Ayn Rand

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I’ve written about Ayn Rand before, partly because I dislike a lot of the people who claim to be inspired by her, partly because I never cared much for her novels, which a lot of people like. But in reading The Passion of Ayn Rand, a biography by Barbara Branden who knew her intimately in the 1950s, it becomes clear that she was in many respects an admirable person who accomplished a great deal, but also lived a tragic life.

One of her misfortunes was to be born in Russia just as the country was beginning to descend into revolution. That was just after the revolution of 1905 that made some sweeping political changes in the country, but not enough to prevent the 1917 revolution that ushered in Communism. Her family, being moderately well off, suffered more than some from the dislocations of revolution and civil war, but survived. She was also Jewish, but told Barbara Branden that she never encountered anti-Semitism in Russia, though the country was notoriously inclined that way.

By that time Alice Rosenberg, as her family named her, had decided she wanted to be a writer, and that liberty and heroism were perhaps the values most important to her. When relatives in the USA contacted her family, concerned about how and whether they had survived the civil war, Alice Rosenberg told her family she HAD to go to the USA. Her family wasn’t enthusiastic, but agreed to arrange it, if possible. It turned out to be possible, though she came close to being refused.

By 1926, when she immigrated, she had seen less than wonderful things in Russia. Lots of hungry people struggling to survive, violence, people prevented from attending university or getting good jobs because of the social class they belonged to, rather than any crime they had committed. Unsurprisingly, she became a committed anti-Communist, having seen the way the system operated close up. Things got worse in Russia after she left.

Once in this country she began to work at becoming a writer in an unfamiliar language. She went to Chicago first to stay with the relatives who had helped her immigrate, then to Los Angeles to attempt screenwriting. She happened to meet Cecil B. DeMille,  who was impressed with her, and gave her work as an extra and other odd jobs before allowing her to write screenplays. She was moderately successful at that.

In Hollywood she also found her husband, who physically incarnated the fantasies of a hero she had had, though his character wasn’t particularly heroic. Marrying him provided her with citizenship so she didn’t have to return to Russia, where she could in no way have had the writing career she had visualized. She wanted to write about heroic individuals. That wouldn’t have been acceptable in Stalin’s Russia (unless they were Communists–and Communism was unheroic, in her view), and it took a long time for what she wrote to become acceptable here.

There was sympathy for Russia among American intellectuals of that time, a feeling that Communism just might help save the world. Rand knew it would not, but few people she tried to tell would listen in the twenties and thirties. Her first novel, We the Living was set in Russia and somewhat autobiographical. The main male character of the book catches tuberculosis, and has to go to a sanatorium; the heroine takes an unwanted lover so he can stay there, which sets up an unhappily dramatic climax. She is then killed trying to escape the country. The book sold poorly at first, but eventually sold more, especially after her better-known novels became popular.

The Fountainhead was next, about an architect unsuccessful because his work is too original. He has a friend, also an architect, who has little originality, and tries to succeed by copying. He gives this friend the design for a housing project which no one will allow him to build himself. His condition is that the project must be built exactly as he designed it; when a change is made, the architect blows the project up. He won’t allow his design to be watered down, nor allow anyone to have his work without meeting his price.  There’s a happy ending after that, too. The architect is prosecuted, but declared innocent.

Rand said the hero of that novel was her ideal man: in conflict with society, but not with himself. She contrasted him with three other men. One, the untalented architect friend who wasn’t the ideal man, but didn’t know it.  Another, stronger and more intelligent, runs a newspaper that tells the lowest common denominator what they want to hear. He could have been the ideal man, but wasn’t. A third is a critic who is not the ideal man, and knows it. He’s the villain of the novel.

The hero’s friend, unable to be the ideal man was, Rand told Branden, based on a woman she met who was obsessed with her career and very hard-working, but who rubbed Rand the wrong way, not because of her ambition or her work-ethic, but something else. When she asked the woman what was important to her, the woman replied that if no one else had a car, she wanted to have one; if everyone wanted a car, she wanted to have two. Rand was disgusted, but felt this pointed up a distinction between frivolous selfishness and actually HAVING a self that wants to accomplish something worthwhile. She called the latter “selfish” in a truer sense of the word. She saw the woman as being what she called a “collectivist” rather than an individual. A “collectivist” because for her success was strictly in relation to other people rather than a course chosen and pursued because of its meaning to the individual.

The Fountainhead became popular enough to have a somewhat successful movie made of it. But her REALLY popular novel was the next one, Atlas Shrugged. The idea behind this one is that the talented people, the ones whose ideas–translated into reality–are crucial to making society work, go on strike. Their complaint is they’re being told to work for the good of society (including those who deserve nothing, being unwilling to make efforts themselves) and are made to feel guilty for wanting their talent and work to be recognized and celebrated. This aspect of the novel is deliberately obscured at first, while Rand sketches in the decadence of the society which makes demands of its most talented members. Only towards the end does it become clear what is happening.

My memories of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are unclear, as it’s been fifty years or more since I read them. I didn’t really buy into Rand’s views, but what I remember most about Atlas Shrugged in particular is its insistence that its readers MUST agree with its point of view. For me that was off-putting, to say the least. It seemed almost like Stalin’s “correct line”, which all Communists were expected to believe.

Rand saw Communism and Socialism, both popular in America in the twenties and thirties (at least among intellectuals), as collectivism, and capitalism as individuality. She identified collectivism with the idea of the nation being more important than the individual, as seen in the Germany and Soviet Union of the thirties. These weren’t very attractive to those aware of the people they persecuted, though their propaganda deceived some into thinking they were positive phenomena.

Capitalism Rand liked much better because it gave people from almost any social class a chance. She found technology thrilling as a demonstration of what rationality and intellect could achieve, and saw this as examples of individuals being true to themselves.

But to what extent is this true? The production of technology is dependent on large organizations, just as totalitarian governments are. Is individualism encouraged in these organizations, other than at the very top? Why does the history of large corporations include intense hostility to unions, including the willingness to wound and kill strikers in the 19th and early 20th centuries? Have not the leaders of industries been as intoxicated with power as have dictators? Their aims haven’t been exactly the same, but they still required power over others to achieve them. Rand saw slavery as being inefficient, and if one’s aim is innovation, that’s certainly true. But slave-owning societies are stratified, which means innovation happens among the upper classes. Is this why industrialists hated unions? Industrial workers weren’t slaves, but weren’t far from being enslaved, having to work extremely long hours, often in dangerous working conditions. Their opinions weren’t wanted. Contemporary conservatives like to differentiate between “makers and takers”. Just who is in each group?

Does it make sense to identify genius and innovation with free market capitalism as Rand does? Capitalism has encouraged innovation, as Rand says, but is it the only system under which innovation can occur? The ancient Romans were notable builders. The ancient Egyptians even more–we still can’t duplicate some things they built. Did either society have free market capitalism? Both were slave states.

Which raises the question, for whom is the free market free? For the owner of the means of production and distribution, but is that true for the ordinary worker too? Historically, it hasn’t always been.

And technology isn’t all positive either. Rand didn’t approve of environmentalism, claiming that industrial civilization had lengthened human life, which was true–just not the entire truth.

