Science Fiction Studies

#78 = Volume 26, Part 2 = July 1999

Donald M. Hassler

The Academic Pioneers of Science Fiction Criticism, 1940-1980

You can be like faithful Aaron,
Holding up the prophet’s hands.

Daniel March, Hymn, 1868

I come to this with a profound understanding of the risks noted by Samuel Johnson in his Rambler 93 (1751) and am afraid my essay will be a bit of a ramble because, in part, my reading of the early academics must stress what is extraordinary and new in their work as well as its nostalgia for a lost academic innocence. Thus the Johnson Rambler is a good beginning point as he comments about writing about other writers:

[H]e that writes may be considered as a kind of general challenger, whom every one has a right to attack; since he quits the common rank of life, steps forward beyond the lists, and offers his merit to the public judgment. To commence author is to claim praise, and no man can justly aspire to honor, but at the hazard of disgrace. (IV, 133-34)

Furthermore, the argument that I intend as the organizing interpretation for this early academic work on sf contends that it was exactly this desire "to commence author" and to depart the "common rank" that governed the beginnings of the work and that, conversely, by the time the enterprise became more collectively organized, more responsive in a sense to the larger systems of academic work, the beginnings were over. At that point, my essay can be concluded. I read the considerable work of the early academic critics as analogous in tone and tactic to the pulp genre itself in the thirties and forties of our century. It was escapist, idealist, nearly fascist in its yearning for a fresh, universalized, purer narrative of heroes (if not heroines) and of utopian possibilities for the future. The concept of fascism will return in what follows, be associated with Satan, and will eventually be exorcised. But an initial definition is in order. The root meaning derives from the Latin fascis or "the ancient bundle of sticks with the ax of authority" and evokes power coupled with the nostalgia for lost power. The sense of lost power, also, is usually a fantasy as it is with Satan and with most nostalgias (see Garber, 1998). As a political force, we know fascism as coming out of the sense of powerlessness between the World Wars. In my literary interpretation here, I associate it with an effort to escape the pressure of the text and to discover literature that is fresh and new.

To echo Johnson once again, the "common rank" of literary criticism and, especially, criticism of modernist writing was not going well in those decades between the two world wars, which were also the decades when the modern pulp genre of sf got going. The fine title of the study by John Fekete of the mainstream critical giants John Crowe Ransom, Northrop Frye, and Marshall McLuhan suggests notions of decline: The Critical Twilight (1977). And in fact Fekete, as well as Grant Webster in his similar study of two years later, both argue that academic criticism itself continually works like an organism, with generative-digestive powers, and evolves from one paradigm to more and more fecund, even fermenting, paradigms in much the same manner that Thomas Kuhn identified for science. Such images for criticism suggest the Darwinian model, or vision, of a working materiality in which so much is potentially possible because so very much is at work. Thus we have seen new criticism ferment into structuralism, then into post-structuralist deconstruction, then into the postmodern. This labor-intensive language, along with digestive imagery, seems apt for the critical scene in the decades under question and beyond into our own time. It evolves directly out of nineteenth-century socialist thought and from the fervent popularizations of Emile Zola where the great "stomach of Paris" (the English for his 1873 novel) both from the 1871 days of the Commune and from the more bourgeois market days represents equally the potential for generation and for degeneration. Criticism becomes for us a massive working materiality where greater levels of emancipation accompany ever increasing decay and decadence. The success of the new critics, according to Fekete, was like labor itself as he writes about a view of art that sees "life as consumption" (xx).

We have often heard of the estrangement between the important, mainstream schools of criticism—such as the New Criticism in the early decades under review here—and what the academics at first were doing with sf. In the Kuhnian histories of the "critical twilight" and of the early hegemony of bourgeois criticism led by Frye and company, sf is seldom to be found. Even though Philip Babcock Gove, J.O. Bailey, Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Thomas D. Clareson, and others were beginning to construct academic careers out of the study (in part) of sf, they were doing that part of their work as lonely, self-reliant pioneers. By the time of Robert Scholes and his linking of sf to metafiction, and by the time of SFS itself with its strong sense of a collectivity, the tactic had changed and we in sf studies are now working in the mainstream of criticism. But the beginning story of the first academics in the field is distinctly different. Both the fiction itself, from E.R. Burroughs through the early pulp writers, and the studies of the early academics, in my reading of them, sought images of escape and adventure in much the same way that nationalism and a growing proto-fascism were a response to the materiality and complexity posited by scientism and positivism. Speaking of the turn of the century when Adolf Hitler was still a boy, the French historian Michel Winock voices well the dynamic of escapist desires that I see driving so much of the early sf literature and understanding of that literature, "[B]eneath the political agenda one observed a spiritual reaction against decadence by people who understood the defense of French interests to be that of a completed civilization [an ideal] at war with the new mobility of things and being" (1982, 164; rpt. in Brown, 738). Ironically, it is exactly "the common rank" of this mobility of things and of beings that we have come to expect to see mirrored in hard sf with its resonance of scientism. But in the early years of the genre, motifs of adventure and escape were even more prevalent and were, in fact, the dominant themes in the writing of sf, as E.F. Bleiler analyzes convincingly in his new book Science-Fiction: The Gernsback Years (1998). My global interpretation toward an explanation of this early adventure fiction and the early commentary that was directed toward it is simply that the early pioneers had a penetrating awareness that there was, indeed, an abundance of horror, of degeneration, in mundane narratives and in English studies. Even the future gets acknowledged in this early work as horrible in its materiality—in the arena of English studies the techniques of New Criticism simply uncover more and more materiality, more and more new species of work for "consumption" as Fekete observes—so that it is only the "no place" of a more universalized utopianism that can posit any escape. Adventure fiction, especially space adventure, permits a "blast off’ from the common rank and increasing complexity of our muddled planet.

