Editor’s Note: This articles was first serialized in four parts here, here, here, and here. What other authors and subjects would you like to see explored in list format in future articles? Let us know in the comments.
Part 1: His Maculate Origin
1. When Robert A. Heinlein was a child, his family was so poor that “[H]e slept on a pallet on the floor for years, in a constant state of amiable warfare with baby sister Louise, ‘A notorious pillow swiper.'”
Most of the writers who, in later years, would apostrophize Heinlein as “too optimistic” and turn their stories into “poverty porn” could probably have benefited from having some idea what true poverty was. Even those of us who were poor as children for some time were never so poor as to have rationed pillows.
Heinlein wrote rags to riches stories, of which those who believe the individual is powerless before his fate disapprove. But Heinlein’s own life is a refutation of their theories, so they can go suck an egg, as far as I’m concerned.
2. The Heinleins were not just Democrats, but machine Democrats.
According to Patterson, Heinlein’s mother was a Republican, while his father was a Democrat, but they were only active in Democrat politics. And Democratic Party Politics in Kansas City “meant the Pendergast political machine.” A machine that “could be characterized as a benign version of New York’s Tammany Hall.” It is perhaps amusing that nowadays Internet trolls try to flash Heinlein a gang sign to signify they’re “conservative.”
3. An incident seen as a child became the core of his personality and his writing.
(I knew of this incident before, from listening to recorded speeches and reading his essays, but for this I’ll use William H. Patterson’s bio, on which I rely for this article, mostly because it’s handy and clear. Also a good read.)
“A young couple was walking along a set of railroad tracks that cut through the park in those days when the woman got her heel caught in a switch – a nuisance, until they heard a train whistle approaching at speed. Another young man – the newspapers later said he was a tramp – stopped to help them get free. As the train fore down on them, the husband and the tramp struggled to get the woman free and were struck, all of them. The wife and the tramp were killed instantly and the husband was seriously injured…. Why did he [the tramp] do it? Wondered little Bobby and then adolescent Bobby – and so on repeatedly, did Midshipman Bob and politician Bob and adult Robert, understanding a bit more, a bit differently, every time he looked at it. “This incident became a core image for him, one that showed him in a way beyond words what it means to be a human being.”
This moral clarity, this idea of meaning found by defending others, probably is responsible for the falling out of the leftists in science fiction and Heinlein. They don’t see the military as a legitimate form of service, and a man who believes in defending/protecting/saving the innocent can’t help but see military service in the USA as an admirable profession.
4. Early in his life Robert A. Heinlein evolved a belief system that crossed reincarnation and solipsism.
This was quite out of bounds for his religiously conservative family. It is best encapsulated in the story in Stranger in a Strange Land of the worm who meets its other end and falls in love. This is probably responsible for the metaphysical tone of a lot of his work. While, like a lot of his contemporaries (and a lot of people raised in overly restrictive religious families) he thought of traditional religion as too restrictive and inimical to reason, his work never had Asimov’s feeling of arid materialism.
5. He preserved in his scrapbook a list of jobs he had performed before entering Annapolis.
According to Patterson, none of them can be dated with any certainty, “[S]ome of the jobs he later talked about in letters are not included on this list (movie theater usher, for example): Janitor; Insurance (salesman for the Aetna life insurance company); Magazine Salesman; Nutcracker (shelling pecans by hand); bum; Roadhouse hoofer (professional tap or soft-shoe dancer for saloons on a road between cities); Navy; Pre-medic; Engineer Stewdent[sick]; Art stewdent; Taught mathematics, yeah?; Railway mail clerk; Artist’s model, no fooling; Librarian; Telephone operator – PBX; Sap.”
These days to become a science fiction writer, the most common preparation is “academic work” of some sort. No wonder they don’t understand him. It used to be my ambition to amass this sort of resume before I was published. I never managed it, but among my most unusual paid jobs were professional ironer, dishwasher and ribbon tier (on bags, in a potpourri factory.) I know, weak sauce compared to the master, but at least I knew what manual labor and the outside of a college classroom looked like.
Part 2: His Preposterous Heritage
6. According to Patterson at least, Heinlein wasn’t particularly popular at Annapolis.
This was an habit he kept up for the rest of his life, choosing to be individual rather than to fit in with the crowd. Also, he was considered a rustic from out West, which would have made fitting in harder. It is tempting to assume that this gave him his pattern for his heroes who don’t always fit in, but always try hard and in the end exceed those with the advantages. If so, these circumstances made him the quintessential American writer and served him well in the end.