‘”City smog and filthy rivers are not good for men (though they are not the kind of danger that ecological panic-mongers proclaim them to be). This is a scientific technological problem, not a political one, and it can be solved ONLY by technology. Even if smog were a risk to human life, we must remember that life in nature, without technology, is wholesale death.

Actually, we have discovered that filthy rivers and smog ARE in part political problems because the people causing the pollution are often unwilling to clean it up, and are willing to lobby to assure they don’t have to. How would Ayn Rand analyze the recent issue in Flint, Michigan, in which many people, including children, suffered lead poisoning, which causes serious neurological damage? Or instances where a poisonous insecticide is often found on produce? Technology will fix it, but technology also caused the problem, and will not fix it without the political will to do so.

Rand points out that average human life-span increased in the industrial age. Again, partly true. Ancient civilizations like Rome and Crete had sewage systems, which later European cultures did not, until relatively late. Life spans increased, at least in part, because humans discovered that antisepsis prevented sickness, something realized by medical science, which also contributed antibiotics, as well as medicines to control diabetes and heart disease. This is the same science that tells us pollution is bad, not only for us but for the other forms of life on which our lives ultimately depend. Ecology is thus the justification of altruism and collectivism, both dirty words in Rand’s lexicon. We can’t survive without nature, and our powers are now great enough to be able to destroy large numbers of plant and animal species in greater numbers than since the last ice age some 10,000 years ago. To say that we have not yet destroyed ourselves in this way is not to say that it can’t be done, nor that we’re not in the process of doing so. It’s instructive how easy it is to fall into a false dualism in which nature is seen as something to be conquered rather than to be cooperated with, and human achievements are to be celebrated even though they may poison humans, plants, and animals. The world’s ecosystem is flexible, but human activities on a massive scale affect it, and seem likely to ultimately have regrettable consequences. That dualism would see the extinction of plant and animal species as nothing to be concerned about, since that point of view sees humans as more important than the rest of the world.

“Ecology as a social principle condemns cities, culture, industry, technology, the intellect, and advocates man’s return to ‘nature’, to the state of grunting subanimals digging the soil with their bare hands.”

Some say science doesn’t care what you believe. Nature REALLY doesn’t care. It would be nice to be able to retain and expand our current standards of living, but that may not be practical. There are only so many natural resources of the type we use to power our urban civilization, and if we’re unwilling to change our lifestyles, nature may do it for us. The outcome of that conflict remains to be seen.

Rand sees rationality, the most important tool of the intellect, as being more important than any other aspect of humanity. But another view sees the instincts and emotions as being fully as important, so that when their development is neglected, the person, culture, or society becomes unbalanced. This imbalance causes unnecessary conflict within individuals, between them, between them and the larger cultures and societies. Rand’s view of ecology is this conflict writ rather large. An example is the overabundance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. An obvious way to redress the imbalance would be to plant more trees. Instead, we clear-cut forests for profit. Profit is not inherently immoral, but there are ways of achieving it which are.

A recent article in the New Yorker presents evidence that rationality wasn’t evolved to assess truth, but to make sure we didn’t get screwed by others, since our most effective means of survival has been cooperation–a way to argue better, in other words. If so, this perspective makes Rand’s position special pleading on the basis of identity–she was a genius, and deserved to be treated better, as do all geniuses. This may be true, but it’s interesting that conservatives (the main group to whom Rand has appealed) generally dislike identity politics.

The conflict, writ smaller, was shown when Rand embarked on an affair with a man 25 years younger, in spite of his wife (her biographer). and in spite of her husband. She had the power to persuade everyone to go along with it, though neither her husband nor the wife was really comfortable. Ultimately, this led to a break between her and many of the young people who gravitated to her and her views after the publication of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. She exacerbated the problem because she couldn’t admit she was in any way to blame.

Barbara Branden makes clear that Rand’s views were very rigorously thought out, and that her novels were very carefully written to express just what she meant, and in a language of which she was not a native speaker. Her view of man as a potentially heroic being who often falls short of that level can be seen as admirable, though I quarrel with her view of man being superior to nature. Not many individuals have the strength to choose their own path and persist in it despite conflict with or disapproval from their society. I would suggest that not all such individuals are on a productive path, nor do all of them agree with Rand’s views.

There seem, for instance, to be alternatives to Rand’s lone genius view of creativity. Collaboration may occur more frequently in music than in writing. Collaboration between a composer and a lyricist isn’t unusual, and in a band context a piece may evolve from communal input instead of being shaped only by one person, and even be seen as being superior because of that input. That’s not to say one form of creativity is superior to another, only that there’s more than one approach.

Rand considered religion (or mysticism) to be a chief hindrance to rationality. But at least two 20th century men attempted to approach the apparently immaterial spiritual world scientifically, ie, rationally. One man who did so made much the same comment as Rand put in the mouth of one of her characters: that he would love to be able to have acquaintances with whom he could interact as equals. He wasn’t jealous of anyone approaching his level, he wanted them to do so, contrary to some popular narratives. His intellect was not inferior to hers, but he recognized other aspects of the human being, and taught them, as well as the intellect.

Rand accomplished a great deal in writing novels of ideas that interested and influenced a great many people. Not everyone will agree, but I think it’s tragic that she drove many people away from her because of her insistence that she was right and others were wrong, as well as her misuse of her power to persuade others to allow her behavior that hurt them. And while I think she had great insight, I think some of her views were tragically misguided, and are likely to have tragic consequences. She was more determined and powerful than most, but just as capable of being mistaken.

 

 

 

 

J.D. Salinger

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I read Catcher in the Rye in high school, and didn’t get it, so I never became a fan, unlike (I guess) most of the rest of the country. I read his other books too, later on. I don’t remember making much of the short stories, rather liking Franny and Zooey, but not enough to reread them.

I lived in the same general area as he did for more than a decade, and drove through Cornish, New Hampshire every now and then, aware that he lived somewhere there, but not being very interested. I certainly had nothing I wanted to say to him, unlike a lot of other people.

Years before that I had picked up a short book by Joyce Maynard, called Looking Back. She wrote about junior high school (at a time when she was only just out of high school herself), which brought back the experience to me, but she had clearly been much more aware of what was going on around her than I had been when I was a student.

Years later, when I was living in New Hampshire, she wrote a column for the local paper, which I read pretty regularly. It was interesting, but I felt there was something wrong there, I can’t say what, because I don’t remember. It wasn’t that she listened to country music when writing a book, though that wouldn’t be my taste. I’m not sure I knew at the time that she had had an affair with Salinger, nor that she had written the book I read while they were together.

Later I read his daughter’s memoir. I didn’t have a LOT of interest in him, but still some curiosity. This morning I watched a movie about him.

I think it would be fair to say he was a strange man, with a number of paradoxical elements. His father was Jewish, his mother wasn’t, he grew up in a Jewish environment, privileged, but not liking it much. He messed up in private schools, was sent to a military school where, according to the movie, he got himself together.

He seems to have decided early that he wanted to write, and began to be published in the early 1940s. He wanted to be published in the New Yorker, and the magazine had accepted one of his stories, but didn’t publish it because of Pearl Harbor. He was upset about that.

