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Creatures of their time: Shirley Jackson and John Campbell

I recently read two excellent biographies of literary figures:

“Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life,” by Ruth Franklin,

“Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction,” by Alec Nevala-Lee.

Franklin’s is a traditional literary biography, going through Jackson’s life in fine detail and focusing on her writing, while Nevala-Lee offers more of a view from 30,000 feet, telling lots of great stories but in some places skipping quickly over decades of his subjects’ lives—unavoidable, I guess, given that he’s writing about four authors, not just one.

Both of these are books about cult figures in literature, and the biographers handle this in different ways. Franklin’s particularly interested in Jackson’s literary output; she writes a lot about Jackson’s style, content, and influences; and she’s a partisan, arguing that Jackson deserves respect and should not simply be considered as an upmarket horror writer. For me to understand this argument better, I’d like to see comparisons to some other authors such as V. C. Andrews or Steven King who have more of a mass-market feel, not to mention modern young-adult novels such as Twilight, Gone, etc. I’m curious if Franklin thinks that Jackson’s novels are serious and these others are mere pulp, of if she (Franklin) would argue in favor of the literary merits of the entire genre.

Nevala-Lee goes in the opposite direction, almost never considering the literary quality, or even the experience of reading, the short stories and novels that come up in his narrative. Nevala-Lee’s book is very readable and has lots of fascinating material on the life and times of his subjects, but I was kinda disappointed not to hear more about the science fiction stories themselves—what made them work or not work, how readable are they today, etc. I’m not just talking here about discussions of literary style; also I’d like to see more on the actual content of these stories. There was lots of fascinating stuff on the collaboration between editor and authors, just not so much on the final product. The other difference compared to Franklin is that Nevala-Lee is not a partisan of the authors he writes about; indeed, he spends a lot of time on their various personal and political flaws. Of course Nevala-Lee values these writers—otherwise he wouldn’t have written a book about them—but he doesn’t spend much time trying to bolster their status.

I recommend both books, even though they’re very different. We’ve talked before about the lack of overlap in the communities of literary and genre fiction, and you see that complete lack of overlap in these two books as well.

Shirley Jackson actually published a story in Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine, so I guess some connection could be made, but Nevala-Lee doesn’t really discuss the non-SF world at all, while Franklin mentions science fiction on only one page her biography, as a lead-in to the non-realistic elements of Jackson’s novel, The Sundial.

The most interesting thing I noticed when reading these two biographies, though, was something not explicitly mentioned in either book, and this is how much Jackson and Campbell et al. were people of their time.

Campbell was born in 1910, Jackson in 1916, and they both had success in their thirties and forties, smack in the middle of the twentieth century. And what charmingly mid-century people they were! They drank like John Cheever characters. Jackson and her husband were bohemians who listened to jazz records. As for Campbell et al. . . . I didn’t take notes when reading the book, and I can’t pick out any particular bits, but let me assure you that, when I was reading it, I kept thinking about Shirley Jackson. No similarities between the people, but they were just so “of their time” in how they lived and expressed themselves. I guess this struck me because, as authors, Jackson and Campbell etc. were writing stories that were not particularly time-bound. If you tell me John O’Hara was a man of his time, I’d say, sure, that’s what I’d expect, given that he was a sort of literary sociologist. But writers of parables or science fiction, that’s different.

One other thing. In the second half of his life, Campbell became an enthusiast for all sorts of pseudoscience. Regarding one particularly ridiculous idea, Campbell wrote, “I have a Campbell Machine, derived from the Hieronymus Machine, that works, too. Only it’s based on something so insane that it makes the Hieronymus Machine look as conventional as a shovel.”

“Something so insane,” indeed.

But here’s the kicker. According to Nevala-Lee, “There were inquiries from Bell Aircraft and the RAND Corporation, and Claude Shannon offered to test it, although the timing never worked out.”

