All Our Yesterdays 19
by Harry Warner Jr.
The Immortal Storm
This instalment of the column will be different. Instead of poking at the corpse of a deceased fanzine, I intend to jab lightly at a publication that in itself is a sort of sarcophagus for ten years of fandom. It’s “The Immortal Storm”, Sam Moskowitz’s history of the first years of fandom.
There are several reasons for the temporary change in subject matter. One reason is imperial decree from the boss of this particular fanzine. Another is the desire to point out the need for more history-writing, as the years pass in such swift profusion. Finally I’d like to suggest changes in the approach to this hypothetical continuation of fandom’s history.
“The Immortal Storm” is so unique in fandom that we’re apt to forget the fact that it covers only one-third of the history of fandom, from the chronological standpoint. All remarks that follow are based on the 1954 edition of the Atlanta Science Fiction Organisation Press. The history was so long in the writing and so slow in making book form incarnation that it’s easy to overlook the giant gap between this final form and the end of the period it covers; a full fifteen years. After a passing glance at the pre-history of fandom, through a sketch of the early professional publications that contained science fiction, “The Immortal Storm” really begins extended coverage of events as fanzine fandom began to emerge in the early 1930’s. It concludes at the outbreak of World War Two.
So it’s obvious that someone somewhere should start to do something immediately about the chronicles of fandom in the 1940’s and 1950’s. I respectfully submit the opinion that there is nobody who can do for either decade the accomplishment that Sam achieved for fandom’s first ten years. I can think of nobody who was constantly active through either the 40’s or 50’s, possesses the time and patience to write the history of those years, and has retained, in good order the fifty foot stack of fanzines that would be required for reference purposes. It is true that Sam wasn’t active in the first years of the period that he covers; but fandom was so small and its events were so thoroughly reported in the early fanzines that this did not prove to be too serious a handicap. By 1940, fandom was so large and varied that the person who would write its history should have a good memory of conversations and large boxes filled with letters and the patience to ask for information from other survivors of the period, instead of relying on the contents of fanzines. I think that the only way we shall ever obtain a continuation of “The Immortal Storm” with this book’s thoroughness and accuracy is by assigning specific aspects of fandom to various people, with an overall editor to compile and align these historians.
Fortunately, fandom seems to be entering into another period of reference work publishing. There are the new edition of the Fancyclopedia, Tucker’s revision of The Neofan’s Guide, and several bibliographical projects concerned with professional publications. It isn’t inconceivable that someone will get ambitious enough to take up the historian’s pen where Moskowitz dropped it, either as a determined do-it-yourself writer, or as the co-ordinator whom I’ve suggested. In that event, I hope that the respect which “The Immortal Storm” has won for many fine qualities doesn’t cause the next history to become too slavish an imitation of attitude and principles.
From now on, this article may seem more and more like an attack on Sam Moskowitz as a fan, as a writer, and as a historian. I don’t mean it as an attack, but I can see no way of achieving my purpose, other than by concentrating on the flaws of “The Immortal Storm” in some detail, after briefly summarising its excellencies. To my knowledge, nobody has proved that it contains a single inaccuracy of any importance, and that is a claim that few historians could make. Moskowitz is reputed to have the necessary documents to back up every sentence in the book, and his goal of a history of fandom at a time when he was obviously losing more and more of the old-time fannish enthusiasm is a miracle in itself. The old antipathies and feuds from his personal experiences in fandom can be sensed in the book, but they do not cause serious harm to his obvious efforts at impartiality in describing these events. Over and above all its other merits, “The Immortal Storm” is important because it preserves for all time many facts that could have been lost altogether to fandom, as the earliest people in the field drifted out of sight and the tiny circulation publications of the 1930’s became more and more difficult to locate.
