All Our Yesterdays 27
by Harry Warner Jr.
The Cosmic Circle
So you’ve tried to forget the Breenigan? And you’ve been making efforts to think as charitably as possible about Steve Pickering? Besides, you’ve been in fandom too short a time to remember when the mad dogs were on the point of kneeing Harlan Ellison in the groin? Then you’ve heard about only the minor ripples that have recently swept across the calm waters of fandom. For listen:
I’ve taken the liberty to do something analogous to the way Lovecraft used to spare his readers the more awful details, by disguising them under such adjectives as “certain” or “curious”. Several words in almost every line of the original were either capitalised or underlined. I didn’t designate those emphases, for fear of scaring you as much as Claude Degler shook up fandom when he wrote that speech late in 1943. It was published in the second issue of Futurian Daily Planet, a single-sheerer. It’s a good thing that this Cosmic Circle publication exists, because the speech would otherwise be lost to the world. Degler, then referred to most of the time as Don Rogers, had just been kicked out of the LASFS, prepared a farewell address, but never delivered it “due to circumstances arising near the last minute.”
Laney once defined Cosmic Circle publications as bowel movements postmarked Newcastle. For a year or a little longer, they florished incredibly. Most of them were slim, rarely running to as many as a dozen pages. They bore a staggering profusion of titles. Almost invariably they were stenciled on the same elite typewriter, usually mimeographed on a darkish hue of paper, and squeezed an improbable number of words onto each page by dispensing with artwork and offering only the most grudging of margins.
Perhaps the most famous of the titles Degler published was Cosmic Circle Commentator. Its first issue, dated September 1943, contained in its four legal length pages a summary of the Cosmic Circle as Degler then imagined it to be. It listed ten local CC organizations, 22 state CC organizations, 15 sectional CC federations, and an ll point programme for fandom. Excerpts from this programme include:
But that was just the start. Later in this issue Degler-Rogers explained:
The second issue of Cosmic Circle Commentator looked back at more immediate matters, like one of Degler’s famous good-will tours of fandom. These were hitch-hiking expeditions during which the CC gospel was spread in every fannish home where Degler wasn’t denied admittance. Let’s look at some of the laconic descriptions of one of these trips:
As you may remember or guess, Degler was a fan whose enthusiasm exceeded his judgement, who took literally the high-sounding nonsense that is published in fanzine editorials and spoken in worldcon speeches. When a fan or a pro speculated that fans were different because of their interest in the future, Claude assumed he could count on them to rule the future: when he read about a feud between two fans and then got angry at someone, he threatened a feud far beyond the poor capacity of the Hatfields and the McCoys. His Cosmic Circle caused at least one heart attack, engulfed prozine editors and the most obscure fans, caused chaos in staid groups such as the LASFS and FAPA, and was accompanied by an impressive assortment of subsidiary and auxiliary groups. (The P.F.F. mentioned above was the Planet Fantasy Federation.) Nobody knows for sure if Degler wrote all the material in CC publications not obviously the work of established fans. He listed associates and friends who with one exception remained completely unknown to general fandom. The exception was Helen Bradleigh, a name under which a young girl was introduced to several fans; but internal evidence indicates that the Helen Bradleigh who bobs up throughout CC publications cannot have been bound by normal limitations of space and time. The first extended manifestation turns up in what is not exactly a CC publication: the second issue of Infinite, dated November, 1941, which was co-edited by Degler and Leonard Marlow. It alleges to tell about an early adventure of Degler’s, his “actual — believe it or not — attempt to reach Hell!”
