Monday, January 23, 2012

Volney G. Mathison (1897-1965)-Part 1


When I started this blog, I set out to show that pulp magazines and their authors did not exist on an island, that they were in fact part of the larger world of history and culture. Volney G. Mathison is a case in point, for his life was shaped by historical events large and small, everything from the theorizing of a now obscure nineteenth century economist to the early twentieth-century enthusiasm for radio to mid-century religion sprung from science fiction. The putative facts on his life are curious and in some places contradictory. What you read about him on the Internet may be inaccurate, misinformed, or even maliciously fabricated. I may not have the whole story, but I think I can lay down a foundation for his biography. L. Ron Hubbard will rear his head as he has in previous blog entries. This time it will be by design and in relationship with an associate who contributed to Weird Tales magazine, the author and inventor Volney G. Mathison, also known as Dex Volney.


The story of Volney G. Mathison begins with his immigrant parents, their peregrinations, and their efforts at eking out a living in a new world. Described by his son as "a restless, intellectual, itinerant laborer of Norse descent," Fred Mathison was born in Denmark in October 1859 and came to the United States in the 1870s. By the time he showed up in the public record--in 1900--he was married and living in the Pacific Northwest, employed as a day laborer. (1) With him were his young wife, Agnes Mathison, and their two-year-old boy named Volney.

Agnes Mathison (maiden name unknown) was born in Germany in October 1877 and immigrated in the 1880s. According to Volney Mathison's later account, his mother was only sixteen when he was born. (If the 1900 census is correct, she would have been nineteen instead.) He claimed that she was from "a once-wealthy German family that had been wiped out in some Prussian war." If that's so, she had fallen far by the time her son came into the world on what he called "a poverty-stricken cotton ranch in Texas." Officially, Volney G. Mathison was born on August 13, 1897, in Paducah, Texas, a small north-Texas town, later home of the original Marlboro Man.
They lived in a dugout [Volney wrote of his family]--a hole in the ground with a sod roof over it. The mother, while carrying her baby, hoed cotton all day long, barefooted under the blazing sun. The total proceeds for this back-breaking labor for a whole year, as she computed it in advance, would be only about $65. So, as she hoed, she said frantically, savagely to herself: "I've got to get out of here! I'll DIE if I don't get out of here!"
* * *
When the baby was born [he continued], the little 96-pound mother had but scanty clothing for the infant, the sod hut was draughty, and during a January "blue norther," the temperature dropped so low the baby nearly froze to death.
Soon after her son was born, Agnes Mathison escaped the hoe and the hole to the Pacific Northwest. Nineteen hundred and the Federal census found the Mathison family in Coos County, Oregon. Volney Mathison, having survived the north-Texas winter, was then two years old. His younger sister, Eva G. Mathison, was born a couple of years later in Oregon. Eight years after that, the three of them--Agnes (then calling herself "Bertha A. Mathison"), Volney, and Eva--were living in a small town in Alabama. In a search of the 1910 census, however, Fred Mathison, comes up missing.

So what carried the Mathison family from Oregon to Alabama? And what happened to Fred Mathison? Volney Mathison's account of his parents' life on that Texas ranch offers a lead.
The evenings in the sod abode were spent mostly with the intellectual father reading aloud to the mother from the monumental political work of Henry George--"Progress and Poverty." This book undertakes scientifically to expose the fallacies of some conventional beliefs on economics. The father closed each evening with the reiterated, i.e., duplicated, comment: "You see, you can't believe much of what you hear. You must use your own eyes, read up-to-date scientific books, and always find out what is really going on. One must be wary about believing things people declare are 'eternal truths'. One must always investigate and find out the facts." [The emphasis is Mathison's.]
Mathison's account--apparently written without any sense of irony--is a revealing one. It not only leads to the likely reason for the Mathison family's relocation to Alabama, it also implies that Mathison identified with his father through his embrace of his father's beliefs. Moreover, Mathison expressed admiration for beliefs that--for better or worse--now exist only along the fringes of economic thought. His tone suggests the voice of a crank. Whether that voice was his father's or his own is open to interpretation. In any case, Mathison lets us know that his father's words were repeated not just to his mother. Young Volney must have heard them again and again throughout his childhood.

As for Mathison's writing without a sense of irony, consider the statement:
"One must be wary about believing things people declare are 'eternal truths'. One must always investigate and find out the facts."
Volney Mathison wrote those words for the December 1956 issue of a newsletter called The Abereepublished by an organization--headed by L. Ron Hubbard--that had recently changed over from a mere belief in Dianetics to the formation of the Church of Scientology, an organization that laid claim to truth while playing fast and loose with the facts.

Volney Mathison's long quote is also revealing for its mention of the American economist and politician Henry George (1839-1897) (2). George, who died just two months after Mathison was born (3), promulgated his ideas on taxes and economics in Progress and Poverty (1879) and other books. His ideas gave rise to Georgism, one of countless economic, social, and political philosophies of the nineteenth century. I won't go into detail on George's ideas. Suffice it to say that despite the admiration of figures as diverse as Ralph Nader and William F. Buckley, Jr., Henry George's philosophy has gained little traction in the world, except, by coincidence, in Fred Mathison's native Denmark, and by no coincidence at all in the Utopian community of Fairhope, Alabama, the place where Fred Mathison's family was enumerated in the 1910 census.

To Be Continued . . .

(1) Fred Mathison may have lived in the Pacific Northwest or on the West Coast as a child or a young man, but I haven't been able to match him up with anyone in the Federal, state, or territorial censuses.
(2) Curiously, George was the grandfather of dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille and actress Peggy George. His son-in-law and his son-in-law's brother--William C. de Mille and Cecil B. de Mille respectively--were movie producers. In one way or another George was also the progenitor of the board game Monopoly. You don't have to take my word for it. You could look it up. Update (June 17, 2013): I have begun reading Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright and have found that Cecil B. de Mille's adopted son (and biological son of Cecil's brother, William C. de Mille), Richard de Mille, was an assistant to L. Ron Hubbard. The two men parted early in the history of Dianetics. Richard de Mille went on to become a psychologist, teacher, and writer.
(3) I haven't yet found Volney Mathison's middle name, but could the middle initial have stood for "George"? And what about his sister Eva's identical middle initial?

According to his granddaughter, dancer and choreographer Agnes DeMille, Henry George was in his time one of the three most famous men in America (along with Mark Twain and Thomas Edison). Today he is almost unknown, but in the 19th century, you could even buy a Henry George brand cigar, and for only a nickel. Thomas Marshall would have been pleased.

George had followers all over the world, including Leo Tolstoy and George Bernard Shaw. In America, he could have counted Fred Mathison in that group. Mathison, a Danish immigrant and hardscrabble farmer, was the father of Volney G. Mathison, radioman, inventor, and teller of weird tales.

Original text and captions copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley. Quotes from Volney G. Mathison, taken from "Hidden Drives Pick Our Jobs and Professions," from The Aberee, Dec. 1956,  are presumably in the public domain.

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