Most of us toyed in our youth with these images of escape to "far, far better" worlds and periodically return to this Dickensian sentiment—the Golden Age of adolescent readership as Asimov characterizes it. Now at century’s end, I particularly notice an expanding debate about the nature of fascism: sessions at MLA conferences, agonized books, popular treatments in the media. David Carroll, in his French Literary Fascism (1995), writes:

[W]riters and intellectuals saw fascism as a way of restoring the political and cultural values they claimed were an expression of a more profound and truer sense of "Man." In fact, many saw fascism as the way to revitalize a tradition that had, in their mind, been practically destroyed in modernity. (3)

So, for this brief essay of mine as well as for the vast majority of the academic work I am mapping in the essay, it is not just the Johnsonian risk in writing; it is, also, a strange personal conjunction between a period in literary history and a period in "identity" development that drives the work. Many of us are able now—I would argue even that we are obliged now—to look back on a cultural adolescence and a personal adolescence in which universalized hopes for a more "escapist" adulthood haunted our dreams. In my own adolescence I felt the need to blast off to new worlds, and still do; hence I embrace the interpretation this essay extends to me, an interpretation of the realities of history in the one small province of academic literary work on sf, in the context of what has developed from those early days. In addition to my research, I include many personal impressions in the course of this essay because, for one reason, the history of the beginnings of academic work on sf means much to me. And if such a blatantly personal approach needs any further justification than the Johnsonian desire to write that I began with, I refer readers to the fine editorial by Martha Banta in the most recent PMLA (March 1999). Furthermore, the conjunction between pressures on us at the present moment and the pressures we detect from the past seems to me uncanny. Recently I read a newspaper columnist writing on feminist ideas who was reluctant to associate herself with fascism but who felt she had to take the following position:

[E]ach of us can only weigh the facts and bestow the benefit of the doubt on the most credible person.... The latter choice opens one up to the truly disgusting prospect of being lumped in with ... every other "family values" fascist.... It is a risk I will have to take. (Salter, 1999)

So the resonances and uncanny conjunctions are radical, but this only illustrates for me how vital our reading of history may become if we read it personally as Banta urges and if we read about complex materiality over against simpler, utopian values.

Clearly, my own method here seeks to emulate these simpler, utopian visions of the academic pioneers of sf and to ground that emulation in the personal and the contextual of our own sense of oppressive materiality in the present; as Marjorie Garber points out, that is my own fantasy. I will isolate a few early heroes in their isolated work: Bailey, Nicolson, Clareson, Gove and a few others. I may "idealize" their work in ways that can be deconstructed later. Then, as Chris Wrigley comments in his 1998 introduction to some of the work of the provocative and strong-minded historian Alan Taylor, who was also accused of being "soft" on fascism, I choose "to fire off original and provocative ideas" (xxxvi). My goal in these ideas is to bring the isolated work of these early academics in the field together into one story. This story extends from roughly 1930, when Nicolson, Gove, and Bailey were getting started, until 1980, when Wolfe and Suvin had published their key books. Thus an interesting hole is left in the several decades right at the start of the century that includes the Wells/James debate over fiction and the stray critical book such as the 1917 study by Dorothy Scarborough that anticipated what was to come. But I want to link my story and interpretation to Gernsbackian "sensawonder" even though I am dealing with seasoned academics—or especially because of that fact. The bibliography that follows these essays provides the field for more digging; but at this moment I think that a unified vision must be risked lest we assume that there was no unity in the early beginnings of what the English studies people did with sf, that rather it just emerged sluggishly from its own materiality.

On the other hand, no one of these early pioneers is ever totally alone, an outsider, or simply an heroic fascist "escapist." All were workers within the academic systems of their day; several were major leaders of the academic institutions and organizations. But it is the common lonely vision, quirky vision even, that they shared which most intrigues me and which, I suggest, is important to describe now in any history of how sf has come to be studied. My opening example of this Janus-like facing both toward the systems and the materiality of the profession and toward a quirky vision of the future is taken from the career and work of Philip Babcock Gove, born in 1902, educated at Dartmouth, Harvard, and Columbia, and from 1946 until his death in 1972 an editor, eventually editor-in-chief, of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language at Merriam-Webster. Here is a "futurist" paragraph by Gove dated June 1, 1961 that concludes his Preface to that dictionary:

It is now fairly clear that before the twentieth century is over every community of the world will have learned how to communicate with all the rest of humanity.... [This new unabridged dictionary] is offered with confidence that it will supply in full measure that information on the general language [necessary].... (5a)

Gove published a major book twenty years earlier, however, that speaks more to the Tower of Babel in literary studies than to this "general" language that he devoted the rest of his career to managing at Merriam-Webster. With a split vision almost as sharp as that of Samuel Johnson in the Preface to Shakespeare (1765) where particularity is balanced by "General Nature," Gove’s impressive career teeters between an idealist hopefulness in the dictionary work and his pioneer awareness of the forest that he came upon in his early study of sf. The Second World War intervened between these two poles in Gove’s career. He joined the U.S. Navy to fight the fascist enemy and returned from that fight a high officer (lieutenant commander). When he came back a veteran, he had done with the hacking away at the forest of particularity. He turned instead, Johnson-like, to the "general" work of the Dictionary. One cannot be sure about the motivation underlying his work and these career choices, but Gove’s published statements about the scholarly challenges and about the chaotic and vital forest of particularity are clear.

The Imaginary Voyage in Prose Fiction (1941) is the passionate work of a young scholar, rigorously trained, who wants to reach beyond the rigor and the materiality of scholarship and criticism. It is an exciting book that deserves to be better known (the Holland Press in England did reissue it for libraries in 1961), as it demonstrates the intense hopes and "idealist" assumptions of these academic pioneers—assumptions that there was a "new" genre for study on the horizon. Gove’s purpose in the book, which is both a history of criticism and an annotated checklist of early voyage texts, is to provide a groundwork of definition for the imaginary voyage narrative "once for all" (viii). He sees the eighteenth century as the crux moment in time, with a great flowering of voyage writing coming after. Gove’s focus on the eighteenth century as the seedbed for imaginary voyage narratives makes him a true voice in the wilderness. Creation of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies was thirty years in the future, and sf studies were in the pioneering phase that this essay posits. Further, the book itself is wonderfully odd and thorough. The thoroughness is linguistic and scholarly. He annotates voyage literature in languages from Danish to Japanese (I count nine separate literatures); and the body of the text is rich in French, German, and Spanish quotations. The oddness in the book comes across in the opening passionate statement on the need for some order in the study of sf:

Once upon a time there was an aspiring scholar who set out to write a history of the imaginary voyage in English literature. He followed the tracks of others as far as they went and then plunged into uncharted realms, gathering voyages real and fictitious, possible and impossible, extraterrestrial and subterranean, occidental and oriental, preadamitical and millennial. He became uneasy. He saw that many of these voyages were unified not so much by the fact that they were voyages as by the fact that they were evidence of the activity of the human mind, and he found that the voyage-form was basically an often-employed vehicle which took all knowledge to be its province.... The exploration of a channel in the stream of fiction—a channel demanding but defying full exploration—was tempting the discoverer to lose himself in little more than footnote material to a grand encyclopedia of universal knowledge as conceived in the minds of imaginary voyagers in all languages. (3-4)

Youthful idealism is what stands out in this Gove study—and the image of the scholar as voyager. The context, of course, is not only the heavy materiality I mention above but also those awful middle years between the Wars which only anticipated the horror of the Second World War. A final significance to note in the important Gove volume is the inclusion in his bibliography of the H.G. Wells Preface to The Scientific Romances (1933). Appearing in England the same year that Hitler’s rise to power took its first parliamentary steps, and in America the following year, this statement by the old master notes that National Socialism may provide enough "fantasy" in order to preclude the need for any more fantastic narratives—see the strong concluding paragraph in the preface (x). It seems to me ironic and significant, in my reading of this early material, that related urges to universalize, to systematize, to fly high, to escape lay firmly at the base of motivation both for hopeful fascists and for these academic pioneers. The fact that the political, social engineering contingent created monstrous high-flying structures whereas the literary contingent led the way, as pioneers, to a great flowering of academic work on sf may suggest that it is safer to fly high only in the imagination.

The year following the appearance of the Gove book, the poet Muriel Rukeyser published a scholarly and passionately written biography of the statistical chemist and mathematician Willard Gibbs. Rukeyser had won a Yale Younger Poets Award earlier for her hopeful and high-flying long poem Theory of Flight (1935) in which the human ability to escape the dehumanizing materiality of modernism resonates much like pulp sf of the same time period. Her Gibbs study does cite some of the popular science of Eric Temple Bell, known in sf circles by his pen name John Taine; but I think the following introductory statement by her on this non-fiction study of Gibbs captures well the tone of the academic pioneers, whom she probably knew nothing of but who were exploring the neighboring sf regions:

The story of Gibbs is that of the pure imagination in a wartime period. This is the adventure of the system-building spirit in a time of the breaking of systems, the daring "I Give You" to a future that must rise out of wounds. War and after-war are filled with hatred, and this hatred turns against the imagination, against poetry, against structure of any kind. It wants detail, it wants the practical and concrete. The detail of invention can be understood. It is clear to an age that is occupied with material tearing-down and building. (7)

The architectural building Rukeyser evokes, both in the narratives and poems themselves and in the pioneering early stages of scholarship and criticism, had high, universalizing aspirations that I see as defining characteristics of it—even in its aberrations and monstrosities. Albert Speer and his fellow architectural dabbler and Fuehrer wanted to tear down and to rebuild Berlin with high-flying monuments that would last a millennium, and I have argued tentatively elsewhere that such idealism may be echoed in Asimov’s alternate pulp title for the early Foundation stories: The Thousand Year Plan (Green, 1958, 117). My clearly revisionist paper on Asimov and fascism was presented with mixed reception on the same panel with Darko Suvin at the 1998 Utopian Studies Society Meeting in Montréal, as I mention later.

The most well-known early academic to analyze and to categorize such hyperbole of idealism in sf was J.O. Bailey, who is remembered in part because of the aptness of his book title Pilgrims Through Space and Time (1947). His title not only helps to generate my thesis idea here but also provided both the example and wording for the academic award that has been presented since 1970 by the Science Fiction Research Association—the Pilgrim Award. But Bailey’s book also repays careful reading where one discovers the phrases of high-flying that have become so useful as we describe sf. Bailey disagrees with Wells over the need for and relevance of literary "fantasy" and wonder (119). His categories of organization in his exposition include "wonderful" this and "wonderful" that followed by sections on "strange" cities and "strange" worlds in sf. Bailey sets the tone and makes respectable such escapist interpretations of the literature. Further, by the time he was ready for the book, both war and the bomb had impressed themselves on his thinking about this wonderful and strange voyage literature. They no doubt made the work more "escapist," more a reach for the universalized human values that, ironically, were shared by fascists. It will become clear that in the several decades after the end of the Second World War this "motif’ approach to sf evolves into considerably different forms in the work of Darko Suvin, Gary Wolfe, and others; in Bailey’s book the motifs are still, as the fans say, "sensawonder" motifs.

Peter Nicholls notes that "[Bailey] had much trouble finding an academic publisher who would consider sf worthy of serious study" (1979, 56). Indeed, the book had been essentially written in 1934 as Bailey’s doctoral dissertation at the University of North Carolina. What took place, then, in the period of time when he was trying to publish the study, underlined the need for it and, as I suggest above, was a key foundational motivation. Bailey speaks vividly about those events in the opening of the published book:

The military phase of World War II was brought to a startling conclusion by the use of the atomic bomb not only to wipe out two cities, but to threaten the annihilation of a people. The existence of this bomb and the inevitable spread of the secret of its manufacture brings us now, abruptly, into a new era, the Atomic Age, on whose threshold we stand chattering the ancient formulas of Babel.... Many ideas in these books [sf] are really childish. On the other hand, some ideas that seem at first fantastic may be of value as we face a world rendered fantastic by the incredible radio, the inconceivable fact of relativity, and the ghastly power of sub-atomic physics. (1-2)

A little further on in his preparatory pages, Bailey notes again how fresh and even virginal these forests of new material are: "It is time that this body of literature, often considered a curious and childish by-way, is defined, presented in some historical survey, sampled, and analyzed" (10). So even though his own definitions set "the imaginary voyage that has only geographic interest" apart from what he calls "scientific fiction," Bailey acknowledges just as Gove does that the scholarly task before him is one of systematizing and mapping new lands of the imagination. There is, also, nothing childish about this frontier work itself. One of Bailey’s key images of encouragement for himself and of admonition that others should follow (eventually they did in large numbers, as our bibliographies of the later scholarship show) is the Baconian image of the Academy. Swift wanted an Academy for England on the model of the French Academy and the Italian Academy. Johnson was himself nearly a one-man academy. Near the end of his description of the Baconian Academy of the future, Bailey writes:

[T]his University renders obsolete the thinking that underlies piece-meal settlements, national jockeyings, spheres of influence, agreements about the open-secret of the atomic bomb [I found it amusing to see Asimov "upgrade" this phrase to "nuclear" weapon as he reissued Foundation stories].... Such is the simple essence of a proposal repeatedly made in scientific fiction, varied in details from book to book: Let us marshal the brains we have, think the best we can, and act (where action is dangerous) only in accordance with the best wisdom this world affords. (4)

Each of the two academic pioneers I have touched upon so far had a key author from the "University" of the past whom they seemed to want to emulate in their own ground-breaking work. In their emulation they did standard work and had distinguished careers in addition to being, as I argue, "loners" and pioneers in their sf work. Gove emulated "Dictionary" Johnson, and Bailey published significant scholarship on Edgar Allan Poe in PMLA as early as 1942. The next scholarly pioneer in my description of this adventurous train enjoyed the most distinguished academic career of any of her colleagues. Marjorie Hope Nicolson was President of the Modern Language Association in 1962-63 and earlier had been a part of the Arthur 0. Lovejoy "academy" in the early years of the history of science movement at Johns Hopkins University from 1923 to 1926. Yet her contribution to sf studies is also significantly lonely. It may even reflect her own attitude toward the "frontier" nature of the genre that she did not list the title that is most often associated with sf, Voyages to the Moon (1948), in her entry in the Directory of American Scholars (1969, 395).

Nicolson was the first of these academic pioneers whom I knew personally and heard as an academic. My memory is that she was truly exciting as she told us about Tycho Brahe’s discovery of a new star and about Galileo’s startling book of 1610, Sidereus Nuncius. She seemed herself a "starry messenger" to those of us in the Columbia University lecture theaters of the late fifties and early sixties including perhaps a Beat poet or two whom I did not know, Roger Zelazny whom I did know and, a little later, David Hartwell. I wrote about Zelazny at Columbia during those years in my Extrapolation column following his 1995 death.1 And from my point of view, that is where the academic work turned. After Nicolson none of us had to be a lonely pioneer, and eventually some of her students such as Mark Hillegas and, I believe, David Hughes (whose father was the great Milton editor Merritt Y. Hughes) did some solid academic work on sf. But before coming down to earth with that later work, I need to develop more fully the image of Nicolson as lonely messenger. One tends not to emphasize enough how high she flew as she lectured firmly seated behind her table in the well of the hall with small bottles of what we understood were allergy pills spread out before her, perhaps to anchor her. She spoke as Satan must have spoken, not with the high oratory of Pandemonium, which would have been Hitler’s oratory, but as Satan must have spoken later on earth, a little bitter with just the start of the taste of ashes in the mouth. But what she told us soared so high. Here is a typical passage of discovery from one of her early essays "Milton and the Telescope" (1935), later collected in Science and Imagination:

There is still another attitude of mind in these academic exercises [early Milton writings] which, while not specifically concerned with astronomical ideas, was to prove significant in Milton’s thinking, and to make his mind receptive to certain implications in the new astronomy. "Let not your mind," he says, "rest content to be bounded and cabined by the limits which encompass the earth, but let it wander beyond the confines of the world." In spite of the checks which he consciously put upon it, Milton’s was one of those minds of which he speaks in the Areopagitica, "minds that can wander beyond limit and satiety," can play with concepts of time and space, can deal in "those thoughts that wander through eternity." (85)

Those last words from Milton make one think of Byron; but it is Milton’s characterization of Satan himself, I suggest, that we might take as a fit image for the early work on sf and especially that of Nicolson in the history of ideas. Both the admonition from Milton himself in the Prologue to Book VII of Paradise Lost when he advises "fit audience find, though few," and the voyaging and the rebellious assertiveness written into his characterization of Satan are central to understanding the work of Nicolson. In Voyages to the Moon (1948), she calls his journey through Chaos from Hell to Earth the essence of the "cosmic" voyage (54). And surely Satan is illustrative of the danger in such an "heroic" type. Satan is the original fascist hero—a powerful speaker and one who thinks he has certitude about essences. Milton’s narrative demonstrates how impious such efforts at universalizing can be, and yet Satan has won some sympathy from so many readers (including Byron and the sober Professor Nicolson) because of his driven and lonely efforts to escape the reality, the materiality, of heaven and of earth.

Even though she served often and well in various administrative offices—dean, chair, president of MLA as I mention above—during a long and distinguished academic career, Nicolson never took a leadership initiative in the organization of sf studies. My characterization for this element in her career is, clearly, that sf studies played the role of "lonely avocation." There is some evidence for this characterization in her front matter to Voyages to the Moon:

[T]he pressure of academic duties and the writing of articles and a book or two of more immediate concern took precedence over the Voyages to the Moon, which remained an avocation rather than vocation for ten years, a mere hobby for my spare moments. During those years I sought for "flying men" and "flying chariots" whenever my professional duties took me near research libraries.... Because whenever I have lectured on the older themes, audiences have asked innumerable questions about the interplanetary voyages of more modern writers, I have added a brief epilogue [on some "moderns"]. (viii-ix)

For sf studies, Thomas D. Clareson is generally acknowledged as the first good organizer of academic work, the first dean. It may be significant, too, that Clareson had no connection with Columbia University where Nicolson was based in her later career and where Gove had studied and taught; Clareson’s drive to organize the academic field probably took root in his involvement with the strong Philadelphia Science Fiction Society of the 1950s, and his solid academic training was completed at the University of Pennsylvania under the bibliographer and Americanist Robert E. Spiller and others.

