I reviewed the late William Patterson’s new biography of the writer Robert Heinlein for the New Republic. Because the New Republic is a general interest magazine, I focused my review on only one of major complaints against Patterson (that he lacked critical distance from Heinlein). But I had many more problems with Patterson which I thought wouldn’t be of interest to a New Republic readership but should be noted for the record. In general, these complaints grow from the initial problem noted in the New Republic article (lack of critical distance) but are more detailed.
In no particular order, the problems with the book are:
1. Lack of curiosity about Heinlein’s ties to the far right. Heinlein wrote an article for the October 1960 issue of The American Mercury titled “’Pravada’ Means ‘Truth’”. The interesting thing about this anti-communist article is the venue: by 1960 the American Mercury, once edited by H.L. Mencken but fallen on hard times, was an anti-Semitic far right journal. People who were otherwise very conservative – notably William F. Buckley and William Rusher, both of National Review – warned their fellow right-wingers not to publish in it. In fact, National Review had a policy that anyone who published in the American Mercury could not publish in the National Review. When you consider how racist National Review was in the 1950s, the embargo on the American Mercury is astonishing. Heinlein had a very good record on anti-Semitism, having denounced it since the 1930s and even breaking friendships with anti-Semites. So what was he doing writing for the American Mercury (which had a jibe against Jews in the very issue Heinlein published in)? Patterson doesn’t ask.
2. Obscuring Heinlein’s sympathy for the John Birch Society. The biography notes that Heinlein and his wife Virginia were briefly involved in the John Birch Society. What gets buried in the back of the book in the endnotes is the extent of Heinlein’s sympathy for the Birch Society even after hiiie broke from it. Heinlein described the John Birch Society as a “fascist organization” but he also thought they were far preferable to liberals or moderate conservatives. “But if I am ever forced to a choice between the John Birch Society and its enemies, I know which side of the barricades I belong on,” Heinlein wrote a friend in 1961. “I’ll be on the same side the John Birch Society is on – because my enemies are on the other side.” (volume 2, p. 553 endnote 91) Surely this astonishing letter, which casts a real light on Heinlein’s politics, shouldn’t have been buried in the endnotes. It needed some prominence in the biography and some analysis.
3. Uncritical acceptance of Heinlein’s politics. As Brad DeLong has noticed, at key points Patterson accepts Heinlein’s own political ideas even when they are at odds with historical fact. Thus Patterson, following Heinlein, accepts the conspiratorial view of Franklin Roosevelt’s Asia policy (that Roosevelt deliberately enticed the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor). Patterson also writes about “the Eisenhower administration’s unnerving international passivity.” (volume 2, p. 570 endnote #1). This is a characterization that one might find in the pages of National Review in 1958 or the John Birch Society in the same year. It’s not a statement any reputable diplomatic historian would endorse. Again, Patterson is too close to Heinlein to see the problems with Heinlein’s worldview.
4. Lack of curiosity about Heinlein’s personal McCarthyism. Starting in the late 1940s Heinlein fell into the habit of accusing people he knew (the director Fritz Lang, the film writer James O’Hanlon, the anthologist Groff Conklin) of being Stalinists or fellow travellers. Patterson records these observations by Heinlein but doesn’t ask if these people were really Stalinists (they weren’t) and doesn’t draw the obvious conclusions about Heinlein’s propensity for making false allegations, or how this might relate to Heinlein’s political shift from 1948 to 1957. (volume 1, p. 457, volume 2 p. 35 and p. 66)
5. Unfairness to those Heinlein argued with. A testy and truculent man, especially in later life Heinlein got into many arguments. In this biography, Patterson always records Heinlein’s side of these quarrels but makes little or no effort to get the perspective of the person being argued with. Examples of this include Heinlein’s feud with the critic Alexei Panshin (who Patterson seems to have briefly communicated with Panshin by email but whose perspective isn’t in the biography) and his late life quarrel with Arthur C. Clarke about Reagan’s missile defence program (SDI). Patterson conveys the false impression that Clarke came to accept Heinlein’s arguments (“He ceased speaking out against SDI.” Volume 2, 446). Yet if we look up Clarke’s essay on Heinlein in the volume Requiem (edited by Yoji Kondo), we’ll see that Clarke maintained the same position as always, that parts of SDI might be needed but the program as a whole was being oversold by Heinlein and his allies (Kondo, p. 264). Patterson is equally unfair to the critic H. Bruce Franklin (who is accused of spiking a panel on Heinlein in the Modern Language Association). Patterson didn’t contact Franklin to verify the accusation. (Franklin’s 1980 monograph Robert A. Heinlein: America As Science Fiction is, by the way, the best thing ever written on Heinlein). The implicit message of the book is that Heinlein was right in virtually every argument he ever had.