He almost immediately tried to enlist in the army, but was initially rejected. He kept trying, and managed to enlist later in 1942. His first experience of combat was on D Day. He told someone later that he carried a manuscript about Holden Caulfield when he hit the beach, because it was necessary to his survival. Obviously he did survive, and it seems that not much later he met Ernest Hemingway (whom, according to the movie, he idolized) in Paris, got him to look at a manuscript, and that Hemingway loved it. The story is told by one of Hemingway’s grandchildren in the movie, so it may be true.

Paradox: after VE day he had a nervous breakdown, and spent time in a hospital in Germany. But he reenlisted to “track down the bad guys”. He had been in Intelligence with his company, which meant that he talked to citizens of each town they came to to find out where the Germans had machine gun nests set up, where clear areas were that ambushes could be set up, and generally anything else useful. He must have had a clearer than usual idea of local life and how it had been affected by German occupation.

His company also entered a camp in Dachau, so he saw many corpses and a few survivors. This must have made an impression on him, quite possibly especially because he was Jewish. Maybe that’s why he wanted to punish those who had done such things. Which makes it quite surprising that he married a young Nazi woman (clearly against regulations) and brought her back to the United States. The marriage didn’t last long. When he divorced her he said she had misled him.

He pursued his writing after the war, got published in the New Yorker as he had hoped, then published Catcher in the Rye in 1951, which was an almost immediate best seller. Many people identified with Holden Caulfield, the young narrator. Friends say that Caulfield was Salinger.  They also testify that he was taken aback by his sudden popularity and loss of privacy, and that he didn’t want to cooperate with the publicity, but wasn’t really a recluse either. He still enjoyed going out to bars and interacting with friends, but didn’t want strangers asking him for things, as he made clear later in New Hampshire, to someone who waited in his driveway to meet him. He had given his work to the public, but said he couldn’t tell anyone how to live.

The latter seems not to have been so true in his private life. After he married his second wife (19 years old to his 34, and with a troubled background) and they had their first child, they settled in New Hampshire and he isolated himself from her and the children much of the time to write. He had apparently been fascinated by her youth and beauty, but didn’t find her so fascinating after she’d given birth. It took some time–she probably lacked confidence–but she eventually divorced him, His daughter Margaret’s memoir (as I recall it) emphasizes that she didn’t feel she could please him. According to the movie, his son disagreed with her portrayal of their family life.

Joyce Maynard’s account of their affair, beginning in the early 1970s is interesting too. He insisted they meditate in the morning after eating uncooked frozen peas (pouring hot water over them to warm them), then writing, for which he donned a jumpsuit. They watched the old movies he liked in the evenings.

She met William Shawn, his editor at the New Yorker, and Shawn’s longtime lady friend in New York City, and apparently said something gauche. She said Salinger hustled her out of the lunch and bought her an expensive coat.

They broke up, she says, after going to the beach with his son. He and his son played in the water, he came back out, and told her he was really tired, that he wasn’t going to have children anymore. She wanted children, so she said she couldn’t stay with him, and he told her she should leave right away. He took her to the airport and gave her some money.

Later, she found that, just as he had with her, he had written letters to a number of young girls–they were always young–one of whom became his third wife. She also eventually decided to write a memoir of their affair, went to his house to tell him, and had him denounce her for it.

He stayed in New Hampshire the rest of his life, and seems to have been well accepted by people there. People who came to town looking for him found that local people weren’t cooperative. They didn’t want to be part of invading his privacy. One writer interviewed a famous man’s widow on just the other side of the Connecticut river from New Hampshire, and remarked that Salinger lived there. She remarked that he did, and that he had sat in the same chair the writer was then sitting in the previous night. She asked him what he would ask Salinger, told him that Salinger was all right, and was writing, and added, So you don’t need to meet him at all.

Why have so many people been fascinated with Salinger? Was his writing that good? For some I guess it was. I suppose part of the fascination may have been that Salinger didn’t behave like other writers in playing the celebrity game, which he easily could have. New Hampshire probably seems like a distant and foreign place to live to many. Actually, it’s not so different from other states, but may have fewer big cities, especially in that area.

Of course his response to fame was unusual, which didn’t make it wrong. He could have moved to New England just to run away, but he continued writing. The movie said that he had added more stories to the series about the Glass family already published, and possibly more about Holden Caulfield as well. According to the movie, these stories were supposed to start being released in 2015. I haven’t heard anything about that as yet. Was that story inaccurate? It doesn’t really make a lot of difference to me, but it seems curious.

He seems to have been convinced he was meant to be a writer, but what did he actually express? How important was it? I must have been too young when I tried reading him, because his stories made little impression on me. I don’t know if he really fulfilled what he was supposed to do.

The Secret Book of Kings

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This novel revisits the early history of ancient Israel at the beginning of the monarchy. Its central point is the power of the story. Yochi Brandes, an Israeli Biblical scholar, makes it very plausible that many of the stories in the Old Testament showing King David in a favorable light are propaganda, making it seem that claiming him as an ancestor might be similar to claiming Hitler or Stalin. David merely acted on a smaller stage.

Some years ago I read a history of ancient Israel in which the author expressed some wonderment that David was so venerated when his career wasn’t much different from many opportunists.

In this novel the story of his rise is told by Michal, daughter of King Saul, his first wife, who was advantageously placed to see what happened. She tells how she falls in love with David as a teenager, though he is less enthusiastic about her. She travels with him to entertain the troops, then goes home and tries to get him to go with her. He refuses. He has other things to do.

The other things include organizing an army of his own, led by his relatives, and marrying other women. One of my acquaintances thought David had a sexual relationship with Jonathan, and remarked that David behaved better during that period than he did later. The fact that David defected to the Philistines (as told in the Old Testament) and helped organize the invasion of Israel that killed Saul, Jonathan, and all of Jonathan’s brothers, suggests that whatever relationship he had with Jonathan was a totally cynical one on his part.

After the invasion he arranges his own coronation, then takes Michal and the remainder of her relatives to live with him in his palace with his other wives. Michal had previously married a man who had waited a long time for her. David separates them, and arranges for her husband to be killed. Later, their son and the remainder of her young relatives are also killed. David also conquers neighboring countries and commits what would now be called war crimes there.

All this is told to the narrator of the novel, who turns out to be the great-grandson of King Saul, and the grandson of MIchal, now known as the Mad Princess because she spends every night lighting many candles all over the palace and screaming. This behavior is a cover for her: if she can be dismissed as insane, she’s not perceived as a threat. I suspect this part is invention.

The narrator has been brought up by foster parents in the tribal territory of Ephraim, one of the twelve tribes of Israel. His mother lives in seclusion in a retreat for lepers which she never leaves, and where she always covers her face. She doesn’t have leprosy, but is in danger from the royal family. Shelomoam, the narrator, becomes disenchanted with his foster family, largely because he senses something wrong with the story he’s been told about his background. He leaves his home village to go to Jerusalem to join the army.

