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October 1999
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Robert Heinlein - an appreciation

Robert Heinlein is often credited with being the literary heir to Sinclair Lewis. Like Lewis, Heinlein was a writer that only America could produce. His Pulitzer prize and, later, his Nobel prize were not for works of high style or tortuous psychological depth. He was never a man of letters in the traditional sense and his writing, brilliant though it might have been, was written in a deceptively simple style.

His writing spanned the world and centuries; he was, at least in his later years, a man of wide cosmopolitan experience and tastes and yet withal he remained rooted in the world that he grew up in, the semi-rural midwest of the early twentieth century, a world incessantly reflected in his values, his perceptions, and his writing. Unlike Sinclair Lewis he was at home in his world; he did not reject it as being shallow. He saw the shallowness - few had a better eye for babbitry - and was at home with it without succumbing to it.

He was cynical enough about the inhabitants of that world much as Mark Twain was before him; he recognized their foibles and enjoyed them. Like Twain he had a village atheist's skepticism about organized religion, particularly the evangelical movements so common in the American heartland. Twain's work, however, is tinged with a cynical bitterness that is missing in Heinlein. One reason for this may be the simplest of reasons - Heinlein was a happier man than Twain. Heinlein could grumble - the chapter entitled "Grumbles From the Grave" in his autobiography, "Time Enough For Love", is a masterpiece of crotchety grumbling - but his grumbles never were as sharp and school-boyishly cynical as those in Twain's "Letters From The Earth".

Although Heinlein is noted for the pellucid simplicity of style in his mid-western cycle he did a surprising amount of experimental writing. Some of it led to the most surprising misunderstandings of his work and his views. For example, his "Stormtrooper", a first person viewpoint novel of a Hitler youth in World War II, is responsible for his reputation among the less discerning, politically correct critics as being a fascist.

Heinlein was not just a writer of fiction; he was a brilliant essayist as well. His best essays were his personal reflections on his place and those of his generation in a rapidly changing America. His collected essays, "Stranger in a Strange Land", are enough in their own right to earn him a place among the literary immortals.

Not content with being a novelist and an essayist, he was also an immensely popular poet. I emphasize "popular"; his poetry has never been favored in Academia and is usually dismissed as being doggerel. The charitable describe him as writing in the tradition of Robert Service. None-the-less his "Green Hills of Earth" remains as one of the best loved and best known poems among the public.

His best work may indeed be the one that won so many awards. "If This Goes On" is a classic study of political corruption in an American heartland city. It is an open question as to the extent which his early and abortive political career is reflected in the novel. Some critics claim to see a great deal of influence; the thesis is dubious. To be sure, particular events in the novel can be traced to specific events in Heinlein's life; however Heinlein was an astute observer of the political animal and the novel reflects his observations of humanity as it actually is in contrast to what it says about itself.

Large events some times turn on small chances. It is not generally appreciated that Heinlein began his career as an author of genre Science Fiction; it was only by chance that Heinlein became a real writer. The noted Science Fiction author, Fred Pohl, tells the story in his autobiography, "The Way The Future Was". Heinlein had been a naval officer but had been invalided out; he turned to writing as a possible new career. He wrote a few short SF stories which he sold to Astounding Science Fiction, the leading SF genre magazine of the day. His stories were quite popular with the SF fans; as Heinlein himself said later, it was clear to him that writing science fiction was an easy way to make money.

He might well have continued to write science fiction and make that easy money. Chance fell otherwise. A party was held in his honor by the local NY science fiction luminaries during one of his visits to New York. At the party a young enthusiast named Damon Knight challenged Heinlein and told him that he was wasting his talents writing science fiction. Knight evidently was persuasive; in the end Heinlein agreed to put the matter to the toss of a coin; if it fell heads he would try his hand at writing a mainstream novel; if it fell tails he would continue writing science fiction. As it chanced, the coin fell heads. Heinlein honored the fall of the coin and wrote his first mainstream novel, the best selling "A Harsh Mistress".

What if the coin had fallen tails? Would Heinlein have switched to writing serious fiction anyway or would he have honored the fall of the coin and continued to make the easy money he earned by writing science fiction? Given his talents, it seems plausible that he might have become quite successful as a science fiction author and might have gained a reputation as an outstanding author in a minor field, perhaps even being known as the dean of science fiction. And if he had, why, he would have never won the Nobel prize.


This page was last updated April 18, 2001.

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October 1999
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