People were such suckers back then! Now I understand why Martin Gardner felt the need to write that book. Back in the 1950s, educated people believed all sorts of ridiculous things that they wouldn’t believe today, unless they had some sort of political motivation.

The whole thing gives me a new take on those Heinlein stories where a genius builds a time machine in his basement. It’s like they thought this was a realistic scenario.

32 Comments

  1. Jonathan (another one) says:

    All great (and sometimes even bad) noncontemporaneous fiction does two things: it makes you realize just how time-bound the author is at the same time it makes you understand how much like you the author is. Then, if you’re really lucky, it can give hints as to how time-bound you are. Indeed, my biggest problem with contemporary fiction (even though I read a fair amount of it) is that it really can’t do much of either of these things. At *its* best, it can tell you how *different* the author is than you, which is much less interesting, at least to me.

  2. jim says:

    “Back in the 1950s, educated people believed all sorts of ridiculous things that they wouldn’t believe today”

    Today educated people believe in all kinds of ridiculous things that have been proven wrong over and over.

    That genetically engineered foods are bad for the environment
    The Population Bomb (many believe the principle is still valid, timing just a *little* off!)
    Peak oil / resource (temporarily closeted, but sure to emerge at the first opportunity to generate leverage)
    Organic food is better for you (and any number of other wacky health theories [See Brian Wansink])
    Sleep mythology?? :)

    What does it mean to be “educated”? Most “educated” people have a very narrow technical education that has little direct relevance to most of the real world. The fact that a person can do multilevel modelling or coding or math doesn’t mean she knows anything about natural resources, much less the health value of organic produce. Educated people are just as subject to their personal beliefs and biases as uneducated people. In the late 1960s and early 1970s many educated people abandoned their careers for all kinds of wierdo guru movements.

    No doubt 2100 will have us looking back at 2020 and admiring the nonsensical things educated people believed then, and congratulating ourselves for not believing in *that* kind of nuttiness now! :)

    • Andrew says:

      JIm:

      Sure. But the stupid that people believe today is a different sort of stupid than what they believed in the 1950s.

      • jim says:

        “the stupid that people believe today is a different sort of stupid”

        When you read about any period in history seems to me like people still pretty much go in for the same junk. Different variables and constants, same form of equation.

        Sorry though, I shouldn’t have singled out stats and coding people. People in natural sciences also have irrational beliefs – the population bomb is a favorite, as is the fear of GE foods. But math and coding makes a nice contrast with the physical world.

        • anon e mouse says:

          I had an old-school Ehrlich acolyte/coauthor for two different undergraduate environmental politics/policy courses in the political science department at my undergrad institution 15+ years ago, and even as a fairly lefty environmentalist I found it unbearable. Fortunately, I also had to take environmental economics, and while that was irritating in an entirely different way, it certainly gave me an understanding of why no one buys the Population Bomb hypothesis anymore. Later, in grad school, I learned that some of the more extreme lefty social sciences and humanities academics call Ehrlich-style neo-Malthusianism “eco-fascism,” which I never liked much as a term, but isn’t entirely wrong either.

          • confused says:

            I really think that being too unwilling or at least slow to reject/distance from these things has hurt environmentalism in general. It doesn’t really help our case talking about e.g. climate change when people can point to these crazy population predictions.

            This is one reason why I think there should be a clearer distinction between projections of *climate changes themselves* and projections of *their effects on society*. Energy balances can be calculated, but I don’t think any projection of e.g. economic effects 200 years from now can possibly mean anything, given that the economy is largely driven by technology…

            • jim says:

              confused says:

              “I think there should be a clearer distinction between projections of *climate changes themselves* and projections of *their effects on society*. “

              Yes I agree that’s a critical distinction. However, the climate change itself is also driven by technology and social behavior. It’s not driven by an unstoppable natural force. Just as feedback drives global temps higher, the feedback loop could reverse with changes in society. This is obviously what compels people to claim regulations are necessary; but regulations aren’t the only thing that can drive change and as we saw with the population bomb and other scares, the economy and/or society created those changes on its own.