On his way there he meets Hadad, an Edomite, who trains him for the army. Edom is one of the neighboring countries conquered by David, and Hadad is determined to get it back. He believes Shelomoam is the key, and we find out why when Shelomoam meets Michal. His father was her son, Nebat, who was killed along with most of her other relatives.

Shelomoam is tested by the authorities and sent to Ephraim to be the head tax collector. David’s policies have preferred his tribe, Judah, to the rest of the tribes, who now (during the reign of Solomon) suffer from high taxes and forced labor, as Solomon carries out grandiose building projects and collects foreign women for his harem. Michal has told Shelomoam how Bathsheba manipulated her way into David’s bed, how (with the aid of her grandfather) David managed to get away with the murder of Bathsheba’s husband with a slap on the wrist, and how Bathsheba managed Solomon’s accession to the throne, in spite of David’s older sons.

Shelomoam is in a dangerous position: he must produce taxes and laborers, or be punished, but if he does, he’ll incur the hatred of the people of Ephraim. He manages this crisis through communication. He persuades the wealthy of the area that by taxing them higher than the poor people they will manage to avoid ruining the area. The rich will eventually be ruined too, and forced labor will ensure a shortage of labor and ruin of the laborers’ families. He becomes very popular. He even manages to prevent punishment when demands to raise taxes and send even more laborers come. He sends fewer laborers than demanded, and tells the authorities that he has to reduce taxes to prevent ruin. The other tribes follow his lead, and this provokes a plot to kill him, so he takes his family and flees to Egypt.

His flight to Egypt is true, according to the Old Testament; I’m not certain we know about the narrator’s early life. When he returns to Ephraim a couple of years later he has changed his name to Jereboam, signifying that he will increase the population of Israel, and manages the separation between Israel and Judah. The novel ends on an optimistic note.

But things in the long-term didn’t work out as well for Israel as Judah. A book about the Old Testament tells us that Israel, though it was richer, more willing to innovate, and more integrated into the life of the region (Judah was a poor and isolated country), was also more volatile. David’s line was preserved in the kings who ruled until the sixth century BCE, when Babylon conquered Judah and deported many of its ablest people. Israel had been conquered by Assyria about a century before, and unlike Judah, was never able to put its kingdom together again. In that time there had been multiple dynasties. The Samaritans mentioned in the New Testament were descendants of the northern kingdom, and detested by the Jews, who lived in Judah (called Judea by the time the Romans conquered the Middle East), which was why the parable of the Good Samaritan is found in the Bible. The Jews had been more conservative, and some were fanatical, at least about the presence of the Romans.

Interestingly, a book I read about twenty years ago, said there were still Samaritans surviving in the Middle East, but only a few hundred. The account said they had their own Torah (not including equivalents of the later books of the Old Testament, apparently), which was somewhat different than the Jewish version which has come down to us.

It seems that the northern kingdom, which seems superficially more attractive than the southern one, was less stable, though the southern kingdom also suffered a great deal. Assyria probably deported a lot of Israelites, and the suspicion is that many of them assimilated. Jews would later assimilate too, but not often (this was not always their doing).

The only obvious moral is to beware of propaganda. It seems that even David’s most famous feat wasn’t really his: Goliath seems to have been killed by someone else. This novel doesn’t credit Saul’s supposed attempts to kill David; it says Saul would have succeeded if he’d tried. Nor does it credit Saul’s visit to the Witch of Endor. All these incidents were propaganda created by the victor to justify the treason that gained him the monarchy. Propaganda is no less dangerous today, and no easier to decode. It may be even more ubiquitous than in the past: America took the lead in creating the advertisement industry which influenced Adolph Hitler in particular. There may be other morals here too: perhaps that suffering and faith mean more in the long run than wealth. That’s not a particularly welcome message.

Pioneer Girl

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Many people are familiar with the title, Little House on the Prairie, because it was a successful TV show about forty years ago. But before that it was the title of a book by Laura Ingalls Wilder, part of a series of novels about her childhood. It was a series my mother discovered not long after they were published in the 1930s and early 1940s, and she read them to us when we were children.

The action in the novels takes place in the 1870s, beginning with some of Wilder’s early memories. She was born in 1867 to a couple, Charles Ingalls and Caroline Quiner Ingalls, whose parents had grown up in New York state and New England respectively, who had moved to Wisconsin, where Charles and Caroline met and married.

The wave of white settlers had spilled across the country west of the Mississippi about 25-30 years earlier, at first to the amusement, then to the alarm of the Indians. This led to wars which eventually ended in about  the 1890s. Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t see any of that violence, but did see Indians.

Pioneer Girl begins with the family in what is now Kansas, living illegally on an Indian reservation, where the Indians weren’t doing too well. It was shortly after the Civil War, and payments to the Indians had been suspended during it, so they were in danger of starvation. Wilder’s mother and father gave the Indians anything they asked for out of fear for what they might do. They didn’t stay in Kansas long, traveling back to Wisconsin to live near family before heading west again.

That’s one of the places Pioneer Girl differs from the eventual series of novels: it doesn’t tell about the family’s time in Kansas, perhaps because Wilder didn’t want to admit that her father was knowingly doing something illegal, the book’s editor suggests. In later novels Wilder changes the timeline and some of the characters from how they’re portrayed in the earlier book. She also doesn’t tell some of the anecdotes of Pioneer Girl because the novels are aimed at children. Alcoholic and sexual escapades are omitted.

From Wisconsin they head west into southwestern Minnesota, where they run into a plague of grasshoppers that lasts several years. From there they head west into what is now North Dakota, where Laura’s father gets work with a railroad and also stakes a claim on land nearby what became the town of DeSmet, where he could farm. This is where Wilder spent her adolescent years before getting married.

The editor of Pioneer Girl comments that Wilder looked up to her father more than her mother, and her father was a hard-working and resourceful man. I doubt that her mother worked any less hard, though, and must also have been resourceful to be a pioneer wife.

One incident I remember being impressed with from the books is Laura’s father building them a house using pegs which he whittled to hold the structure together, since he didn’t have any nails. He not only farmed, but worked for the railroad, was on the board overseeing a church, served as a judge, and was a carpenter. He also liked to play his violin, and had a fairly extensive repertoire.

Laura knew they had to work as a team, and not only helped her mother, but contributed to the family through outside jobs sewing and teaching in nearby schools, beginning when she was fourteen or fifteen. She contributed money to buy an organ her sister Mary, who had attended a school for the blind, could play after she returned home. It’s uncertain what caused Mary’s blindness, though doctors now believe it may have been meningitis, encephalitis, or some combination. She probably couldn’t have gotten much better care in a big city in that day before antibiotics, and x-rays, but it points up how many problems there were even when civilization wasn’t extremely far away.

In the earlier books the family seems isolated, though that wasn’t entirely true. Wilder depicted them that way to emphasize how much they had to depend on themselves, but there were also other people to whom they could go for help. This was particularly acute during the winter of 1880-1881, the Hard or Long Winter.

Snow fell early and often that fall, so much of it that the town was eventually cut off, even though the railroad ran through it. The snow was too deep, and the weather too cold for the railroad to operate. Much livestock froze to death, and people were reduced to eating the seeds saved to grow crops the next season. Almanzo Wilder undertook to find a farmer a dozen or so miles away who still had some grain, a very risky business since he could have gotten caught in a blizzard and lost. But he managed to get back to the town with the grain.