Helen describes their digging a hole four by seven feet at the top, “heading for the nether regions at incredible speed.” She says that Claude and his brother, Robert, wired the hole for electricity, created a bucket brigade to get rid of the excavated material, and used a phonograph to speed work. “More and more distant people whom we had never known came over to see who was digging a hole to Hell. They got in the way and hindered the work horribly. So many people came to see the Hell Hole, as it came to be called, that it finally caused us to erect a sign at the top saying ‘Hell 12ft’ and an arrow pointing down. When people were standing around watching, we would heave buckets of dirt out and work ferociously, while yelling things like ‘On to Pellucidar, on to Hell!’ The main shaft finally went down to 23 feet or a little more. Of course when we were in our tunnel the people standing around the shaft could not see us at all. We built large fires, many times for fun, in the bottom of the shaft while we were back in the tunnel, and let the smoke and flames roll out the top.” The narrative halted there with a promise that a second installment would make fans “understand why Degler’s back yard was given as wide a berth as possible, and why no longer would anyone use the alley in back of the house after dark if this could possibly be avoided.” But the third Infinite never appeared, and the remainder of the manuscript very well could be lost to posterity.
Things around Degler’s home had changed considerably a few years later. The 12th issue of Cosmic Circle Commentator, dated December 4th, 1943, published a dispatch from Oakgrove, Ind., which I believe it would be wise if I copied in an unexpergated form:
Claude, you see, had not entered the Al Ashley home, at Ashley’s insistence, and blamed this event for his declining health.
The second issue of Fantasy Forum, dated February 27, 1944, really shook up fandom which might have expected anything from Dealer except the headline in this single-sheeter:
Raym was Raymond Washington, Jr., a youthful fan in Live Oak, Florida, who inherited the Cosmic Circle when Degler finally decided that he was offending the more sensitive members of fandom and tried briefly to salvage something from the organization’s putrefying cadaver. One envelope filled with CC publications bears Raym’s name as return address, is postmarked Live Oak, but contains publications that are unmistakably from the hands of Degler. These were inspired at least in part by the investigation Jack Speer had made in Newcastle, Ind. (Officially, it’s New Castle, but Degler and most of the rest of fandom always wrote it as one word.) Degler promptly announced the forthcoming publication of “Investigating and Investigation” and “Conversations at an Asylum” by Don Rogers “a true account of the Speer affair in Newcastle”. (Spear had discovered that Degler’s background was what we might describe today as troubled.) The World Science-Fantasy Association, yet another Degler organization, “wishes to announce its complete independence of the promags, of the rest of fandom, and of any other group, as of July 4, 1944. We support the pro mags, we buy ‘em, but we are completely independent. We would keep right on existing whether there were any pro stf mags or not.” Palmer had said some nasty things about the CC. This batch also reprinted a letter from Dr. C. L. Barrett, who confessed inability to understand the fan situation in Oakgrove. Helen explained:
There’s just one other thing you should know about the Cosmic Circle, over and above the detailed narration which you may soon be reading in the first volume of my history of fandom. When in the mood, Degler could write as calmly and as well as the average good fan. Rarely but often enough to show that it was no accident, the hysteria, obvious hyperbole, and near illiterare syntax disappeared from a Degler publication. It happened once in a set of mailing comments he wrote for FAPA, and again in reply to the Speer investigation and his claims that most events and people in and around Newcastle were Degler’s imagination. Degler pounced on weak points in the Speer report: an undocumented statement by Speer that he was speaking for hundreds of fans, for instance; and Degler unerringly and accurately countered Speer’s complaints about sloppy reproduction of CC fanzines by recalling some Speer publications in early FAPA mailings.
So where’s the real truth? Was Degler a fan with a sort of manic-depressive fanac, who ran the Cosmic Circle during an unusually long dominance of the hectic phase? Was he a different kind of Steve Pickering...rarely allowing his real personality to appear in his fanac because he discovered that he could gain notoriety by this method of making himself conspicuous? Did he take his own claims about fandom and the CC at face value? Or at some point in his fannish career, did he realize that fandom was taking something seriously he was doing for a lark, and then proceeded to pull fandom’s leg out of sadistic delight in seeing fans hop around and howl in anguish? I wish I could promise the answer in my fan history, but I can’t.
Last revised: 1 March, 2006
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