7. It will be no surprise to anyone who has read Glory Road that Heinlein was a competition fencer.
8. Heinlein’s first artistic inclination was to become a painter.
While in the Navy, Heinlein was detached for temporary duty to Long Island City to attend the Ford Instrument Company school in 1930 – to learn to run the electromechanical “computers” that coordinated the ship’s main battery.
He fell into a bohemian lifestyle, amid artists and their models. The easygoing, Bohemian ways of life in Greenwich Village in the Jazz Age would leave a permanent mark in the permissive and free communities in many of his stories.
9. Heinlein had an interest in psychic (“psi”) powers – many of which we find in his later books.
From Sensitive Circuits used for communication in battle, to other forms of telepathy and super-human powers, Heinlein clearly was at least intrigued by the possibility. Part of this was a matter of the times he lived in – but he might actually have taken part in such experiments in his young years. Of course, Mark Twain himself believed in “Mental Telegraphy” and Twain was one of Heinlein’s heroes.
10. Heinlein left the Navy in 1933, having contracted tuberculosis.
Doubtless, Heinlein felt it was a catastrophic disappointment. But if he had not done so, one wonders if he’d have had as much influence upon what Patterson calls “the lost children of the mid-century” as he did have. For the record I’m glad he did leave it. Yes, I know there is that story in which he is an admiral and we’re better off, but chances are in subsuming himself into what was expected of an officer, he would not have become who he came to be and uniquely himself.
Part 3: His Eccentric Education
11. Heinlein was married three times.
His first wife was named Elinor Curry. Not much is known about her, and their marriage lasted only about a year. Before leaving the Navy, Heinlein married Leslyn MacDonald. She was intelligent, well read and very liberal. Their marriage was ultimately unsuccessful, but it lasted for well over a decade. He was married to his third wife, Virginia, (nee Gerstenfeld), until he died in 1988.
It is believed many of his early heroines resemble Leslyn. Perhaps so, but perhaps Heinlein just liked multi-competent females. Having been privileged to speak to the third Mrs. Heinlein, I can attest she was intimidatingly intelligent and well read, and that I found her echo in many of his female characters. So much for everyone who claims that his women are men with breasts. (Whether he had a male’s naïve view of female sexuality is a wholly different matter. To a certain extent, try as we might, we are all prisoners of that space behind our eyes, and no matter how much talented individuals try to escape it, they’re prone to believing what others wish them to believe.)
12. After leaving the Navy, (and a brief attempt at silver mining) Heinlein got involved in politics.
This was mostly through the socialist machine in California. He worked with EPIC (End Poverty In California) and socialist Upton Sinclair and even made a run at politics for himself. The funny thing about stories from this period (say for instance The Roads Must Roll) is that his desire to believe in big, from the top programs seems to be in continuous tension with a sort of basic horse-sense belief in individualism. He might have believed that automobiles were too dangerous a technology to be left to mere individuals, but he also, clearly, saw the problems that would develop in a vast bureaucracy. In the end, perhaps he was too honest for politics.
13. Most of his early stories were published by John W. Campbell. But in his letter to Theodore Sturgeon, Heinlein makes fun of Campbell’s strong advocacy for the market: “You could get a Campbell-style story out of doubting the most sacred of sacred cows—except big business, of course; John does not tolerate outright heresy.”
However some of Campbell’s less strange ideas might very well have found a resonance with Heinlein in terms of his individualism and respect for market forces. Even while Heinlein was a socialist there are discordant notes in his stories that seem to indicate his common sense wouldn’t give way.
14. For Us The Living – Heinlein made a great success of his short stories and serials, but simply could not sell this book, his first novel. Years later, he must have realized just how appalling that book was, because he spent considerable time making sure every copy was destroyed. Alas, one copy escaped.
Is it truly appalling? I don’t know. It is appalling in comparison to later Heinlein. I don’t like many of those early pulp novels – certainly not enough to be conversant with most of them – so I can’t tell if his infodumps and very odd political preaching are normal for the time. There are themes that echo: cats, unconventional humans (what my fans call Odds) and a sort of happy-go-lucky sexual free for all. However, his bitter animadversions about marriage are clearly the result of his own falling apart. Those aren’t present in his later works.
At any rate, publishing that novel is like publishing a master caligrapher’s early work, all blotches and scratches. Make note – should I ever become that famous (which is unlikely thank heavens) – and should someone track down and publish my first novel (which I intend to burn while my husband’s back is turned – he’s perversely attached to it) I will come back from the grave to haunt them. And I don’t much care if it turns out there’s no life after death. I’ll find a way.