6. Unwillingness to consult other secondary sources. Patterson’s account of Heinlein’s relationship with Philip K. Dick differs in one significant detail from that of Dick biography Lawrence Sutin (in his book Divine Invasions). According to Sutin, Heinlein eventually got mad at Dick for asking for money (which Heinlein had lent before). This detail is missing from Patterson – it would be good to know if it was true or not. In general, Patterson doesn’t engage with the secondary literature that might complicate his view of Heinlein.
7. Lack of empathy for Leslyn Heinlein. Heinlein’s second wife, who he was married to from 1932 to 1947, is the major villain in the book. Patterson describes her has having “psychotic episodes.” It’s true that Leslyn, especially in the last years of her marriage and after the divorce, was a deeply troubled person. Yet Patterson makes little effort to ask why. Was Leslyn happy with the open marriage arrangement she had with Heinlein? That’s a crucial question which Patterson skirts. In an endnote, Patterson notes that Leon Stover in his unpublished Heinlein biography argued that Leslyn’s alcoholism, signs of which were evident during World War II, was a product of her unhappiness at enforced wife swapping. (Stover’s biography was spiked by the Heinlein estate; Patterson’s biography was authorized by the same estate). Patterson idolizes Heinlein too much and is too psychological incurious to pursue this line of thought. Patterson’s unempathetic treatment of Leslyn is a major flaw in the biography.
Leslyn’s drinking problem had multiple roots. Her dad had been an alcoholic. World War II was stressful for her, with close family members trapped in the Philippines under Japanese occupation. It’s possible that discontent at the open marriage was a factor, but more subtly the fertility problems she and Heinlein suffered from might have made open marriage a dicier proposition. Perhaps what upset her was not the open marriage but the threat of being replaced by a younger rival who could bear children.
8. Lack of psychological curiosity. Heinlein wanted to have children in both his second and third marriage but both relationships suffered from infertility. Now, issues of fertility and genetic inheritance are rife in Heinlein’s fiction from Beyond This Horizon (1942) to Time Enough For Love (1973) to Friday (1982). Surely a biographer with any sort of curiosity would have tried to at least suggest some thematic connection. It is telling that the man who couldn’t have children himself created Lazarus Long, the father of countless children whose descendants number in the billions. It doesn’t have to be a deep Freudian reading of Heinlein’s life, just a short note suggesting a possible tie. This would have enriched the biography. Perhaps Patterson wasn’t the biographer to do this, but there are many interesting links between the life and the work to pursue.
9. Over-reliance on Heinlein’s letters. Huge chunks of the biography are simply Patterson rehashing information gleaned from Heinlein’s diaries, with little or no effort to verify the information from these letters. Obviously that is a problem, but there is a further difficulty. Heinlein destroyed large parts of his correspondence (especially those dealing with his marriage to Leslyn and to his left-wing activism of the 1930s and 1940s). Patterson hasn’t grappled adequately with how this destruction of evidence might give us a distorted view of Heinlein. Some of the key information in the book, like the startling claim that President Truman discussed a 1945 Heinlein memo about rocketry in a cabinet meeting, comes from Heinlein’s letters or those of Virginia Heinlein. For matters like this, we need more documentation than Patterson provides. (see volume 1, page 410, and page 575, note 36)
10. Oafish writing. There is too much of this to provide a complete inventory but one example will suffice. Writing about a trip the Heinlein’s took in the 1950s to Brazil, Patterson writes “what the Heinleins did not realize they were overlooking, Rio’s favelas, some of the worst slums in the world, so legendary in their poverty, violence, and crime that they are still being used as the setting for many ‘shooter’ video games.” Surely there is a way to evoke the misery of Rio’s slums without reference to video games?
11. Organizational problems. Much of the juiciest and most interesting material in the book is secreted away in the endnotes and also in Appendix 2 of volume 2 (a necessary problem since that has material that Patterson only came across after finishing volume 1). What this means is that the books narrative is really disjointed. I found that in order to make sense of Heinlein’s second marriage I had to read not just the text of volume 1 but also the notes to both volume 1 and 2 as well as Appendix 2. Once you read those and piece the story together, the whole saga of Heinlein’s second marriage, divorce and re-marriage becomes much more clear (it also helps to read or re-read Farnham’s Freehold, which contains a story that echoes the divorce and re-marriage.)
In sum, this is a deeply inadequate biography. At best, it is a useful inventory of information that some future biographer can use as a starting point for a better book. Perhaps Patterson should be seen as the first draft of the good Heinlein biography that will one day be written.
PS: Marissa Lingen’s post about the problems with Patterson offers a critique along the same lines as mine with fresh evidence (see here).