Fuel was another problem. The weather was bitterly cold with high winds, and there was little wood on the prairie. Laura’s father began twisting hay together to make a sort of stick which still burned fast, but helps keep people warm.

With blizzards coming every two to three days people had to be careful about going outside. The storms were so powerful people often couldn’t see, and could get lost between house and barn, as well as in town. Teachers watched for blizzards and sent the children home as soon as they see them coming.

Her later novels depict their interactions with people in the town. They had an extensive social life, with Fourth of July celebrations, social occasions organized by the church, and going riding with Almanzo Wilder, whom she eventually married, first in a sleigh, then a buggy. He has strong fast horses whom he couldn’t trust to stay still in a crowd, so the two of them took long rides of 40-60 miles together in the summer. Such long rides were unsafe in the winter, when it was possible to freeze to death.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s period may have seen the most dramatic changes ever in American life. She lived to be about 90, dying in 1957. Her first glimpse of high technology was a train, as a little girl. But she saw the advent of cars, movies, and airplanes, as well as the ascendance of America in the world. She may even have been aware of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. When writing the series that made her famous, she insisted to her daughter (herself an author and editor) that her material had to be treated in its historical context. It was a very specific time, and very unlike much of the twentieth century.

She clearly had good memories of her childhood and adolescence, but didn’t publish any more novels after her marriage to Almanzo. She wrote a further novel, The First Four Years, but didn’t publish it, perhaps because of many hardships in that period which would have detracted from the optimism of the rest of the series. She and Almanzo had a son who died as a young child, they owed money they were unable to repay until selling their farm and moving to Missouri, and Almanzo had bad complications from diphtheria, leaving him temporarily paralyzed, though his paralysis stopped after they moved to Florida. The couple descended into debt and never became financially stable until Wilder’s novels became popular.

But, as the editor of Pioneer Girl says, her novels became classics of children’s literature. She ranks Wilder with Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, L. Frank Baum, and E.B. White as children’s authors. Our family certainly enjoyed reading them, and so did enough others to generate a TV show which, as you might imagine, wasn’t very true to the books.

It’s hard for us to imagine, I think, just what life was like as pioneers on the edge of the western advance of white settlers. The editor of Pioneer Girl makes clear that civilization wasn’t too far away: railroads were built (and Wilder’s father worked for one), and brought important supplies to the settlers, including seeds to make a crop after the Hard Winter. Had they been totally isolated, they might have been in danger of starvation. They were not, but didn’t have the technology (in particular) we take for granted now. We see Wilder and her world at the very beginning of the transition from the 19th century way of life to that of the 20th century. We never really learn what Wilder thought of all those changes, but the picture painted by the editor suggests that she took the changes for granted.

Her life overlapped mine. There have been large changes since I was born, but nothing as immense as happened in Wilder’s lifetime. She reminds us where our country came from.

 

 