15. Robert A. Heinlein and his second wife ran the Manana Literary Society, a writers’ group from which emerged Anthony Boucher, Arthur K. Barnes, Edmond Hamilton, L. Ron Hubbard, Henry Kuttner, C.L. Moore, L. Sprague de Camp, Cleve Cartmill, Leigh Brackett, and Jack Williamson.
From their mentoring and probably most unlikely of all, Ray Bradbury got his start.
Part 4: His Happy Destiny
16. A lot of people nurtured on Heinlein juveniles went on to make a difference in the fields of aeronautics and space exploration.
This effect is still going on with my sons’ generation. (Or at least Have Space Suit Will Travel was a great part of second son’s decision to study Aerospace Engineering.)
Some of the others of us just went on to dye our hair a shade of red and keep too many cats. In my defense, however, the only juvenile I read before my thirties was Have Space Suit Will Travel. I became a fan with The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, and never looked back. (Interestingly, by the way, I discovered Heinlein among a welter of seventies New Wave books. I still liked Heinlein better. Now that I’m older and know the history of print runs in my field, I know that this is true for most people. New Wave, on the other hand, is much preferred by the intelligentsia.)
17. Some of the things Heinlein is credited with “inventing” include the waterbed and the Waldo – and therefore, one assumes, by extension, the DaVinci surgery machines.
However, he completely managed to miss computers, except for his very late work when the computer revolution was already underway.
(I remember reading Friday and being deadly jealous of the ability she had of browsing facts and figures – now we have the internet and my cup runneth over.) He is not credited with being responsible for the overpopulation of cats in the science fiction community, but there it is. In the current fractious times, maybe cats will hold us together. (With hairballs.)
18. Heinlein was relatively successful from the beginning, but in today’s terms very much a mid-list writer — well known and influential in the field but not outside of it — until his “blockbuster” Stranger in a Strange Land.
A “child raised by aliens” story, it gets to the heart of what it is to be human and – sigh – what it is to be divine, too. I’m ambivalent about the book, partly because so much of it was seized upon, in a ridiculously simplified form, by the generation before mine and made… odd. However there is a charming longing for the divine at the heart of it. Unconventional, sure. The man was unconventional. But it is there nonetheless. And the end always makes me cry.
Heinlein himself might have been ambivalent about it. The other day I was listening to The Number Of The Beast, which I hadn’t read in years, and at one point (for reasons of plot importance) they have to list out their favorite Heinleins. I don’t remember what half of them listed, though it was one of my own favorites (Probably The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress) but the other half had listed Stranger, and one of the characters says, something like, obviously channeling the author, “I won’t embarrass you by asking who listed Stranger. Honestly, what some writers will do for money.” (I can’t quote exactly, my NOTB is missing, as are most Heinleins since my teen-and-twenty something sons discovered him years ago. The rules seems to be “There will be some Heinleins on the shelf, but never the one mom wants to consult.”)
19. Heinlein tried very hard – at least according to Patterson – to have minorities and women in positive roles in his books.
Often one isn’t sure what color his main character is. (There is heated debate in the fan community over whether Eunice in I Will Fear No Evil is black, for instance.) However, he tried to integrate the immigrant communities of his day, and his juveniles particularly feature what was for his time a bewildering array of Irish, Italian, Jewish, and even Hispanic names. This was very surprising for the Portuguese girl who grew up reading books in which the future always belonged to English names. (Yes, I ended up taking one. Wanna make something of it? It’s my husband’s name, and I can’t imagine why I’d want to keep my father’s instead.)
20. He’s hated by all the right people.
Despite his attempts to be inclusive and have names of what were in his day marginalized minorities, and to show women in science positive and even heroic roles, Heinlein routinely gets called “racist, sexist and homophobic.” In fact, in the Heinlein symposium when the Patterson biography came out, a know-nothing twenty something author who had never read Heinlein started an essay by claiming Heinlein was all of the above, because “Where are the queers in his work? Or the transgendered?” (Tons of places, sonny, but you’ll never know if you don’t read it.)
And a lot of crazy science fiction feminists – but I repeat myself – have gotten bent out of shape because Heinlein women like men and sex and like having children. The (literally) sterile choices they make are to be assumed to be an order of nature of women now.
Perhaps they should contemplate the fact that these fashions come and go and that some day, perhaps not distant, people will look back at them and call them androphobic and insane.
Of course, in the meantime they can stand on the shoulders of giants and piss down – which doubtless gives them a warm feeling, even if in the long run it only makes a smelly mess out of everything.
Quotes above are from Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve – William Patterson’s biography of Robert A. Heinlein. Some of these things I collected from other sources, including occasional (and too rare) conversations with Virginia Heinlein, but it’s easier and more concise to support it with quotes from the bio.