Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Albert Page Mitchell (1852-1927)

Edward Page Mitchell
Journalist, Editor, Short Story Writer
Born March 24, 1852, Bath, Maine
Died January 22, 1927, New London, Connecticut

The first thing to do here is to deal with the problem of names. "Albert Page Mitchell" is the name that appeared on the cover of two issues of the Sam Moskowitz Weird Tales of 1973-1974. That same name serves as a byline on the table of contents and in the interior of the magazine. These two issues of Weird Tales came out at about the same time as a book called The Crystal Man: Stories by Edward Page Mitchell, collected and with a biographical perspective by Sam Moskowitz. That biographical perspective, entitled "Lost Giant of American Science Fiction," is a sixty-three page survey of American science fiction of the nineteenth century with a discussion of Mitchell's place therein. Overall, it's an admirable piece of work, but unless I'm missing something, not once is Mitchell referred to as "Albert Page Mitchell." There is mention of Mitchell's cousin, Albert G. Page, but otherwise, the Christian name "Albert" doesn't appear in relationship to the author, and he is referred to in every case either as "Mitchell" or "Edward Page Mitchell." (Moskowitz even calls him once "Edgar Page Mitchell.") So what's going on here? I can think of two possibilities: One, in rediscovering Mitchell, Moskowitz knew he had a scoop and he didn't want anybody to know about it before his book came out. Two, Moskowitz made a colossal mistake, conflating the names "Albert G. Page" and "Edward Page Mitchell" in the magazine Weird Tales. I can't see that Moskowitz would have gained anything by using a false name to protect his privy information. To me Moskowitz's use of the name "Albert" just looks like a blunder. If you do an Internet search on "Albert Page Mitchell," you'll find nothing but references to those two issues of Weird Tales (and an entry in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database). As far as I can tell, no one before or since has called Mitchell by the name "Albert Page Mitchell."

So Edward Page Mitchell it is.

Mitchell's biography is on Wikipedia. You can read it by clicking on this link. That biography seems to have been based on Moskowitz's own work in The Crystal Man. If Moskowitz is correct, then Mitchell--whom he called "'The Missing Link' in the history of American science fiction"--wrote the earliest known stories or very early stories on the topics of:
  • Faster-than-light travel ("The Tachypomp," 1874)
  • Teleportation ("The Man Without a Body," 1877)
  • Mind transfer ("Exchanging Their Souls," 1877)
  • Cybernetics ("The Ablest Man in the World," 1879)
  • Cryogenic preservation ("The Senator's Daughter," 1879)
  • Surgical alteration of personality ("The Professor's Experiment," 1880)
  • An invisible man ("The Crystal Man," 1881)
  • A time machine ("The Clock That Went Backward," 1881)
  • A friendly alien life form ("The Balloon Tree," 1883)
  • A mutated human with superior powers ("Old Squids and Little Speller," 1885)

Mitchell was a journalist; all of his known fiction was first published by his employer, the New York Sun, between 1874 and 1886. (1) Mitchell's first story, entitled "The Tachypomp," appeared in the Sun in January 1874 and again in Scribner's Monthly in April 1874. Concerned with faster-than-light travel in a decidedly non-Einsteinian way, "The Tachypomp" is also notable for its mention of an android and a tunnel through the earth. I'm not sure if Mitchell coined the term tachypomp, but its construction is simple enough: tachy, from the Greek, meaning "swift" or "rapid," and pomp, from the Latin, meaning "procession," also from the Greek, "to send." According to Wikipedia, physicist Gerald Feinberg coined the term tachyon for a hypothetical faster-than-light particle in 1967. Feinberg could not have known that an obscure nineteenth-century American writer anticipated his construction.

Edward Page Mitchell spanned American science fiction from Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909), whom he knew as a young man, to Garrett P. Serviss (1851-1929) and Edward Bellamy (1850-1898), whom he met later in life. Mitchell also knew Frank Stockton (1834-1902), Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891), and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (1828-1914). Although he was interested in fantasy, science fiction, the supernatural, and the occult, Mitchell remained a solid citizen and a family man. He was on the editorial staff of the Sun in 1897 when Virginia O'Hanlon wrote her now famous letter asking if there is a Santa Claus. (2) My reason for bringing this up is not just to make a connection between Mitchell and a famous event. In 1991, Ed Asner played Edward P. Mitchell in a TV movie version of Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus. That would make Mitchell one of only a few Weird Tales authors to have been played in a movie or television show. (3)

Edward Page Mitchell died on January 22, 1927, in New London, Connecticut, at the age of seventy-four. It would take nearly half a century and the work of Sam Moskowitz--despite his mistakes--for him to be recognized as a major figure in American science fiction of the nineteenth century.

Notes
(1) Mitchell, an 1871 graduate of Bowdoin College, didn't begin working for the Sun until October 1875. He worked for newspapers in Maine and in Boston before that. Mitchell remained with the Sun the rest of his career, reaching the post of editor-in-chief in 1903 and retiring in 1922. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain taught at Bowdoin in two stints. His teaching was interrupted by service during the Civil War. He resigned in 1883.
(2) The reply--"Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus"--was written by another editor, Francis Pharcellus Church.
(3) Two others: Robert E. Howard played by Vincent D'Onofrio in The Whole, Wide World (1996), a fine and sympathetic biopic of the creator of Conan the Cimmerian; and H.P. Lovecraft played by Jeffrey Combs and others in various films.

Edward Page Mitchell's Stories in Weird Tales
"The Balloon Tree" (Winter 1973, originally in the New York Sun, Feb. 25, 1883)
"The Devilish Rat" (Summer 1974, originally in the New York Sun, Jan. 27, 1978)

The Crystal Man, Doubleday Science Fiction from 1973, compiled and with a historical and biographical essay by Sam Moskowitz. The artist is unknown.
I presume this is the same book in a Spanish edition.
Mitchell's work was also translated into Italian. His story, "An Uncommon Sort of Spectre," appeared in this book for youngsters.

Revised slightly and corrected, January 22, 2017.
Text and captions copyright 2012, 2017 Terence E. Hanley

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