              It’s intriguing that Norman Bourlag’s work was funded by the Rockefeller foundation – with oil money. So it’s definitely possible for the economic benefits of an activity that is in some sense damaging to far outweigh the costs. And it’s also possible that those economic benefits will ultimately lead to a solution to the problem. So that’s another complicating factor in deciding whether or not society should impose economic restrictions: the costs aren’t always obvious.

    • Phil says:

      jim, you say “Today educated people believe in all kinds of ridiculous things that have been proven wrong over and over”, which I think is true.

      But two of the items on your list seem a little weird:

      “That genetically engineered foods are bad for the environment”. If what you’re saying here is that there are people who believe that all genetically engineered foods are bad for the environment, then sure, perhaps there are some people who believe that and I agree that that’s ridiculous. But if you’re saying it’s ridiculous to think that _any_ genetically engineered foods are bad for the environment, you are probably wrong about that in practice and it’s certainly not ridiculous to think that some genetically engineered foods are bad for the environment. For instance, “Roundup-ready” crops have led to widespread use of glyphosate (herbicide), which most researchers of Monarch butterflies think is largely responsible for the collapse of milkweed populations and thus the Monarch butterfly, whose population is something like 1% of what it was twenty years ago.

      “Sleep mythology?? :)” perhaps you’re kidding with this one. Some of the more extravagant claims about sleep are probably wrong, but…well, Christie Aschwanden had a well-researched chapter on sleep in her book “Good To Go” https://statmodeling.stat.columbia.edu/2019/06/26/book-review-good-to-go-by-christine-aschwanden/ and I think there’s little question that, at least among athletes, many would perform better if they got more sleep than they do.

      • jim says:

        Phil!!

        Good to hear from you!

        “But if you’re saying it’s ridiculous to think that _any_ genetically engineered foods are bad for the environment, you are probably wrong about that in practice “

        My meaning was the former of your examples, but I will address the above:

        I’d go further than you did. I would say all technologies inflict some kind of environmental damage – except insofar as it makes some existing technology less damaging, and even then there are frequently tradeoffs. If we characterize “agriculture” as a technology, I suggest that overall Roundup and roundup-ready crops make agriculture less damaging by reducing it’s total footprint. It has a very visible negative impact – ultimately killing monarch butterflies – but that negative is a tradeoff for greater benefits. I’m not ready to argue this point in detail with respect to roundup and roundup ready crops. I don’t know the specifics and don’t intend to spend the afternoon digging them up.

        The point about sleep was a joke about Walker’s book being panned on Andrew’s blog – which is why I didn’t point to a specific misbelief. On a previous comment you wrote: “but, the broad claim that not sleeping enough is bad for you is supported by mountains of evidence.” I agree with this.

  3. Manuel says:

    People of their time, indeed. In more recent times, we all know time machines are builts in garages, not basements.

  4. Brent Hutto says:

    L. Ron Hubbard

  5. Jonathan (another one) says:

    What things that you believe today are products of the zeitgeist and will be regarded as borderline crazy 50 years from now? From the 1970s to 2010, lots of people feared high cholesterol diets despite not a single study showing that blood serum cholesterol (what we measure) was directly affected by dietary cholesterol. The effect of dietary cholesterol on heart health was debunked in the scientific literature for thirty years before it made its way (via removal) into the official cardiac dietary recommendations. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6024687/

  6. “Back in the 1950s, educated people believed all sorts of ridiculous things that they wouldn’t believe today, unless they had some sort of political motivation.”

    That’s what I would call a big unless.

    • Andrew says:

      Jordan:

      I followed your link that led to a discussion of poetry being called nonfiction and this reminded me of a post from a few years ago about misplaced categories. My favorite example was, the book 70 Years of Best Sellers, which lists Charlie Brown, Pogo, and the Bible as nonfiction. You could maybe make an argument for one or two of these, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone could put all three of them in the nonfiction category!