But before I describe his seminal "deanship" of the field and move on from his work to the less pioneering phases of this history, I must note in Clareson the image of the "lonely voyager." I knew Clareson well as a colleague, especially during the final years before his death in July 1993, and still rely often on the memories of his widow and co-worker in the early organizing days, Alice Clareson, in order to piece together the history of the man and the work. Clareson’s first job after graduating from the University of Minnesota was in New York City writing for the comic book company Fiction House. He was barely twenty years old and after nine lonely months in New York, as Alice reports in a recent letter to me, he decided to begin graduate work in English at Indiana University in the fall of 1947. Two years later he moved on to the University of Pennsylvania and met the fans Lloyd Eshbach and Sprague de Camp and the others. Much later, Clareson wrote in clear critical terminology about ideas that evoke both his own youthful "voyaging," even restlessness, and its link to the universalizing idealism of sf. I suggest that, just as we read in the character of Satan, the restlessness and, perhaps, misplaced idealism that is identified and defined by its contrast to stifling system, to what I have labeled materiality. The best expression of this position by Clareson appears very late in his well-unified short study Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction (1990); but I think the statement represents exactly the general idea of universalizing heroism, and even escape to that idea from an oppressive yet "scientific" materiality, that governed his earlier thinking and that made him a "pioneer":

[T]he cornerstone of the dark vision of naturalism [in Zola and others]: a brutal, indifferent nature. Caught amid external forces over which the individual has no control and buffeted by chance, humanity becomes the victim of nature.... From the boy inventors and "scientific detectives" to the space operas and future histories of the 1930s and 1940s, the main thrust of the American field projected a single tract into the future.... Most of it was shamelessly optimistic. At the heart of American magazine sf especially lay the dream that the American inventor/engineer would lead the best of humanity outward to the stars. (35-37)

Clareson himself "engineered" and was the acknowledged leader of the move in academic work from avocation and "spare time" pioneering to the next phase. His early pioneering research at Pennsylvania—most of which was bibliographical like Gove’s, Bailey’s, even Nicolson’s, whom I will return to at the end of this essay—was also very conceptual, and he worked essentially at the job of uncovering and describing forgotten texts. Clareson’s early work eventually was published in two important books in the 1980s, but during the time span this essay covers, he was primarily an organizational leader. In a forthcoming essay in Extrapolation that will celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the journal,2 Alice Clareson details these accomplishments of leadership and organization. The first issue of Extrapolation appeared in December 1959, one year after Clareson had chaired the MLA seminar on "The Significance of Science Fiction," and a decade later he became the founding president of the Science Fiction Research Association. In this important organizational work for his fellow academics, Clareson in particular continued to encourage the use of the "escapist" language of adventure and to add to it. The seminal SFRA conference at Queensborough Community College outside of New York retained the Asimovian title it had carried in the previous years, "Secondary Universe" (echoing the "Second Foundation"), while all during his editorship of the journal Clareson continued to call his editor’s column "The Launching Pad" and the section devoted to reviews "Star Cluster." His leadership, as I knew it, not only was characterized by a tone that universalized enthusiasm and adventure but was also generous. He possessed the charismatic ability of the leader to embrace his followers and, by giving loyalty, to inspire commitment in return. He continually would offer praise—such as to the early-dead Scott C. Osborn (1913-1970) of Mississippi State University in the dedication to Voices for the Future (1976): "more than anyone else Scott made possible the MLA Seminar on Science Fiction." He saw that his famous mentor, the Americanist Spiller, was awarded an early honorary degree in 1968 at the College of Wooster, where Clareson taught. Clareson knew and practiced the dynamics of the personal leader. He was, also, a restless man and, though clearly no Satan, made it plain to me late in his life how much he disliked critically the increasing complexity and materiality in the postmodern readings of the literature of sf. It seemed to me almost as though the materiality of the later work threatened to "tie him down" in his reading of the sf he loved.

He edited Extrapolation as well as several collections of essays with less systematic collectivity of judgment and with more individual leadership than later academics working the field felt comfortable with (one result may have been the founding of Science Fiction Studies in the seventies); and yet this pioneering, self-reliant energy earned the respect of scholars around the world who were working in a similar manner. In fact, the middle reaches of this essay must depend on a simple catalog of strong-voiced, Claresonlike academic work that, rather than being voiced in isolation, was beginning to grow to a chorus around the time of the 1958 MLA seminar and immediately after. The chorus includes Julius Kagarlitski, professor of drama in Moscow, with the Russian version of his book on Wells in 1963; Pierre Versins at his museum in Yverdon, Switzerland, with his massive Encyclopédie that began finally to appear after long collection in 1972; and I.F. Clarke in Scotland, who recently has been looking back at his own academic career and in the SFRA Newsletter labels his work that of a "pioneer."3 Clareson’s own generous assessment came in the front matter of his annotated bibliography Science Fiction in America in his reference to "I.F.Clarke’s fine, pioneering The Tale of the Future (1961)" (ix). Another member of this group that was beginning to cohere in the sixties was R.D. Mullen, whom I.F. Clarke eulogizes in precisely those "veteran of foreign wars" glowing terms (not an inappropriate image since Clarke begins by noting that they fought near one another in the Second World War) in this past spring’s issue of the journal that Mullen founded (152-155).

Perhaps one last vestige of the Gove-Nicolson "sensawonder" era in academic work was another British book of 1958, Into Other Worlds: Space Flight in Fiction from Lucian to Lewis, by Roger Lancelyn Green, a Christian reader of sf in the C.S. Lewis tradition. The most famous advocate and spokesman for all of these pioneering academics just before the adventuring lost its glow, and the "material" set in, was Kingsley Amis, the sometime lecturer at Swansea University in South Wales who came to Princeton in 1959 to lecture on sf. The interesting crux, of course, is that his resulting book New Maps of Hell (1960) not only highlighted what the MLA Seminar, and eventually SFRA, wanted to do in the academy but also, in its very title, suggested how the work was changing from that of separate pioneers to collective cartographers of a literature. In the eight or nine years after his lecture, Amis produced a large amount of reviewing and commentary on the genre; I count 38 items in the Gohn Checklist, most in the Observer, during this period. Around 1967, Amis begins to comment much more on Vietnam (38-58). The changes in the commentary on sf were rapidly becoming significant.

