July 13th, 2007

Once more into the breach

On my recent trip through points Southerly, I attended a college reunion at a campsite along the James River in Virginia.  The site was Fort Pocahontas -- which has a disturbingly Disneylike ring to it, I admit.  But the history is fascinating.

The fort was built and invested by "United States Colored Troops" -- that is, African-American troops fighting on the side of the Union.  They were, of course, led by a white officer, the one-armed General Edward Wild (I can't think of a war in which more officers had less appendages!).  

It had always been a truism among whites, Union and Confederate alike, not excluding abolitionists, that black soldiers could not fight as well as white soldiers.  On May 24, 1864, this "theory" was put to the test when 2,500 Confederate troops under General Fitzhugh Lee, the nephew of "Massa Robert," attacked the fort, known as Wilson's Wharf at the time, expecting to easily walk over the black defenders, who were outnumbered by better than two to one.  The result was a clear and humiliating Confederate defeat.  After the battle, and for the remainder of the war, the fort served as a refuge for escaped slaves and as a prison for Conderates taken during the seige of Petersburg.  More details are available here and here.  

Equally fascinating is the fact that the property was purchased in 1996 by Harrison Ruffin Tyler, the grandson of the 10th US President, John Tyler.  Yes, the grandson!  Is that mind blowing or what?

John Tyler was a fire-eater who urged Virginia to secede and was then elected to the Confederate Congress, only to die before he could take office.  In his sixties, he fathered Lyon Gardiner Tyler, who followed his father's footsteps by marrying twice and also siring offspring in his later years, one of whom is Harrison, now 79.  So here in 2007 we have a man who is but two generations removed from the first native-born American president, who also has the distinction of being the first vice-president to ascend to the presidency, and the first president to have impeachment proceedings brought against him.  

As Faulkner so rightly said, "The past isn't dead.  It isn't even past."
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Lester del Rey, quitter



It's never too late to revive old quarrels and pummel the dead, so let's jump right in!

As I often do, last night I picked a random magazine from my shelves to browse through. This time it was The December 1974 issue of WORLDS OF IF.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/If_(magazine)

IF was a fine magazine and this issue was a cause of sadness, since it was the final one of its first series.

In the issue, Lester del Rey wraps up his regular review column by saying he's rather glad to be ceasing his reviews, since he's been doing it for a whole five years, and he's lost all his enthusiasm for reading, having become "jaded" with books. He goes on to generalize about how reviewers inevitably lose their edge after such a span.

I immediately thought: What a whining little cry-baby, concealing his selfish ulterior motives in a cloak of self-abnegation.

Here's del Rey, the supposedly consumate pro--I taught Harlan Ellison how to write!--abdicating all sense of duty to the field. Sure, he makes it sound like personal burn-out, which it probably was, but he can't resist extending his malaise to others.

I'm reminded of--what else?--an episode of THE SIMPSONS. The one where Homer and Marge were Adam and Eve.

In the Garden of Eden, there's a sentient pig that speaks in a plummy British accent, like Jeeves. Each time Homer is hungry, the pig lies down and says, "Tuck in, old chap!" Whereupon Homer digs his fingers into the pig's torso and rips out a rack of ribs. The pig winces, regenerates and toddles off. After several instances of this, Homer sees fit to complain. "I had to sacrifice a whole rib to make Eve!" The pig rolls its eyes and says in an ironic tone, "My, my, one whole rib. Aren't you the plucky one?"

Lester del Rey was the egocentric Homer Simpson of SF.

Five whole years of reviewing! Aren't you the plucky one?

P. Schuyler Miller racked up nearly thirty years of regular reviewing.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P._Schuyler_Miller

His succesor, Tom Easton, is approaching that mark.

http://www.sff.net/people/teaston/BIOG.HTM

Budrys, Knight, Blish, Clute, Merril, Spinrad--the list of reviewers who kept their chops after much longer goes on and on.

Peter Heck and I are nearing the fifteen-year-mark for ASIMOV'S.

I often think of this quote from the obituary of mainstream critic Diana Trilling.

http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/trilling-diana-obit.html

"At one point, as a critic for THE NATION, Mrs. Trilling read a novel a day for six and a half years, delivering challenging reviews on some of the most important works of the modern era: Evelyn Waugh's BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, Robert Penn Warren's ALL THE KING'S MEN, Jean-Paul Sartre's AGE OF REASON, and George Orwell's 1984."

After this 1974 abdication, del Rey would nonetheless go on to deliver such far-sighted critical assessments as his trashing of UnEarth magazine, the publication that debuted William Gibson, James Blaylock, Rudy Rucker, S. P. Somtow, and yours truly.

Of course, in 1974 del Rey was a mere two or three years away from his most infamous accomplishment: pulling Terry Brooks's THE SWORD OF SHANNARA from the slush, publishing it in 1977 and thereby debasing the fantasy field forever. Talk about the fallout from one's personal jaded state!

As Paul Witcover said a couple of years ago on the Night Shade Press boards:

"[T]he guilty party is more Lester Del Rey than Terry Brooks. I mean, you're a young writer with dreams of emulating your idol, Tolkien, you send in your ms. to Random House where, unknown to you, a powerful editor/publisher is looking for a Tolkien-clone in order to prove his marketing theories about the potential popularity of fantasy -- your book is chosen to receive that unprecedented marketing push -- are you going to say no? Are you even going to realize what's going on?

"It's Lester Del Rey, not Brooks, who must bear the onus of 'what he did to fantasy.' And Brooks at least, as I also pointed out, has consistently tried to improve, and obviously respects his young readers, unlike many other writers in his position."

Lester del Rey wrote some good stories in his career. Then he quit caring. Unfortunately for all of us, he didn't quit the field entirely at that point.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lester_del_Rey

Posted by Paul DiFi