Fantasy Commentator 59-60

Fantasy Commentator
Sam Moskowitz and A. Langley Searles Memorial Issue, Special Double Issue, Nos. 59 & 60.

When John W. Campbell, Jr., washed out of MIT by failing to pass their German course, he didn’t stay in Massachusetts. Instead, he returned to his mother’s home in Orange, New Jersey. He had left some close friendships behind, though, and one of the first things he did after relocating was to write a letter to his Massachusetts friend Robert D. Swisher, a pharmaceutical chemist working for the Monsanto Corporation.

That was the first letter of many, and they were all carefully preserved, misspellings, factual errors and all, by Swisher, and then by his widow. Now they are published, under the guise of an article in the late A. Langley Searles’ fanzine Fantasy Commentator, published as a memorial tribute by Searles’ widow, Alice Becker, M.D. The issue contains nothing but the letters. Its length — 156 large pages — is within accepted book publishing standards. So let’s call it a book, the two of us, all right?

This book, then, contains all the letters John wrote to Swisher over a period of more than twenty years, from John’s early attempts at writing science-fiction stories of his own through his triumphal masterminding of the world’s best science-fiction magazine and his intoxication with L. Ron Hubbard’s invention of Dianetics, followed by his final rejection of that cause — though not of the validity of many of its principles which, called by one name or another, he apparently subscribed to until his death.

As a document bearing on these matters, this is not merely a good, readable book. It is an invaluable one, and the credit for the clarity and completeness that make it such a pleasure to read belongs in no small part to its editor, the late Sam Moskowitz. The source material Sam had to work with was a clutch of actual letters, many of them handwritten and some not easy to decipher, and a considerable fraction of them comprising little more than technical descriptions of the cameras, lenses and films for which the two correspondents shared an affection. All of that photography material Moskowitz skillfully redacted away. What remains is the next best thing to a detailed personal diary of the life of a stand-out major figure in the field of science fiction.

When we first meet John Campbell it is 1934. He is recently married to a girl named Dona Stuart (Campbell’s apparently romanticized version of her name) or Stebbins (Swisher’s correction) and working as an automobile salesman for a Ford dealership. In his spare time, he has been trying a little freelance writing. Naturally he tried to make it into the best-paying magazine in the field, Astounding Stories, then edited by F. Orlin Tremaine.

A short piece by Campbell, “The Irrelevant,” had appeared in the magazine’s December, 1934 issue. It posed a problem which Swisher thought he could solve. He wrote Tremaine, who wrote back with the suggestion that he send it to the author, “Karl von Campen” — a pseudonym, sometimes differently spelled, of Campbell’s — and he gave Swisher “von Campen’s” home address. That was the first contact between the two men, but, Swisher being a science-fiction fan, it soon became a friendship. At the same time their wives, Dona Campbell and Frances Swisher, also became good friends, tightening the bonds of their husbands.

For the first few years of the correspondence, the principal thing on Campbell’s mind appears to have been money. He didn’t have a regular job, the Ford dealership apparently paying on some sort of commission basis. Much of the period was spent angling (ultimately unsuccessfully) for a salaried job with the Mack Truck company, and meanwhile trying to support himself and his bride on little more than the spotty sales of his early sf stories. That is keeping them just barely afloat, but with little safety margin. Campbell has become jealous of Nat Schachner’s success with Tremaine’s magazine: “Re, Schachner. He’s got my goat, somewhat. Pure jealousy, or has some of the stuff of mine that Tremaine has turned down ( “Wooden Horse”) been better than Schachner’s that’s appeared?”)

Perhaps he had a point. More likely, they are both exactly the same sort of pulpy sf that Campbell-as-editor would do his best to avoid.

In the same letter, Campbell outlines for Swisher’s amusement a radio story he’d thought of for Alonzo Dean Cole’s weekly “Lights Out” radio program, but apparently never wrote up: “Pauper in a coma — not being buried, as the Anatomy Laws provide. Pleasant little scene at the end, you know, after the audience has been made thoroughly aware that the guy is in a coma: sounds of anatomy students arguing about whether A gets the left leg he wants, or B, compromise by each getting half. Sounds of bone-saws at work.”

Schachner remained a thorn in Campbell’s side, apparently causing Bob Swisher to attempt to aid his friend by writing a letter to Astounding’s “Brass Tacks” fulsomely praising Campbell’s work. Tremaine, however, didn’t publish it in the letter column but instead, apparently recognizing what was going on, embarrassingly passed it on to Campbell himself.

The Campbells somehow survived on a succession of ill-paying jobs, plus John’s occasional story sales. It would appear that, in spite of his shaky income, John identified more with the Reupublican upper crust than the mob of Democrats who overwhelmingly swept into a second term FDR — or, as John put it in a letter to Swisher, “F(ool) D(olt) R(abblerouser).” I suspect — on the basis of one meeting, when John and I were taking a stroll in the neighborhood because it was too nice a day to go right back to work, and he had a book he needed to return to his father — that Campbell took his politics directly from his image of a proper Anglo-Scottish gentleman, as exemplified by Dad.

Campbell doesn’t hesitate to give Swisher his opinion of all the editors, and all the successful writers, in the field of science fiction. Mostly I share the same estimations as he records, with the exception of two figures. I would have put Tremaine at the top of the then current field of editors. Campbell seems to rank him in second place, giving the pride of place to Mort Weisinger who, under the general supervision of Leo Margulies, was editing the newly rechristened Thrilling Wonder Stories. Campbell even expresses a sort of wistful hope that Weisinger might take him on as assistant editor.

It never happened, and perhaps there was never any real possibility that it could, but it’s interesting to think of what the magazine might have become if it had. One of Campbell’s greatest talents was the recognition and development of new headliners and he could have done that as surely at the Thrilling Group as he did at Street and Smith.

But in the real world, it was the decision of management at Street & Smith to move Tremaine to an overall assistant editor in chief level, relieving him of the care of Astounding, and Tremaine’s subsequent decision to make Campbell his replacement, that led to the rebirth of Astounding Stories of Super Science and to the magazine’s ultimate reincarnation as Analog that did in reality occur … and then to the magazine’s endorsement of such out-of-the ordinary matters as Dianetics, not to mention the Hieronymous Machine, the Dean Drive and many others … but some of that we’ll save for Part 2 of this review essay, coming up when I write it.

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  1. David Dyer-Bennet says:

    No doubt removing the photo gear discussions is the right decision for the general market; but for a second there I had hopes that I might find the collection of letters REALLY interesting!

    And, as always when I hear that somebody prominent in SF was an avid photographer — I wonder what happened to his photos? (In this case, both of their photos.)

  2. Michael Walsh says:

    Thanks for the review. Just ordered and looking forward to it.

  3. Joseph T Major says:

    And it should get the Hugo for Best Related Work. Alas, “Chicks Dig Sparkly Emo Vampires: A Celebration of ‘Twilight’ by the Women Who Love It” has a far far better chance.

  4. David B. Williams says:

    “One of Campbell’s greatest talents was the recognition and development of new headliners”

    With some striking exceptions. Jack Vance is still grinding his teeth, 60 years later, over his relationship with Campbell. Like everyone else, Vance sent all his stories to Campbell first. Over ten years, he only managed to place five novelettes at Astounding. Oddly, in almost every case, Campbell chose these Vance stories as cover stories, so he obviously liked what he bought. But Vance had to include some psi-powers element to sell the Campbell, and he finally quite trying. He defined his later career in terms of Campbell: “I stopped writing to please Campbell and started writing to please myself” [paraphrase] Happily, his new direction worked out well.