Alvin Maker

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Orson Scott Card is a very accomplished and prolific writer specializing in science fiction and fantasy, but also producing writing guides, reviews, and political opinion. He’s written several science fiction and fantasy series, most notably the Ender series, but the series about Alvin Maker is also distinguished.
It’s a fantasy about America beginning not long after the Revolution and surveying a number of aspects of the country. This is an alternate America, though. The United States is much smaller than the colonies that rebelled in our history, consisting mainly of the middle Atlantic states. Apalachee is separate, so are New England and the Crown Colonies, where King Arthur Stuart reigns. The Lord Protector, successor to Oliver Cromwell, still rules England. Canada is controlled by the French. At the beginning of the novel both the Marquis de Lafayette and Napoleon are there. Lafayette wants a revolution for France and Napoleon wants power. Both eventually get what they want.
The action in the novel begins with a family going west in a covered wagon. They cross a river near the eastern border of what would be Ohio in our world, and there’s a flash flood. A whole tree hurtles down the river at the wagon, in which a pregnant woman is almost ready to give birth. One of her older sons jumps onto the tree to push it away from the wagon. The tree catches him and tears his arm off. People from the nearby town come to help pull the wagon from the river and get the woman to an inn to give birth. The child is the seventh son of a seventh son, and thus the recipient of magical powers, called “knacks” by Americans. Americans mostly, but not entirely, accept these as fairly natural, even when they’re pretty startling, as in Alvin’s case. He becomes a quasi-messiah figure, though in an understated way. He is well brought up, and realizes how he needs to handle his powers, but Card doesn’t suggest he’s going to save the world. His vision eventually is to build what he calls a crystal city, and attract good people to it who can “make” in the sense that he does. Fulfilling this vision may be an evolutionary step for the human race.
His powers are characterized as constructive, but can be misused, like any other powers. In one scene he promises cockroaches that there’s food in the room of his sisters (he and his siblings tease each other). The cockroaches feel a sense of injustice because there wasn’t food where he told them, and an Indian who has crept into the house asks him why he did that. Alvin realizes that the only legitimate way to use his powers is for the good of others. Later on he has to be persuaded that it’s all right to figure out how to heal himself after a bad accident with a millstone.
The accident comes about because of what Alvin comes to call the Unmaker. He feels he’s been given his powers to make things better for people in general. The Unmaker, though tries to tear things down, and wants to destroy Alvin. He, she, or it tries to do it with water, as when Alvin was born, and has tried through other media since. A young girl, a “torch”, who can see what people feel (as well as their possible futures), and was present when Alvin was born, watches over him, and uses the caul which was over his face at birth to protect him. The Unmaker tries again with a millstone Alvin has cut, rolling it over onto him, and abrading his leg to the bone. William Blake, brought to this country by Benjamin Franklin, travels around the country swapping tales, and chances to be there when Alvin is hurt. He persuades Alvin that it isn’t wrong to heal himself, because he’ll benefit others if he does.
The Indian mentioned above, Lolla-Wossiky, is an important character in the second book of the series. His destiny was to be a shaman, but it was interrupted by witnessing William Henry Harrison (whom Card says was somewhat better in our world than in this novel) murder his father while Lolla-Wossiky looked on. The trauma caused “black noise” in his head, intensely painful, which whiskey helps him tolerate. When they meet Alvin tries to restore an eye that he’s lost, and is unable to do that, but does rid him of the black noise. Lolla-Wossiky is then able to resume his destiny as a shaman, and offer an alternative to his brother Ta-Kumska’s vision.
Ta-Kumsaw wants to drive whites out of the country. He sees the country east of the Mississippi as dying because the white settlers are starting farms and breaking up the ancient forest. The Indians are in tune with the forest land, able to run barefoot through it far faster than whites can move because the forest supports them, opening ways for them and making the ground soft. Alvin and one of his brothers are captured by Indians sent by Harrison, who wants (in his turn) to destroy the Indians. Those Indians plan to murder the boys and leave evidence suggesting Ta-Kumsaw did it. Instead, Ta-Kumsaw rescues the boys.
Lolla-Wossiky meanwhile has preached to many Indians that they ought not to resist whites violently, and has built a city with his followers. Whites, of course, don’t believe the Indians are actually nonviolent, and when the boys are kidnapped their father and others in the town believe it’s the peaceful Indians who did it. They confront them and begin massacring them. The Indians don’t resist. The whites stop only when one of the boys appears to tell them the real story. Ta-Kumsa tries to defeat the whites militarily, and fails. Many Indians follow Lolla-Wossiky across the Mississippi to the western lands, which are then closed to whites.
Relations between Indians and whites aren’t the only issues surveyed in the series. Alvin lands in trouble because he’s apprenticed to a blacksmith, and becomes a better smith. For the project he chooses to prove his ability and become a journeyman, he makes a plow, but then turns it to gold, and makes it live. His master convinces himself that Alvin found the gold on his property, and it therefore belongs to him. The case is settled in court.
Even more serious is when a black girl reaches the Hio river with her baby, borne after she was impregnated by her white master. She is rescued, but dies from the rigors of her trip, and her baby is adopted by the couple who run the inn in which Alvin was born. Slavehunters come looking for the boy, and break down the door of the inn looking for him. The innkeeper’s wife kills one, and is killed by the other. Alvin kills the second hunter, then changes the boy’s DNA so he can’t be found again. He has to go to court once more.
Another look at slavery takes place in the Deep South Crown Colonies where slaves are quiescent because they have given up their real names to someone who can keep them magically safe, and with their names their anger. When the safe place gets destroyed the slaves feel their anger again, greatly alarming the whites, one of whom suggests killing one of every three–even before the slaves have actually done anything.
In New England the look is at witchfinders, who operate very similarly to the Inquisition in Europe. People are encouraged to inform on their neighbors, and do so to get rewards. The witchfinders meanwhile twist everything to make it sound perverted, and it becomes clear that the people accused are NEVER guilty of misusing any powers they may have. John Adams, the judge who tries the case, orders that the witchfinders come under the authority of the state and be licensed before they can accuse anyone, and that if they accuse they must bring evidence that would stand in any secular court. This essentially shuts the pastime down.
At the end of the sixth novel of the series Alvin has married, and his wife has given birth to a son. He has prevented southern blacks from being massacred by their panicky owners, and restored his brother, who has powers himself, but is envious of Alvin, turned against him partly through temperament (he’s lazier, less systematic in using his powers, and less generous), and partly because of the Unmaker. He has also rescued a lot of the poor blacks, whites, and French people in Nueva Barcelona (our New Orleans), whom he manages to move north and settle in an unoccupied area. He wonders if any of his efforts have been worthwhile, or if the things he’s labored to build we be destroyed. That is always possible, but his wife tells him that many of the things he’s built will endure. The view is similar to that of George Gurdjieff, who says that the negative or denying force is a basic part of reality, which means that it takes real effort to accomplish anything worthwhile, and that none of it counts unless it’s almost impossible.
I greatly enjoy Card’s fiction, much of which resonates strongly with me. The Alvin series is not the least of his efforts. It’s not just the cleverness of the historical differences and the differing roles various historical figures play in this series, but a sense of rightness about what he says and portrays. One of these portrayals is the way the Indians see the forest land as living and the farms by white settlers as dead. This isn’t far from seeing the horror of the pollution of land, air, and water, which I persist in thinking one of our worst problems.
But Card’s political opinions are jarring to my liberal sensibilities. He sees liberals (the Left) as dictating to the rest of the country, as if industrialists idolized by the Right wing weren’t dictating to everyone by polluting air, water, and land, as well as shipping American jobs overseas to produce huge disparities in incomes, so that fewer and fewer Americans can adequately support themselves. They also use their abundant resources to tailor laws to their benefit, rather than to the benefit of the nation as a whole. The dictatorial impulse comes, in my opinion, from both sides of the aisle.
After his sensitive portrayal of the Native American way of seeing the land, he also sees the idea of anthropogenic climate change as another dictatorial ploy. He is able to understand the despair minorities feel when mistreated, including the minority with unusual talents considered satanic, but came out in one essay in favor of the recent law passed in North Carolina (where he lives) that enjoins transgender people to only use the restroom appropriate to their gender at birth, and also prevents localities from passing tolerant laws.
Evidently Mr. Card felt a need to revisit the subject, so in a more recent essay he noted legislation passed in Utah, which he says is the most Republican state in the union, but is also a state in which the legislators have more loyalty to the LDS church than the Republican party. The church persuaded a mostly Republican legislature to talk to gay rights activists to find a way to provide a law that would serve everyone, and they were able to do so. Mr. Card says the North Carolina law will inevitably be struck down (I’m not so sure), and suggests the North Carolina legislature consult with the various churches in the area with the idea of amending the law before it’s rescinded and a lot of feelings get hurt. I can only applaud that suggestion.
Mr. Card seems to feel that only Leftists are dictatorial, which I would argue with. While his political views disturb me to some extent, he’s such an insightful and powerful writer that it doesn’t surprise me that he can see the other side of at least some of his arguments (while not necessarily agreeing with them). What does surprise me is his conservative political outlook, which I find surprising in a writer so empathetic. Maybe that’s a measure of my liberal political bias.
I do recall him defending the Iraq war, which I doubt he would do now. I was still somewhat surprised he did it then. He says that the extreme Left tries to make sure anyone who disagrees with them can’t make a living anymore. I’m not so sure of that, but do remember how the last Bush administration told the military to go ahead and pollute, a similarly childish manifestation of resentment. Similarly, they allowed coal producers who blew the tops off mountains to get coal to also leave the trash behind anywhere they pleased, including in the mountain streams which feed into rivers that supply much of the drinking water of the eastern part of the USA. Another ideological thing to do.
I wish I didn’t believe this, but I find this period of our history closely paralleling the decade before the Civil War, when Northerners thought Southerners were dictating to them, Southerners returned the feeling, and nobody could please anyone else. That led eventually to war. I’ve been thinking for some time that we’re building up to something similar, only now, with the far more advanced technology we now have, something even more destructive. That’s not the only problem I foresee, but it’s one of the serious ones. Mr. Card’s suggestion to have religious leaders mediate between politicians may not be enough to avert catastrophe, but I don’t see that it could hurt. As my meditation teacher told us, some thirty years ago, no progress will be made on environmental problems (like a lot of others) until people are willing to stop playing the blame game and calling other people names.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

