Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany is a highly intelligent man who comes of a highly intelligent and educated family. His grandfather, Henry Beard Delany, was an educator and the first elected African-American bishop in the Episcopal church, while his two aunts, Sadie and Bessie Delany, achieved national fame in the ’90s, when both were already over a hundred years old, as the co-authors (with Amy Hill Hearth) of the memoir Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, which stayed six months on the New York Times bestseller list and landed them both in The Guinness Book of World Records as the country’s oldest authors.

Delany is also a long-out-of-the-closet bisexual, as well as being an articulate and pleasant companion in informal gatherings; a college professor whose major worry is that he keeps getting promoted, thus giving him less and less time with those he cares most about, his students; a highly esteemed writer of science fiction; and, finally, a person who is never addressed by his friends as Sam, Samuel or any other variant of the name his parents gave him.

The reason for this is that he wanted it that way. As a child, young Delany was deeply envious of friends and schoolmates who had nicknames, which he did not. His chance to remedy this came on his first day at summer camp, at around age twelve, when another camper asked him what he was called. He saw his opportunity and took it. “They mostly call me ‘Chip,'” he said, and to his friends he has been Chip Delany ever since.

In 1971 1961, he married the poet Marilyn Hacker. It was not because of any over-arching romance between the two of them, and there was nothing about “forsaking all others” in the marriage vows. It was an open, not to say wide-open, marriage, with both Chip and Marilyn having frequent extra-marital affairs with partners of both genders. What both Chip and Marilyn wanted was the comfort of living in a family, and in 1974, they completed it by having a baby daughter, Iva Hacker-Delany, who grew up to be a director in New York’s theatrical community before going on to become an emergency physician.

At the time. they were living in London, where Marilyn was working as an antiquarian book-dealer. In that same period Betty Anne and I happened to also be living in London, where Betty Anne was teaching a one-semester course to college students, and I made up my mind to drop in on the Delanys one day to say hello.

That day was a while in coming. Although I love London, I am not really very good at getting around in its maze of short and unplanned streets, so unlike sensible New York’s numbered ones, and I kept putting it off. Then one day, after running some other errand, I realized that I was close to the Delany flat and on impulse headed for their door. My timing was poor. Both Chip and Marilyn were off on other errands, but I did get a chance to meet the baby and her sitter.

Having a child in a foreign country gave Chip and Marilyn a completely unexpected problem. The law, as they knew, is straightforward. A child born of two American citizens is entitled to American citizenship — and an American passport — regardless of where he or she happens to get born, so the Delanys filed Iva’s application and returned to their flat to await delivery of her passport. It, however, didn’t come. Instead they got a note to say that the application had been turned down.

When, in consternation, Chip and Marilyn begged the American consul for an explanation it wasn’t helpful. It was the baby’s name that made all the trouble, the clerk said. If they had named her Iva Delany, or Iva Hacker, or even Iva Hacker Delany there would have been no problem. But what they had recklessly done was throw in a game-altering hyphen between the surnames of her two parents, and “Hacker-Delany,” as anyone could plainly see, was a new name, not borne by either parent, and thus incapable of conferring citizenship on the child.

For a time their chances of ever getting home again looked bleak. But then they were lucky enough to find a higher-up State Department official who was not a certifiable moron. He swept all those finely split hairs aside and ordered the issuance of a passport to Iva Hacker-Delany and the family got thankfully back to New York. (Chip and Marilyn divorced a few years later, but remained the best of friends anyhow.)

 
Apart from an occasional bumping into each other at some science-fiction event I didn’t see much of Chip for a while. While I was still editing If and Galaxy I did my best to get some short stories from him for the magazines, with only limited success. Chip’s most comfortable length was the Ace Books novel of maybe 60,000 words or, for an Ace Double, somewhat less. Indeed, my old Futurian pal, Donald Wollheim, Ace’s editor, had been Samuel R. Delany’s principal publisher, with novels like The Jewels of Aptor.

By then, I had landed a dream job as science-fiction editor for the independent paperback giant, Bantam Books — didn’t have to come in to the office except when I felt like it, had total freedom to publish any property I chose without needing to get anyone’s permission or approval, or even without needing anyone’s okay to offer as high or as low an advance and royalties as I chose. It was the very model of the position that any ink-stained editorial wretch would have given his eyeteeth to be offered.

It did occur to me that it might be nice to add an occasional Delany novel to my list, especially when I noticed that Donald had almost stopped bringing out new Delany titles of his own. But I already had enough irons in the fire to keep me busy, so I didn’t do much more than wish that some such might drop in my lap.

