Thursday, September 26, 2019

July: Geismar and Fiedler-The Science Fiction Connection

In writing about Ernest Hemingway and H.P. Lovecraft, I also wrote about two eminent literary critics of the twentieth century, Maxwell Geismar (1909-1979) and Leslie A. Fiedler (1917-2003). We might think of these two men as high falutin' academics, but both had their connections to the lowly pulp genre of science fiction. Fiedler's connection is more well known. In addition to treating science fiction (and other genres) in his landmark work Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), he wrote on Olaf Stapleton, Philip José Farmer, James Branch Cabell, and Kurt Vonnegut. (Two of those four writers were Hoosiers--can you guess which two?) He also edited a collection called In Dreams Awake, published in 1975. (I detect a bit of Freud in the title: Fiedler was influenced by Freud.) And, Fiedler wrote a published science fiction novel, The Messengers Will Come No More (1974), and an initially unpublished science fiction short story, "What Used to Be Called Dead" (1990). The latter was one of the stories assembled by Harlan Ellison for his collection Last Dangerous Visions, which has famously (or infamously) never gone to print. You can find an entry on Fiedler in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDb), here. He's also in the online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. A couple of the names mentioned here will come up again in a bit.

Maxwell David Geismar is not in the ISFDb. I found his connection to science fiction through that fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia. Born in Manhattan on August 1, 1909, Geismar grew up in Westchester County, New York, and graduated from Columbia University in 1931. (1) He spent a year writing short stories (could there have been a pulp story in there somewhere?) and began teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York, in (or about) 1932. He was the author of many essays, articles, and books of criticism, most famously, I suppose, of Writers in Crisis: The American Novel 1925-1940, published in 1942. Here is at least a partial list of his works:
  • Writers in Crisis: The American Novel 1925-1940 (1942)
  • The Last of the Provincials: The American Novel, 1915-1925 (1947)
  • Rebels and Ancestors: The American Novel, 1890-1915 (1953)
  • American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity (1958)
  • Henry James and the Jacobites (1963)
  • Introduction to Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver (1968)
  • Mark Twain: An American Prophet (1970)
Geismar also taught at Boston College and Harvard University and was an editor with two left-leaning magazines, Ramparts (which originally published Soul on Ice) and Scanlan's Monthly.

As a left-leaning university professor and an opponent of the Vietnam War, Geismar became involved in the countercultural movements of the 1960s. He signed his name to "The Triple Revolution," a memorandum sent to President Lyndon B. Johnson and other members of government on March 22, 1964. I don't want to go into "The Triple Revolution" too much, but the three revolutions of its title are the cybernation revolution, the weaponry revolution, and the human rights revolution. The cybernation revolution, one in which the increased use of automation results in large numbers of unemployed human workers, is the basis of the short story "Riders of the Purple Wage" by Philip José Farmer, originally published in Harlan Ellison's first Dangerous Visions anthology in 1967. (It's funny how these things fit together, isn't it?) According to Wikipedia:
At the 1968 World Science Fiction Convention in San Francisco, Farmer delivered a lengthy Guest of Honor speech in which he called for the founding of a grassroots activist organization called REAP [sic] which would work for implementation of the Ad Hoc Committee's recommendations.
I have done a quick search on the Internet for Farmer's speech or a summary of it and have come up empty. I can't say what its significance might have been then or might be today. I also can't say what REAP or Reap might signify. I can say that one of the conditions in the future society depicted in "Riders of the Purple Wage" is a universal guaranteed income. Who says that science fiction lacks predictive power, right, Andrew Yang? By the way, "Riders of the Purple Wage" was co-winner of a Hugo Award in 1968 for best novella.

I'll close by noting that Maxwell Geismar died at his home in Harrison, New York, on July 24, 1979, a week before his seventieth birthday and now forty years in the past. He was survived by his wife, two daughters, and three grandchildren.

(1) Geismar's parents, Leo and Mary Geismar, were German-born immigrants. Leo Geismar worked in the millinery industry.

Original text copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley

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