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Rereading Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress reminds me of just how well he executed that novel. There are probably some false notes in it, but very few.
The action takes place about sixty years from now when Earth’s Moon has been sparsely settled mostly by convicts expelled by various countries on Earth: a much larger Devil’s Island, and even more difficult to escape from.
Most of these convicts, ex-convicts, and descendants of convicts don’t waste time on impossibilities. They have enough to do to survive. They don’t like the Authority that makes sure they send agricultural produce to Earth (part of their survival strategy has included agriculture grown underground), and there are various movements to win independence, but none of them very effective. Part of the reason is because Authority isn’t interested in much besides sending produce to Earth. They let the Loonies (inhabitants of the Moon, and Luna City, where most of the action takes place) do pretty much what they want, as long as they don’t upset too many apple carts.
The narrator happens to attend a revolutionary rally within the first few pages, and while he doesn’t disagree with the sentiments, doesn’t feel the speakers have thought of an effective way to rebel. While he doesn’t like the Authority (personified by the Warden), his family is pretty comfortably fixed, cheats the Authority as often as they can get away with it, and otherwise doesn’t worry about it much.
But the rally is broken up by police/soldiers of the Authority quite violently, and all those attending scatter. The narrator rescues a beautiful woman, they find a place to hide together, bring another friend into their hiding place, and embark on political discussions.
At the time of the action the population of the moon is relatively small: about three million, compared to about 11 billion for Earth. Of course they have few if any personal weapons more effective than knives. Authority wouldn’t allow them guns, and guns are more dangerous in a pressurized environment in which a stray bullet could let vacuum in and air out. If the government of Earth is willing to make the investment, they can easily dispose of the rebellion: simply drop a few atomic bombs on the various cities (there are two others besides Luna City) and start over again. That would probably be prohibitively expensive, though.
That expense is one advantage the Loonies have. There are two others: they live at the top of a gravity well, and can throw stones at the Earth, which is at the bottom. This means they can fight without having to build bombs (technologically and financially beyond them), they can get by without a Navy (financially impossible), and relatively few soldiers can be landed to fight on the Moon. Immense expense again, exacerbated by soldiers from this planet being unused to the tremendously difficult environment. Loonies are used to it, Earth people aren’t.
The other advantage they have is a huge computer to which much memory, much data, and many functions have been added. The computer has become self-aware, and is friends with the narrator, whose business is fixing computers. The computer, named by the narrator Mycroft Holmes (Sherlock Holmes’ highly intelligent brother), or Mike, takes over the leadership of a movement to conduct a successful revolution, along with the narrator and his two friends.
It turns out there’s an urgent reason to have a revolution–an ecological one. The Loonies make most of their money through agriculture. One of the necessities of agriculture is water. Water can be found on the Moon in the form of ice, but ice is getting more scarce. Loonies recycle water, but also ship a lot of it to earth, in the form of the crops the Authority demands. Mike, the computer, forecasts ecological catastrophe seven years from the beginning of the story. The problem is one that no one even recognizes, let alone will be willing to do anything about it in time. Revolution is thus necessary.
This novel echoes many current problems and past revolutions. The ecological problem described is much simpler than the ones facing us, though not especially more tractable. Water shortage is already a problem in much of the world, and doesn’t promise to get better soon. But Loonies don’t have to deal with pollution from a multitude of sources as we do. Other than the Authority, they also don’t have to deal with a lot of institutions with vested interests, as we on Earth do.
There is no law as we know it. Authority doesn’t care what Loonies do, as long as they supply the crops, so violent crime is dealt with by private citizens, some of whom are willing to serve as judges (for example) to try to make sure too much violence doesn’t occur.
One crime that occurs very rarely is rape. This is because there are many fewer women than men, so anyone who rapes or kills a woman is eliminated as quickly as possible by other men. You might suppose that in such a situation all men might turn into rapists, but no one would survive too long that way in such a hostile environment. I must remind anyone who doesn’t know, or may have forgotten, that the Moon has no atmosphere, so humans can only survive in cities or houses which are pressurized so air will stay in, and vacuum will stay out. In such a place one doesn’t survive by being sloppy or antisocial.
So Authority provides few services. Loonies therefore provide them for themselves, like schools, all of which are private, and all of which are in relatively easy reach of most citizens, as few are really rich. One of the few real institutions mentioned is a bank. All other forms of activity are relatively fluid.
Heinlein describes alternative versions of marriages, not in much detail, but many seem to be different types of extended families. That would seem to suit a frontier society, which the Moon is, though about three generations removed from being a totally raw frontier. A frontier society also makes Heinlein’s libertarian notions work. People disagree, but know what it takes to survive, too. Harder to see with a society grown rich and institutionalized.
What comes across most clearly is just how difficult it is to pull off a revolution and really make it work as intended. There are all kinds of issues to consider, and with a complex society, especially one with at least one extremely powerful neighbor, it just about TAKES a self-aware computer to keep track of them all. It only begins with organizing a secure structure to prevent information leaks. There are many ingredients to the revolutionary cake, some of them specific to location, some not. What do you work towards, what do you leave out? In the Moon’s specific case, Heinlein posits (through Mike, the computer) that it’s necessary to have war. Otherwise the Loonies will accept the first offer that sounds good, and the root problem won’t be addressed. They get war, trying to keep it as limited as possible, and do so successfully. But the narrator at least implies that later on society has gotten fat and lost track of its roots.
This is a problem with any revolution. How do you prevent it from turning into a replica of the thing you were rebelling against? You could argue that you mostly don’t. A recent article says the USA would have done better to stay with Great Britain, mostly because minorities would have been treated marginally better, and because the legislative process is less of a strait-jacket. Arguably, we might have become less ideological about race, for instance.
France was inspired by the USA to have a revolution of its own, and had a more extreme one (though ours was more extreme than usually realized).
Haiti was inspired by both, but was handicapped by being in the backyard of three great powers; four, if you count the United States. Haiti succeeded, but then got punished when they didn’t maintain their military, and has been a mess ever since the first half of the 19th century.
Russia emulated the Czars, and made an even worse tyranny. China emulated Russia.
Thomas Jefferson recommended that the tree of liberty be periodically watered with blood. Trotsky had much the same idea with perpetual revolution. But how does perpetual revolution work? Consider Russia, where change was catastrophic for at least 30 years. People got tired of it. The same in China, for even longer. Does human nature even permit substantive change?
That’s a question we need to ask ourselves. Heinlein was prescient in at least one respect: many of our most basic problems are ecological, and few people are interested in doing anything about them. What will it take to modify our behavior so we can survive? I’m afraid it will take a great deal of death and destruction, to begin with. Heinlein provided a happy ending to his novel, but doesn’t seem to have been totally optimistic. In order to survive, we will probably have to develop an entirely different orientation, and that won’t come easy. An acquaintance suggested that we need better people. How do we get them? It’s clear that “Revolution from above” tyrannizes without making people more virtuous. People don’t get virtuous unless they really see the advantages, and there are plenty of distractions to keep them from seeing.
But Heinlein’s characters saw a problem (or group of problems) and tried to do something about it (them). We can choose to do so too.

