readerships
and so carried some advertising for such cheap luxuries as chewing gum and cigarettes, the
latter being especially important in that their full-color back-cover advertisements
defrayed the costs of the full-color front covers. Street and Smith having abandoned all
its other pulps, Astounding in the 1950s was an attractive advertising medium
only for SF books. In 1963, claiming that its readership, though small, was highly select
(well-educated, devoted to technology, prosperous, influential), the magazine, now Analog,
changed its format from that of a digest-size pulp to that of a book-paper, letter-size
magazine with slick-paper sections fore and aft for illustrated articles and advertising.
The advertising in the next 25 issues was either institutional (IBM or GTE as a good
company to work for or invest in) or for upscale services and products (airlines,
technical devices). But circulation, instead of growing, suffered a slight decline, and
the advertisers that found the new Analog an attractive medium were too few to
justify the greater production costs of the upscale format, so that the experiment was
abandoned for a return to the old format.
Even so, although in the '60s Campbell's prejudices and hobbyhorses led to the
publishing of weak stories that he found ideologically congenial, it remained true, as
Berger points out, that Campbell never lost his eye for a good story and so also published
many stories that were not subservient to his prejudices and hobbyhorses (193-95). When
Campbell died in 1971, his magazine was still a strong contender for leadership in the SF
1. When Constance Reid began her "search for E.T. Bell," she found that Bell's son,
daughter-in-law, and grandchildren, as well as the few surviving friends and
acquaintances, had very little knowledge of Bell's family background and early life, and
much of that little, as it turned out, was mistaken. When asked about his family or life
in England, Bell sometimes romanced or told outright lies but more often made brief and
noncommittal replies to indicate that it was matter he preferred not to discuss. The
result was that questions ceased to be asked.
Just what it was that caused the 19-year-old Bell to break with his family in 1902 and
leave England is not clear. Reid's search for some kind of skeleton in the closet turned
up nothing at all, but she did discover the compelling reason for Eric's coming to
California. His parents had emigrated to California in 1884 (when Eric was barely a year
old) with their three children, purchased an orange grove in San Jose, and raised oranges
until the death of the elder Bell in 1896, whereupon the widow moved the family back to
England. From various passages in Bell's poetry and other hints, Reid constructs a
convincing case for the move from California having been a wrenching experience for the
13-year-old Eric, who was henceforth to look back on his years in San Jose as a life in
Eden. But why Bell kept all this a secret from his family, who all had believed that he
had lived his first 19 years entirely in England, remains a puzzle.
Although Bell never again saw his mother, his sister Enid, or his brother James, the
break with his family was not quite complete. When he came of age in 1904, he received a
portion of his father's estate, and in later years he had some communication with his
sister (occasionally sending her money) and presumably at least knew the whereabouts of
his brother. Reid discovered that James, after serving as an officer in the British army
in the Great War, had gone to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). With the help of Arthur C. Clarke (for
whom Bell was a heroic predecessor in science fiction and science popularization), she
discovered further that James had become the manager of a plantation and fathered four
children with a Ceylonese woman, a discovery that led to friendly relations between the
California Bells and their Sri Lanka cousins.
2. Dr. Elliot's part in the writing of this book seems to have been that of what we are
used to calling an editor rather than that of a collaborator; that is, he wrote the
introduction (5-9) and presumably the note on himself (10), the Chronology (11-14), the
Bibliography (155-56), and the index (157-60). In addition he may well have made
suggestions on just what Coblentz should write about. The book is dedicated by Coblentz to
"Dr. Jeffrey M. Elliot: His banner is knowledge and wisdom is his crown" and by Elliot
to "Stanton A. Coblentz: A dear friend and brilliant bard, who was both singer and
prophet" (4). (Elliot's dedication was evidently written after Coblentz's death in 1982).
The dedications are in keeping with the sentimental tone of Coblentz's depiction of his
wife, parents, and various good friends.
The Chronology contains at least one error: the entry for 1928, presumably intended to
mark the beginning of Coblentz's SF career, is "The science fiction novel After
12,000 Years...is published," whereas that novel appeared in Amazing Stories
Quarterly in 1929. It was The Sunken World that in 1928 began Coblentz's
career in the SF magazines. The Bibliography lists only books (i.e., fails to list the
sixty-odd magazine stories) and thus suggests that Coblentz's SF career ran
essentially from 1950 to 1971, whereas it was all but over by 1950, the books
being merely republications of the magazine stories. Here we find the entry "Hidden World.
New York: Thomas Bouregy and Co., 1957. Revised and retitled: In Caverns Below.
Garland Publishing Inc. 1975" (155). Actually, the story was retitled, revised, and
possibly bowdlerized by Bouregy for its Avalon juvenile series; the Garland edition is a
photographic reprint of the Avalon edition, complete with title page: the original title,
that of the 1935 Wonder Stories serial, appears only on its spine.