H. Bruce Franklin probably captures the essence of what was happening in the critical and scholarly world, as well as in the wider world no doubt, in his comments near the conclusion of Future Perfect (1966) on the popular Amis lectures and his book4:

Today the capitalist world’s literary visions of the future are almost all nightmares. Anti-utopia seems to have triumphed.... The most widely-read survey of the science fiction of the "free world" bears an apt title: New Maps of Hell. In this slough of despondency the dominant nineteenth-century American views of the future may seem laughably quaint and naive. (391)

Franklin moves on nicely in this book, which is part anthology (a bow back to the voyaging bibliographers) and part treatise, to explain the one key tenet of Marxian theory that graphically opposes all images of escape and of a universalized and longed-for heroism. This Marxian principle is demystification. The result of the principle is a growing complexity of theory and a continuing critical literature about what I call above "materiality," that is, a profound interrogation of all images for escape and for an individual and lost sense of heroism. Franklin writes:

They [the Chinese] recognize that the future can never be perfect, for, as Mao Tse-Tung has written again and again, the struggle of contradictions is the essence of life, and to try to congeal the status quo is to cease living. Chinese literature scorns both utopian and anti-utopian fiction, and sees the future, as Marx did, inherit [for "inherent"?] in the dynamic processes of the present. (393)

In the materiality of English studies, Robert Scholes has shown remarkable staying power. Neither heroic leader like Clareson nor believer like Nicolson (I have chosen the final quotation for this essay that will show her pulp-age belief even as an academic), Scholes has seemed to be at the forefront of change in the profession of criticism even to this day. In the 1970s, he teamed with the bright young teacher Eric S. Rabkin to produce summaries of theory on fantasy and fabulation that have been widely accepted. But it was his 1967 solo performance in the little book The Fabulators that broadened the critical discussion toward a better acceptance of the complexity of materiality. The book is not directly focused on sf, nor even on voyage literature; but that is significant in itself because it helps to introduce sf as a credible participant in the wider arena of contemporary literature—a set of associations that an escapist might not desire. I find the emphasis on comic defense most interesting in Scholes. At just that moment in time when I was discovering in my own doctoral dissertation similar comic effects in the proto-science writing of Erasmus Darwin, Scholes talks about defensive tactics in fabulation and includes sf. I quote him at some length, and the end of the passage evokes Samuel Johnson in a way that I find particularly suggestive for this essay and for our academic history in general:

Some accidents are so like jokes that the two are indistinguishable. Moreover, it is possible to conceive of all human history as part of a master plan without thinking of the Planner in quite the traditional way. In an early science fiction novel, now re-released in paperback, Kurt Vonnegut developed such a view. In Sirens of Titan he presented a cosmos in which the whole of human history has been arranged by intervention from outer space in order to provide a traveler from a distant galaxy with a small spare part necessary for his craft to continue its voyage to the other side of the universe. Such purposefulness to entirely extra-human ends is indeed a cosmic joke, but is not intended as such by those superior beings who have manipulated earthly life for their own ends. This novel suggests that the joke is on us every time we attribute purpose or meaning that suits us to things which are either accidental or possessed of purpose and meaning quite different from those we would supply.... To present life as a joke is a way of both acknowledging its absurdity and showing how that very absurdity can be encompassed by the human desire for form. A joke like Dr. Johnson’s [in an Idler paper] acknowledges and counteracts the pain of human existence. In the best of all possible worlds there would be no jokes. (45-46)

The serious escapists that I treat in the early parts of this essay had little sense of humor, and I will return to that enthusiastic idealism at the end.

In the next decade, roughly from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, sf criticism and scholarship by academics flourished in complexity, much of it the analysis of dystopia that Amis and Franklin had predicted, some of it simply structuralist analyses that attempted to get at the complex nature of fantasy and extrapolation. Damien Broderick recently reviewed the anthology series edited by James Gunn, The Road to Science Fiction (1977-82), that got started in the mid-1970s and continues to grow; and Broderick captures nicely the dynamic move to complexity in the literature itself, "[A]s the decades ground away, the writing sharpened and at the same time relaxed, the ideas grew a little more subtle, the terrain to be explored moved behind the eyes."5 If one lives, I think, escape and the voyage give way to "landing" on the terrain, to greater and greater degrees of materiality. One must land, and the sense of reality in both criticism and in politics is more complex the longer one works. Indeed, fascist and idealist positions may be only those of one’s youth. Writers of the Enlightenment loved the standard opposition between Ancient and Modern, and in that opposition the Satanic escape into his own mind and into a fantastic terrain is the trope of an Ancient, both in the sense of being a trope from the past and in the sense of being a rejection of the complexity of modernity. Further, the quality and range of academic work was remarkable in the years near the end of my period, those key decades when Extrapolation had just come on the scene, when Science Fiction Studies broke away and grew, when MLA and then SFRA were rather self-consciously convening academic conferences on sf, something which had not been done before. Some of the work was in disciplines other than English studies. W. Warren Wagar, an historian interested in political theory, published his first important study of H.G. Wells at Yale University Press the same year that Bernard Bergonzi in England produced The Early H.G. Wells: A Study of the Scientific Romances (1961). Lyman Tower Sargent, a political scientist who now has become the strong leader of another offshoot academic organization, the Society for Utopian Studies, participated as a young man in the early meetings led by Clareson, Mullen, Osborn and others. Sargent has done important bibliographic work on utopian writing (1979, 1988), but at this time he published the first edition, to be followed by many others, of a standard textbook Contemporary Political Ideologies (1969). In this year of student protests, he wrote clearly and in a haunting way about the relation of fascism, nationalism, and ideals:

Mussolini’s statements on the role of the state illustrate that the state should be seen as the physical embodiment of the spirit of the nation or, in another way of putting it, of nationalism itself. The state is that thing which brings together the ideas and ideals that form the basis of nationalism. In this sense nationalism and the notion of the state cannot be easily separated for the Fascist. The state is that thing which brings about the ideals of the nation. (115)

Meanwhile, one of the younger members of the original MLA program in 1958 was also working on Wells, dystopian ideas, and efforts to define a canon of sf—that presumably would not be nationalistic. Two journal articles published in 1961 by Mark R. Hillegas evoke the more ambitious academic enterprise that grows out of bibliography—drafting a canon and indexing ideas. His major study of dystopian ideas appeared six years later and attracted the attention of Amis, who reviewed it for the New York Times Book Review (October 22, 1967). No academic had yet written a real "anatomy," or structuralist analysis, of sf, but the effect of Wells as an object of study had seemed to deepen the consideration of ideas. In England Patrick Parrinder produced two valuable studies of Wells in 1972 and 1977 and went on to do an initial review of all of the early scholarship that I have found valuable. Even Jack Williamson, the great voyager and writer from the days of the pulps, had written a doctoral dissertation on Wells in 1964, had begun to gather material on the teaching of sf at the college and university level, and in 1973 published his research on Wells in another book-length study.