Please keep all that in mind, while I try to explain my reasons for believing that the next history of fandom should differ completely from “The Immortal Storm”. The basic flaw in Sam’s idea of history is that it is almost entirely political in a field where politics are frequently evident but always absurd. Partly as an out — growth of this concept of fandom as a power struggle is a subsidiary difficulty: the preconception of the book with certain types of fanning and specific geographical areas of fandom to the neglect of equally important activities and cities.
Obviously, the easiest way to write a history of fandom is to use the same method that is normally adopted to write a history of a nation or the world: describe the struggles for supremacy, the activities of those who won out, the tactics of those who were defeated. However, I don’t believe that it’s the right way, because of the basic nature of fans and fandom. To paraphrase one of Chesterton’s remarks, it is quite accurate to consider a fan as a biped, as long as you don’t fall into the error of considering fifty fans as a centipede. All through the history of fandom, there have been individuals who formed organisations, sought to run them, helped to break them up, and in general acted in the microcosm of fandom like the politicians of a nation. But here the parallel between fandom and a nation ends. These power-minded people really had no power to achieve. Fans are individualists. They won’t be ruled, dictated to, or stamped. They might join organisations, but they continue to act in the same manner after joining as they did before; their characters and habits do not alter. The fans who achieve the presidencies and directorates accomplish the same success as the celebrated flies who conquer the fly — paper. They have spent many hours, raised their blood pressures, and made enemies to achieve an accomplishment that is nothing but a list of titles and entombment in a work like “The Immortal Storm”. The whole history of fandom from the International Scientific Association to the World Science Fiction Society proves it. The only organisations that have more concrete existence than a campaign platform are those which have been created to relieve an existing need: a central distribution point for fanzines, like FAPA, or someone to accept contributions for bringing a fan across the ocean, like TAFF. Fans refuse to be governed. The politicians of fandom may be getting valuable practice for later activities in the great outside world. That’s the best that can be said for their investment in time and energy.
Let’s take New Fandom as an example. It is mentioned on page 54 of the 252 pages of this book. It does not bob up until page 174, which means that it appears on more than half of the final pages of the volume. Whole chapters are devoted to it. Moskowitz obviously worked hard on New Fandom, took a great interest in it. But if I were given the task of assessing the amount of space that this organisation should receive in a 252 page history of fandom in the 1930’s, I would award it two medium-sized paragraphs, no more. It was purely a political organisation, whatever its noble purposes. Fandom in the 1940s was the same as it would have been if New Fandom had never existed; fandom of the 1930’s had no evidence of its passing aside from a small stack of fanzines and much bitter wrangling.
I think that it is the essentially political viewpoint of the book that caused its dramatic, super — charged style of writing to receive so much criticism. Take a paragraph like this one:
This kind of description might be justified if it were applied to the real struggles that went on in fandom. Jack Speer’s attempt to remain active in fandom after he annihilated a telephone pole in Connecticut with his automobile or Ray Bradbury’s dogged persistence to pull himself up from a fanzine writer to a serious professional writer were typical things that might merit the treatment. But John B. Michel was a sickly teenage boy who had read a few books and had emitted a philosophy that was as hopelessly unrealistic as that of Claude Degler. I admire Degler more than I do Michel, because the former had enough belief in himself to go out and personally campaign for his ideas, crazy as they may have been. To dignify at this late date Michel with such a serious attitude is to be more royalist than the king.
There is another difficulty with the political viewpoint on fandom. Almost inevitably, it causes the writer to magnify the events in which he had personal connection, and to skim lightly over the power struggles in which he had less involvement. The index to “The Immortal Storm” gives damning evidence of the situation. Entries for New York City and for the organisations of its various boroughs occupy perhaps eight times the space required to list the references to Los Angeles. Yet by any stand– point that I have been able to imagine, Los Angeles meant more to fandom at the time of these events and had a more lasting influence on the fandom that followed. Even in the late 1930’s, Cincinnati had an active fandom, but in “The Immortal Storm” you will find only one reference to the Ohio city in the index. That reference is there because a Cincinnati fan attended a meeting in New York. A complete non — entity, Mario Racic, receives twice the attention given to either Bob Bloch or Henry Kuttner. He lives in New York; they didn’t.