Then, without warning Chip’s agent sent me the manuscript of an unpublished, and uncharacteristically long, Delany novel. It was called Dhalgren.

(The conclusion of the Delany story, covering the Dhalgren miracle, pretty soon.)

 
Related posts:
Chip Delany,
Part 2

10 Comments

  1. TK Kenyon says:

    How fun! Please finish!

    TK

  2. Neil in Chicago says:

    . . . and I picked up a nice handful of used paperbacks at Windycon, and just finished _Babel-17_ yesterday.
    It\’s still breathtaking.

  3. Tina Black says:

    Gods yes, American consulates are staffed by TSA rejects. After a 3 hour delay in the Frankfurt consulate, I declared loudly that I was going to register my child as a bastard since I had a second copy of my birth certificate, and I was tired of waiting so someone could copy my husband’s. The consul himself popped out, saying “What?”

    When I repeated it, he somehow found a way to copy my husband’s birth certificate.

    Unforgettable consular staff incompetence.

  4. Stefan Jones says:

    Thanks for the backgrounder. I’ve read and enjoyed a few of Delany’s novels and shorts.

    Back during my most voracious SF reading days, I remember being turned off by Dhalgren’s length, and the reputation of its length, and never got around to reading it.

    Ironically, it is not all that big a novel by today’s standards! I’m reading a book now, by a one of today’s hot authors, which is not only longer, but seems awfully padded.

    Keep these profiles coming!

  5. Samuel R. Delany says:

    Marilyn and I were married in 1961, not 71–but who’s counting. This is a very generous account.

  6. krjames says:

    I’ve always wondered how the experience of receiving “Dhalgren” and then pushing it through to publication looked from your perspective. (Talk about a risk that paid off handsomely…) Looking forward greatly to hearing the rest of this story!

  7. Robert Nowall says:

    I didn’t like “Dhalgren” when I tried to read it when it came out. “Tried,” ’cause I could only get a few chapters in. I don’t remember anything about it except a few stray thoughts from reviews at the time. (I did better with some other Delaney work.)

    But I was a callow teenager at the time. I didn’t like or didn’t get a lot of things. I only got to about the end of the first chapter of “War and Peace.”

    I’m older now, and when I occasionally encounter something I didn’t like / didn’t get back then, I get it now (and occasionally like it, too).

    I don’t know if I’ll ever attempt “Dhalgren” again…but, on my last attempt, I did get a full third of the way through “War and Peace.”

  8. Dwight Decker says:

    I came across Mr. Delany a while back in an odd place: as a sound bite on a Disney “Making Of” program made in connection with some video rerelease of TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.” I had recently read the full uncut novel and discovered why many American editions are abridged (you could call the book “Twenty Thousand Lists of Fish Under the Sea” — endless descriptions of what the professor-narrator sees out the Nautilus’s viewport). So when Delaney faced the camera and said Verne’s novel was “75 pages of story and the rest is oceanography,” I could only nod my head and say, “You sure got that right, Chip!”

  9. Tamfang says:

    Being born abroad to US citizens, not long before 1961, I have had occasion to read relevant excerpts of the law; and it didn’t mention names.

  10. Steve Boyett says:

    I clearly remember the moment I realized I wanted to write for a living. I was in 7th grade. I had bought DHALGREN for the cover, the wonderful and misleading jacket copy, and the fact that the book was huge. I was in the school cafeteria about to be late to class because I could not stop reading this book. Everyone had picked up their trays and gone to class and I was almost alone in the big room and totally absorbed. And it hit me: I want to do this. I want to write something that does for someone somewhere what this book is doing to me. I’m thirteen years old, and I want to do this for a living. And I did, and I do.

    The only time I have ever been starstruck was when I briefly met Delany in the con suite at some convention. I was too tongue-tied to tell him any of the above. Which maybe he’s heard a thousand times, I dunno, but I can’t imagine getting tired of it. My friends were astonished. Boyett? Tonguetied? Starstruck? Are you freaking kidding me?

    I return to DHALGREN every few years and find it a different novel every time. What I bring to it is different, what I glean from it is different. To me this is a hallmark of a book that stands the test of time: it is not the same book always. What it even seems to be about transforms. In seventh grade that spoke to my very marrow. That height was where I set my sights. It speaks to me still.

    It is no understatement to say that DHALGREN changed my life, and I would be delighted, Mr. Pohl, to read something of this amazing novel’s journey to print, and about your hand in it — for surely you had to have run some steadfast interference to enable so innovative a work to see the light of day.