Robert Heinlein

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Robert Heinlein was an interesting author, and one of my favorites. He was very talented, selling the first story he ever wrote, and then going from there. I doubt he ever had many (if any) stories rejected.
He began his career in 1939 after bad health forced him out of the military. During his first decade of writing professionally (with some time out to make scientific contributions to the Second World War) he was experimenting, trying both fantasy and science fiction, and many of the plots and scenarios established by others. Probably his most famous work in that decade was his Future History series of linked stories, which he never entirely finished, but some of the characters of which would turn up again later.He was pretty successful at just about everything he tried, but changed as he went along.
In his second decade of writing most of his work was for juveniles, mainly boys. That’s what’s known as the bildungsroman, in which a boy becomes a man. He wrote more than a dozen of these. Some, but not all, had simple plots, but the main attraction of them was the simplicity and clarity of the writing, which painted a picture of the story’s situation in simple words. The morality of the stories was usually easy to understand too.
One of the more complicated plots in these books (and one of the later ones) was Citizen of the Galaxy, in which the main character begins life as a slave, and is bought by a beggar on a world with a much different civilization than ours–apparently, at least. The boy (by now a young man) has to escape the world, and enters a different one: that of the Free Traders, a complicated and stratified society, each family based on its own spaceship.
The young man eventually has to leave this society too, and joins the military of the government centered on Earth. During his stay there it becomes necessary to ascertain his identity. He turns out to be the son of a rich man who had been lost in space decades ago. He was too young to be able to remember much about the trip or his capture, let alone his parents. Most of his memories are about the beggar who bought him, who turns out to have been an intelligence operative with a great loathing for slavery. He is disappointed to discover that some of the companies he now owns are or were complicit in the slave trade.
The beggar who raised him is the character who appears often in Heinlein, especially in his later work: The Wise Old Man. This is a way for Heinlein to express some of his own opinions, but is also an archetypal character.
I’m not sure what slavery symbolized for Heinlein. The institution, of course, was long gone by his day, and I don’t recall reading any comments of his on the novel. But he makes you feel the disgust for slavery he obviously feels. Morality is something important to Heinlein, and he expresses it clearly. You may disagree with his positions, but not that morality is a passion to him. This is certainly true of his juvenile novels to greater or lesser extent, becoming perhaps more important and certainly more complex in his later work in those genres. Citizen of the Galaxy wasn’t necessarily better than the others. They were all more or less good. But at that point, in the late 1950s, juvenile novels had become too confining for him. One thing about them that I’ve been curious about is that Heinlein never had any children. I don’t know if it was infertility or some other reason, but considering he wrote so many juveniles I wonder if he didn’t want to have children himself, was unable, and used this particular form to compensate by teaching other people’s children instead of his own.
His new writing phase probably began with Starship Troopers, in which a boy graduating from high school enlists in the military and grows up there. A bildungsroman again, but with more of a political component than before.
Many of the scenes are from a required high school class which has obviously greatly influenced the narrator. The teacher (another Wise Old Man) is explaining the way the current society is structured. It seems that there had been a devastating war, and the previous government had fallen apart. Veterans had put a government together and had withheld the vote from anyone who didn’t serve in the military. Those citizens were allowed to do anything else, but not to vote. The rationale is that military people have more sense of responsibility than people who didn’t serve.
Heinlein later said that when he said veterans he didn’t mean just military people, but he didn’t make that clear in the novel. I was too young to pick up on the controversy when I read it uncritically. Only later, on reading commentary on it by other people, did I even think about it. By that time I had already been disappointed by Heinlein’s support for the Vietnam war, so his viewpoint wasn’t entirely surprising. He had wanted to make the military his career, and had been frustrated by his health. So he must have idealized it, though he must also have known the history of the military around the world shows it can be as corrupt as any other part of society.
He did some of his best and most famous work in this latter phase of his career, but it was also less even in quality than previously. Stranger in a Strange Land is probably his most famous novel, and I found it thrilling when I first read it, partly because of Heinlein’s view of sexuality, partly because his Man from Mars had perspectives I’d never encountered before. The problem with that now is that Heinlein’s view of sex was very idealized. His main character did note how sad it was that people hurt each other that way, but didn’t really acknowledge just how badly people can hurt each other. Nice that Heinlein’s characters are sexy, frequently fall into bed with each other, and also manage never to hurt each other. Most of us aren’t so lucky or able.
Heinlein also had his Man from Mars “disappear” people who had bad intentions towards his friends. The first few times are described in detail, and the reader is most inclined to sympathize, but that kind of thing can become a habit, and near the end of the book the Man from Mars is getting rid of a lot of “criminal types”. Of course he “groks” who they are, so he’s unable to make mistakes, again unlike most people. Another Wise Old Man, Jubal Harshaw, is as important a character in Stranger as the Man from Mars himself. He explains a lot of the “Martian’s” perspectives to less sophisticated characters, as well as the reader. Since Harshaw is also a writer, it’s extremely obvious for whom he is a spokesman.
Three novels intervened between “Stranger” and Heinlein’s next great novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress;/. None of the three were terrible, but none was a masterpiece either. Podkayne of Mars may have been an attempt at a bildungsroman with a female lead character, but Podkayne didn’t really change much through the book. Glory Road could be read as the importance of being ready for adventure any time, but it wasn’t Heinlein’s best either. Farnham’s Freehold was a rather strange effort, in which a family is transported into the future in which blacks are the dominant race, and we discover they can be just as nasty as whites. I don’t recall that Heinlein acknowledges very clearly just how toxic American society has been to blacks, his effort being implicit more than explicit.
His next great novel (and possibly his best overall) was The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, in which he does what he does about the best that he ever does it. The novel is set on Earth’s moon and is about a rebellion against Earth’s government led by self-aware computer. The situation is clearly parallel to the American Revolution, and the plot turns on the Earth’s single government as being too busy with other things, as well as the Moon’s advantage in being at the top of the gravity well. It enables them to throw stones.
Later Heinlein novels include one about a brain transplant I Shall Fear No Evil, and Time Enough for Love, which is built around a character from a previous novel who is now over a thousand years old (yet another Wise Old Man, and this one the main character), and includes a lot of stories from his life. One of the most curious aspects of the latter novel is that the main character goes back in time and has sex with his own mother. This is a measure of Heinlein’s idealism of sex, and this is one area in which I think he was mistaken. Perhaps some people can have incestuous relationships without damaging anyone, but the preponderance of evidence seems to say that incest is taboo for a reason: it may be almost universally tempting, and it does seem to be damaging for most participants. This particular theme makes you wonder if Heinlein felt sexually deprived, or whether he was merely recounting some things he had done, or wanted to do.
The novel that sets the blueprint for most of Heinlein’s later work, though, isThe Number of the Beast in which one of his characters invents a device that can take you to parallel worlds; a world where Germany and/or Japan won World War II, for instance. But Heinlein takes his characters to fictional worlds like Oz, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars, and eventually his own novels. There are villains in this one, though we’re never sure just who and what they are, but they clearly resent anyone else being able to travel in the way Heinlein’s characters do, trying to destroy anyone who does. This provides the basis for several other novels, and the feeling of them is curious.
Heinlein was in poor health for much of the time between the late sixties and 1987, when he died. These novels read like a fear of death, and desire for immortality, as when, in Time Enough for Love, the main character gets rescued at the point of death by friends in a time machine. The last line of the novel is, “Oh, you can never die.”
One wonders too about the confluence of Heinlein characters at the end of The Number of the Beast. Is this just in praise of a good party? Or is it a sort of celebration of Heinlein’s real-life friends? Did he feel closer at this point to his own characters than to very many actual friends? Or was he feeling lonely, instead? I don’t have any definitive answer.
Like any author, he had his blind spots, but in my opinion he created a lasting array of well-crafted high-quality stories, even in the latter part of his career, when his work got more peculiar. I hope people are still reading them. I think they’re missing something if they don’t.