Or consider the early years of FAPA. Even in 1945, when “The Immortal Storm” began its serialisation in The Fantasy Commentator, it must have been evident that FAPA’s first years were important for two things. The organisation quickly became something that distributed magazines that were specifically produced for it, rather than fulfilling Wollheim’s dream of a mechanism for avoiding the fuss and bother of mailing lists for all general fanzines. And FAPA members promptly discovered that they liked to talk in their publications about things that were not directly associated, with science fiction and fandom. But you will look in vain in “The Immortal Storm” for summaries of the discussions that sprang up in the organisation’s publications and the special innovations that were found in its bundles. Instead, you will read endless accounts that sound like a famous Lewis Carroll poem, such as:
It’s a great temptation to suggest that this history should have taken into consideration the events that followed the time at which it cuts off. Sam’s readers were not living in a vacuum. They knew that Ray Bradbury became the most spectacular fan for his climb to professional writing. Ray did not justify any more space than he did on the basis of what he did up to 1939; but I don’t think it would have complicated materially the task of verifying this book to pay more attention to him for what came after 1939, both for his own sake and for the manner in which he typified the entire great fan-to-pro movement of the 1940’s.
At this point, we have come to the task of deciding what to emphasise if more fan history volumes are to be produced.
For one thing, it would be desirable to make it easier for a non — participant in the years involved to read the history. The participants in fandom appear in “The Immortal Storm” pretty much as they did in fandom itself: gradually, at first receiving a bare mention here and there, slowly working their way to prominence. Only in the case of a few particularly titanic personalities are we given a direct, concentrated, look at the individual. It seems to me that much more attention should be paid in the next histories to describing the individuals who form the cast: something of their family and environment, vocation and education, economic status when relevant, and what happened to them after they left fandom. Occasionally, Moskowitz does it, like this:
But too often, a person who wasn’t active in fandom of the 1930’s cannot even guess at the age of this or that person referred to in the book.
The fact that people like Koenig and Kuttner were not fans in Sam’s circle should be no reason for slighting them.
Finally, the most difficult thing of all might be to remember to put into the histories the things that are so self — evident that the historian may not think of them. I don’t think that “The Immortal Storm” lists anywhere the facts about the economies of fanzine production in the 1930’s. But to understand why early fanzines were small and hectographed, it is necessary to know how much hectograph goo and mimeograph stencils and different types of paper cost before World War Two, and how much money the majority of fans received in their pay cheque each week. How did fans wander into fandom during the first decade of fandom? Through letter columns, conferences, or local club meetings? How many letters would a leading fan of the period receive and write in a week? These things sound trivial, if you lived through the period. But the fan world has changed so much since 1939 that today’s younger fans might be quite startled at who facts that such inquiries would produce.
A guide to pronunciation of fannish terms and proper names is a must for future histories. Look at some of the names that are found in the index of “The Immortal Storm”, and try to pronounce them with certainty that you have the long and short vowels at the proper spot and the accents on the proper syllables: Goudket, Jacobi, Kosow, Rimel, Anger and Boosel.
There is a subsidiary question of what to leave out. There are things in “The Immortal Storm” that could be quite damaging to wives and children of certain fans of the time, because of the political organisations in which the fans were active. Here again I think that the political approach to fandom has been injurious to the history; a more rounded look at fandom would bring forth so much new material that there wouldn’t be room to tell too much about these subsidiary indiscretions of the fans. The problem will increase as the 1940’s are chronicled; fans weren’t as fond of the Communist organisations in that decade, but more of them got sent to jail for various crimes.
I just wish that “The Immortal Storm” were written in such a manner as to make the Fancyclopedia and the need of an old-time fan to answer your questions, unnecessary.
Last revised: 1 March, 2006
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