3. The only weak parts of this strong book are the first two chapters, those devoted to
the pre-1937 SF magazines and to Campbell as a writer. I would have appreciated a fuller
examination of Campbell's stories, both those signed Don A. Stuart and those signed with
his own name, especially of the wholly ignored "The Contest of the Planets (Mother
World)" (Amazing, Jan-Feb-March 1935), in which his youthful politics and
genetic determinism are given their fullest expression. In dealing with the publishing
situation of the '20s and '30s, Berger relies on previous research and on fan
recollections rather than on a first-hand examination of the documentary evidence. On a
few occasions this reliance results in comments that range from the uninformed to the
The source of the following is pages 52-53 of Lester del Rey's The World of Science
Fiction, 1926-1976 (NY: Garland, 1980), which cites no source other than (for the
cover business) Harry Bates, who, in his introduction to Alva Rogers' A Requiem for
Astounding (Chicago, 1964), may simply have been telling a tall story:
Clayton paid above-scale rates per word to its authors, offsetting the higher editorial
labor costs by ruthlessly minimizing production costs. The chain published thirteen
magazines, whose covers (the most expensive part of the printing) went through the presses
in groups of four. Thus, one magazine cover wasted three-quarters of the sheet on which it
was printed. Since all thirteen magazines were making money, it made more sense to add
three (with minimal additional production costs) than to eliminate one. (22)
In 1930 the Clayton word-rate was above scale only in comparison to the rates paid by
the SF pulps and by such other pulps as were issued by minor publishers. Clayton
apparently paid a flat 2 a word, whereas the rates of the major chains (Street and Smith,
Munsey) and major independents (Adventure, Short Stories, Blue Book) varied with
the reputation of the author, reaching sometimes as high as 10 a word. If production costs
were "ruthlessly cut," that ruthlessness does not appear in the covers, illustrations,
printing, or general format of the Clayton magazines, which can stand comparison with the
major pulps of the time.
If the covers were indeed printed four up, the printing plate would have contained
eight sections: four for the front covers and spines, and four for the back covers. The
sections for the four back covers would have been identical (usually a full-color
cigarette advertisement), and the sections for the front covers and spines could have been
either different (requiring one plate for the four magazines) or identical (requiring four
plates, one for each magazine). If the press runs for the four magazines had been exactly
the same, there would have been a small saving in a single long run with a single plate as
opposed to four shorter runs with a different plate for each run. But no one would have so
much as thought of making a single long run that would waste three-quarters, one-half, or
even one-quarter of the cover stock.
As a matter of fact, there were nine Clayton pulps in mid-1929, not thirteen. In
January 1930 there were twelve, in February eleven (two dropped, one added), in March
twelve, in June ten, in July nine, in December ten. Dropping and adding titles was
obviously too frequent a thing to involve having always a total divisible by four. For the
first six months of 1930, the circulation of Ace-High was 159,820; that of Ranch
Romances plus that of Clues was 211,434; that of a six-title group that
included Astounding was 306,511, or about 51,000 each, give or take 10,000. It is
obvious that some variation in the print runs was called for. (This data comes in part
from the contents pages of Astounding and in part from the annual volumes of The
Directory of Newspapers and Periodicals published by N.W. Ayer and Sons.)
4. The "modern schools" were modern in that they slighted the classics, emphasizing
instead modern languages and science.
5. The Literary Revolution was reprinted by the AMS Press in 1969. Coblentz
was not happy with the results of the literary revolution: in fiction, the "literal
realists" were concerned only with surface detail, the "psychological realists" were
obsessed with sex, and neither were concerned with beauty or the true meaning of life; in
poetry it was much the same, and worse, for meter had been abandoned. "For him [the
modern writer] there are no dim, remote skylines beyond which golden wonders brood; there
are no will-o'-the-wisps, no elfin whispers or rainbow gleams; there are only stone
pavements and brick apartment houses, electric lights and motor cars, railways and bank
Although he made his living primarily with prose (books on various topics as well as
well as fiction in SF magazines), poetry remained the dominant interest in Coblentz's
life. In 1933 he established Wings: A Quarterly of Verse, dedicated to publishing
traditional poetry and to editorializing against the moderns. He moved to a rural area in
California in 1938, where he continued to publish Wings and where he also
published author-subsidized volumes of poetry. Although the details are not altogether
clear, it appears that he quite honorably neither paid for contributions to Wings nor
required contributors to subscribe. Wings and the Wings Press was a hobby that
almost but never quite paid its way. He had some moral support from such well-known
traditional poets as Alfred Noyes and Lord Dunsany. The latter is quoted by Elliot as
having "boldly declared, 'It is not for me from three thousand miles away to say who is
the greatest living poet on the continent of America; I can only say who is the greatest I
know...and the greatest one I can see to the west is Stanton A. Coblentz"' (6). While one
must admire Coblentz's selfless devotion to the kind of poetry he loved, it is sad to find
him writing as late as 1981 or '82 that such poets as T.S. Eliot are "frauds, pretenders,
and charlatans" (153).
6. In 1949 Bell returned to what he considered his most important work, The Scarlet
Night, a book-length poem originally written in 1910. It was submitted to
McGraw-Hill, who sent it for appraisal to the poet Muriel Rukeyser, who "was well-known
for integrating contemporary science and technology in her work" (334). She was
enthusiastic with respect to substance but dubious about its technique:
the reverberating images, the sense of time, the evocation of a kind of memory in the
possibilities he establishes--all these are disturbing, terribly disturbing just after a
reading, and very likely not to be forgotten.
At times, the writing, for a short passage, reaches a level of power which these
images, and the clashes of meaning, demand. More often, we are given the now out-dated
formal balance of [the] period which this poem's date--1910--would indicate.... But the
melodrama of the action, and the tragic drama of the dreams, lifts The Scarlet Night
above the level of that awkward method, again and again . . . . (334)
Rukeyser also wrote directly to Bell with suggestions for revision, but "What he
wanted...was to get the work into print as it was" (336). Rukeyser's judgment
was similar to that of Dutton's editor when that firm decided to abandon the John Taine
novels: in effect, that they were magnificent in thought but not well-enough written for
the mainstream audience, so that Bell would be wise to find a collaborator. In this Bell
was not interested (239, 242).
7. I.e., Argosy-Allstory Weekly, which in the years before 1926 published far
more science fiction than any other magazine.
8. Several times during my life I have discarded old magazines and books to make way
for new; one result is that my present collection of Astounding/Analog contains
only one issue between May 1938 and March 1963, so that I cannot specify the issue in
which this editorial appeared.
Back to Home