      • Hiroaki Minato says:

        Dear Andrew,

        I happened to watch a Japanese quiz show last night, which asked why a Martian has been drawn like an octopus. The show explained an Italian astronomer discovered a “canali” (line), which was mistranslated to “canal” in French. For such an engineered construction, an existence of highly intelligent Martians were speculated—with a big brain/head and thin legs (due to the lower gravity). The imagination also spread to the science fiction writers like H. G. Wells, whose book was adopted into Orson Welles’s radio drama with that famous episode in 1938. Along with your blog post, I’ve just thought it is interesting that these interactions of science, culture, and society could sometimes blur a distinction between fiction and nonfiction.

        Hiro

  7. Jeff says:

    I wasn’t alive in the 1950s but it seems like a lot of the “belief” in psionic abilities boiled down to an X-Files edition of Pascal’s Wager. It cost relatively little to investigate whether there was anything to it. Probably there wasn’t, but on the other hand if there was, we wouldn’t want the Soviets to pull ahead.

  8. Gib Bassett says:

    In the 1950s the appearance of South America seeming to fit into Africa, like a puzzle piece, was a coincidence.

  9. Sean says:

    On backyard rocketships, the thing which strikes me: L. Sprague de Camp was a trained engineer (BSc Aeronautical Engineering from CIT, MSc Stevens Institute of Technology). He, Heinlein, and Asimov all did war work related to engineering, with Heinlein IIRC in more of a ‘manager’ or ‘personnel’ role. And in his histories and fiction he tends to have a much more modest view of what a lone genius can achieve than Heinlein or Campbell did. Of course, he did not think he was a very good engineer :)

    • Andrew says:

      Sean:

      Yes, there’s some great discussion of all that in Nevala-Lee’s book. I wish Nevala-Lee had talked more about the science fiction stories themselves—after all, that’s the source of these people’s fame—but the life stories and sociological background were fascinating. Also it’s so much more inspiring to think of someone developing a rocket in the backyard than to think of someone making a zillion dollars off a juicemaker app, or whatever it is that the kids are dreaming of these days.

      • Sean says:

        Andrew: my copy is not to hand, but I think Alec Nevala-Lee’s target audience is the people who have read everything Heinlein and a good sample of what Asimov and de Camp wrote, but don’t know that during the Golden Age Hubbard was just as prominent a SF writer as the other three, or have a slanted view of Campbell’s turn to the weird and racist. The official life of RAH is supposed to go into every stage of editing every book, but not into why Heinlein and Ginny were unable to have children or his weirder ideas about the world he lived in. And a good technical term for what Nevala-Lee is doing is =prosopography=: he is interested in social networks and relationships and supporting figures not just the DEEDS OF GREAT MEN. I think it comes from his training in Greek and Roman Studies.

        • Andrew says:

          Sean:

          Interesting. So maybe I should read separate biographies of Heinlein, etc., to learn more about their writing, and think of the Nevala-Lee book as a supplement to that. I guess there’s no easy answer here. In her biography of Franklin, Jackson managed to cover both the life and the work, but (a) Nevala-Lee was writing about four authors, not just one, and (b) two of those four authors were famously prolific.

          P.S. I’ve never read a biography of Asimov, but there was a hilarious scene featuring Asimov in one of Riad Sattouf’s books.

  10. Eric B Rasmusen says:

    John Campbell was a romantic scientist, and that was part of his success. He’d imagine that a kid like Isaac Asimov could be a great author— and then be right. So he wanted very much to believe in the self-made scientist and inventor too.

    Campbell’s book of op-eds is very good. It starts with the one where he condemns the FDA official who was lauded for failing to approve thalidomide, thus averting the birth defects disaster that occurred in Europe—because the official kept it banned for irrational reasons and just got lucky. I’ve been thinking of that in this covid era.

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