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20 Things You Might Not Know About Robert A. Heinlein, Part 1: His Maculate Origin

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Next Saturday morning in part 2: "His Preposterous Heritage"