Two additional bright, young scholars decided to invest in sf about this time and both appeared in print during the academic year 1969-1970 when anti-war student protests reached a crescendo of violence; and both David N. Samuelson’s Visions of Tomorrow (1969) and Robert Philmus’ Into the Unknown (1970) were read then, and continue to be read, as solidly academic works of criticism. To continue to make use of my key rubric, I would suggest that escapism was taking a new route so that by the end of the decade of the 1970s a more fully analytic and structuralist vision of sf would be in place that could accommodate a wide range of materiality beyond off-planet voyaging and a wide range of tonal effects in a complex world. In the front matter for his 1974 book, New Worlds for Old, that bridges some of the channels between mainstream American writing and sf (remember that J.O. Bailey was a Poe scholar too), David Ketterer writes:

One of the gaps in scholarship that this study proposes to fill—the lack of a relatively sophisticated critical appreciation and theoretical understanding of science fiction, particularly its contemporary manifestations—is presently highlighted by a growing academic interest in the subject. This interest is in response not just to students’ demands for a "relevant" curriculum but also to the evidence that science fiction is in a state of expansion and, to some degree, appears to be closing with "mainstream" literature.... The academic consciousness in Montreal regarding science fiction has been considerably raised thanks to the coincidental presence of two science-fiction critics, Robert Philmus and Darko Suvin, at institutions neighboring my own. (ix, xi)

It was no coincidence that clusters of sf academics began to help each other and the field to grow by the middle 1970s. The density of population for academics doing sf was increasing, and so in a sense the pioneer days were over though the image itself of the "pioneer" remained a central and favorite motif from Bailey to this essay. One indication of how settled, established, and non-pioneer the field had become was the speed and ease in the seventies with which good academic ideas could get published, rehashed, and republished in more permanent form. Even though it was far from the center of academic interest, sf had a professional following and depth, as well as a growing foundation from European theorists such as Tzvetan Todorov devoted to understanding complexity in the arts (1970) that made the work much more than the sparetime avocation that Nicolson had loved. Darko Suvin, in particular, came to sf studies (and came to Montréal) already convinced that literature, structuralist theory about the links between writing, society, and history, and European structuralists and Marxian theorists all must be studied together—the great and complex materiality that fuses popular culture and high culture. Strangely, it is the thinking of Suvin, who is passionately anti-fascist and against all Satanic mystifications and rhetoric about escapism and universalized ideals, that provides the logical support for an interpretation such as this essay where a major historical phenomenon and temporality (fascism) is used to help explain certain academic books and articles. When I saw Suvin recently in Montréal and read my paper on Asimovian fascism right next to his, the irony affected both of us, I think, although I respect the man’s ideas so much that I could hardly be as candid as I can here at the word processor.

But first the much younger and yet equally intense critic, Gary K. Wolfe, must be worked into this story. Since the 1970s, Wolfe has matured into one of the major reviewing voices and authorities on current criticism in the field; but as a new academic he burst on the scene with a formal, more structuralist, organizing theory that moved the Bailey "motifs" analysis of sf considerably forward. Wolfe’s seminal book, The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (1979), which appeared the same year as Suvin’s (discussed below), was published by the same university press that also agreed to support and publish Extrapolation for the Claresons, who had been doing the work out of their home. The year 1979 was a key "settlement" year for sf studies at Kent State University Press. But what is also significant is that Clareson had published the kernel of the Wolfe ideas two years earlier as an essay in his collection Many Futures, Many Worlds. The academic pathways were becoming much more smoothly paved than they had been in Bailey’s day. Here is a key statement from the original essay that represents the book thesis well:

It is this key structural opposition or antinomy and the way it is represented in science fiction that is my concern in this paper. The idea of the known-unknown opposition should not be a startling one to any reader of science fiction, and indeed the importance of this opposition has been implied without being directly stated by a number of critics. Ketterer, for example, talks about the symbolic destruction of the "real" world (the known) by the creation of new ones (the unknown) by the "apocalyptic" writer. Suvin has written of the importance of defamiliarization and estrangement —making the known seem unknown—in science fiction. Todorov has similarly noted that science fiction often confronts the reader with an unknown or "supernatural" event, but that the reader "ends by acknowledging its ‘naturalness.’" And Scholes speaks of the necessity for a "radical discontinuity" in which extrapolations "must depart from what we know." In each of these cases, the critic sees fantastic literature in general and science fiction in particular as bringing together the known or familiar with the unknown or bizarre. (96)

It is clear that Wolfe is very accomplished at bringing together, synthesizing, and then moving forward with ideas from critics before him, whose work has been cited here above (I omit his own citations to them in order to avoid too much labyrinthine intertextuality). This is material complexity, academic complexity, a sign of maturity in a field of study.6

Yale University Press is much nearer to the center of the academic world than Kent State, and in 1979 that press also contributed hugely to the maturation and establishment of sf studies into a full materiality with the publication of Suvin’s Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. Suvin had been teaching in North America since 1967, when he emigrated from the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Zagreb in Yugoslavia; he left to come to us due to what he refers to in his 1984 collection of essays on Brecht and the theater, (which includes a wonderful piece on the Paris Commune of 1871) as "sharp differences in opinion with a nationalist group" (xi). Always in his thinking, Suvin is an internationalist and a militant opponent of all escapist and nationalist "illusions." The young European dramaturge, as he characterizes himself so vividly in the Brecht book, can be clearly seen in the Marxian materialist of the 1979 book. Here is what he writes as he settles on the title for the book, and one can infer the generative "mother" root for the key word "matter" or materiality so much so that one thinks, also, by contrast, of the strong father of fascism, "[T]he pleasing blend of protean formal-cum-substantial process identified by the (Lucretian rather than Ovidian) metaphor of metamorphosis kept recurring in my typewriter so often that I finally, as a materialist should, surrendered to my matter, hominum deorumque genitrix [mother of both men and gods]" (xv). His structuralist analysis, then, of the blending of science and fiction in the term of his that has become so familiar by now, "cognitive estrangement," follows with full development. I particularly appreciate his critical highlighting of the texts that both tie sf down to a solid materiality and also allow critics to range widely across that terrain with new readings. Here is what Suvin says near the conclusion of his book on one of his favorite anti-fascist writers, Karel Capek:

[H]is final SF play, The White Sickness, fits well into an ideational development toward an active anti-fascism, a critique of militarism, chauvinism.... And for SF at least, he—rather than Edgar Rice Burroughs or Hugo Gemsback—is the missing link between H.G. Wells and a literature which will be both entertaining (which means popular) and cognitively (which means also formally) avantgardist. He took the adventure novel and the melodramatic thriller and infused all this with the prospects of modern poetry, painting, and movies, with an eager and constant interest in societal relationships, in natural and physical sciences, and above all in the richly humorous and idiomatic language of the street and the little people. In that way, he is the most "American" (281-82)

This appeal by Suvin through his favorite Czech anti-fascist to the myth of "America" enables me to conclude my own narrative about a slice of the academic world in a nicely rounded and artful way. Suvin and his fellow structuralists teach us clearly that there are greater degrees of freedom in complex materialism; and they lead us to the post-structural, to the postmodern. But, after all, it is not only the "melting pot" image of America but also the image of the rugged, unsettled frontier—new lebensraum—that appealed to Europeans long before Frederick Jackson Turner. In his youth, Hitler avidly pored over German versions of James Fenimore Cooper; his version of fascism clearly included a longing for the frontier. (see Toland, 1976).

Thus just as Christians such as Milton are fascinated by the character of Satan and, at the same moment, determined to resist his tempting, so too a reading of the early sf academics may discover in them a "frontier individualism" that may no longer be desirable and that is gradually settling. Nevertheless, I must end with the pure sense of the ideal, the desire to rebel, perhaps a touch of lost innocence in the academic world. I cite first my own comments on Mark Hillegas in my editor’s column in Extrapolation six years ago7:

Hillegas had written his dissertation on a science fiction topic under the direction of Marjorie Hope Nicolson, who had been the second Pilgrim winner and primarily a seventeenth-century scholar. Then Hillegas [in his acceptance speech for the 1992 Pilgrim Award] recalled his own memories of study in New York and of the early days of sf scholarship. His reminiscences sound to me like Asimov or other New York Futurians such as Pohl or Wollheim talking about the start of fandom or like stories I have heard from Tom Clareson about the beginnings of Philadelphia fandom. Hillegas writes, "The study and teaching of science fiction and fantasy as well as of utopian literature and thought were for me a kind of rebellion against the old order in the humanities." (99-100)

Finally, to complement the "rebellion" of her student, I go back to something Marjorie Nicolson wrote in the Preface to her first book, published in 1930, because, after so many male, universalizing rebels and idealists, it is good, I think, to give the last word to this small-sized woman with the tough, pioneering spirit. In fact, Nicolson may be the Susan Calvin of this story. But remember too how Bailey evoked the Baconian "academy." (When Asimov created his own Bailey, I think he might have had the Pilgrim scholar in mind. But that is another story.) Here is Nicolson writing on the debt to America that frees us, giving us the opportunity to write:

[T]hat debt which, in common with so many others, I owe to the impersonal generosity which is America’s great gift to leaming. Could Francis Bacon return for a brief space to these glimpses of the moon, he would not be dismayed to see the application of his ideas today. He would nod his head approvingly over motors and machines; over the way in which his followers (for so he would consider those who have produced both Experiments of Light and Experiments of Fruit) have harnessed the lightning, forced the unwilling air to speak, given wings to man. Most of all, perhaps, he would exult that, in a New Atlantis, splendid generosity has given lavishly of wealth for his supreme aim—the Advancement of Learning. In the establishment of gifts and scholarships, in the scientific foundations of this nation, in the large-mindedness which gives, and asks no personal return, he would find his Great Idea. (xv)

Wealth, large-mindedness, and the absence of a need for "returns" may all be characteristics of a lost frontier; but they drove the earlier, less professional days of academic work so that Nicolson and the others could spend their spare time well on sf. Such were some of the more "adventuresome" and innocent values that governed the beginnings of this academic work.


1. Donald M. Hassler. "Roger Zelazny." Extrapolation 37.1 (Spring 1996): 3-4.

2. Alice Clareson. "Carry On, Extrapolation!" Extrapolation 40.4 (Winter 1999).

3. I.F. Clarke. "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" SFRA Review 235-36 (Aug./Oct. 1998): 3-4.

4. The passages by Franklin quoted here were apparently added by him to his 1966 text in 1968 with a second copyright—I have the 1970 reprint of the latter. By 1968 the implications of the decade that, for our purposes, may be called the post-Amis decade, were becoming clearer. Thus the two passages, I think, are telling both in what they say and in their textual add-on nature. The study of sf was coming down to earth.

5. Damien Broderick. "James Gunn’s The Road to Science Fiction." The New York Review of Science Fiction 11.8 [April 1999]: 4.

6. In 1979 and the years just preceding, a number of key academic enterprises also began. Business in sf studies was becoming settled and growing, and solid academic "returns" were realized: the Frank Magill Survey of Science Fiction Literature in 5 volumes; other massive reference book projects, most notably Neil Barron’s first Anatomy of Wonder in 1976 and Peter Nicholls’s Encyclopedia in 1979 (Nicholls along with Malcolm Edwards had begun Foundation: the Review of Science Fiction in 1972); the Starmont Reader’s Guides edited by Roger C. Schlobin (Eric S. Rabkin published the first of these in 1979 on Arthur C. Clarke); and finally more and more essay collections such as that edited in 1976 by Mark Rose of Harvard and the Taplinger series on Writers of the 21st Century edited by Joseph Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg. The last series aborted after three volumes, but Greenberg, a political scientist, has gone on to publish more books than any of us. Each of these large projects involved other academics, so that a list of the names here that I have not yet mentioned indicates not only how much work was done in the 1970s but also what was to come: Willis E. McNelly, Stephen H. Goldman, Walter E. Meyers, George Slusser, Brian Stableford, Franz Rottensteiner, John Clute, Charles Elkins, Ivor A. Rogers, Kathleen Spenser, Joe De Bolt, John R. Pfeiffer, Patricia S. Warrick, Francis J. Molson, H.W. Hall, Thomas J. Remington, Rob Reginald, Marshall Tymn, Carl B. Yoke, and Mary T. Brizzi, among many others. In fact, the enormity of this note represents a true materiality, almost a joke as Scholes might say, in its fecundity, in its carnival quality of so many voices crying out to be heard.

7. "Far from Trantor." Extrapolation 34.2 (Summer 1993): 99-100.

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