Early Science Fiction Clubs: Your Mileage May Vary

Several fanwriters celebrated yesterday, December 11, as the anniversary of the first science fiction club meeting. Was it? Probably not.

Eofan Allen Glasser made the claim that his New York club, the Scienceers, was “the first of all science fiction clubs” in an article for First Fandom Magazine #4 (1961):

The exact date on which The Scienceers came into being was Dec. 11, 1929. The founding members, as I recall, were Warren Fitzgerald, Nathan Greenfeld, Philip Rosenblatt, Herbert Smith, Julius Unger, Louis Wentzler, and myself, Allen Glasser. With the exception of Fitzgerald, who was then about thirty, all the members were in their middle teens.

Glasser also reported the intriguing fact that the host and president of this pioneer club was an Afro-American living in Harlem:

During the early months of the Scienceers’ existence — from its start in December 1929 through the spring of 1930 — our president was Warren Fitzgerald. As previously mentioned, Warren was about fifteen years older than the other members. He was a light-skinned Negro — amiable, cultured, and a fine gentleman in every sense of that word. With his gracious, darker-hued wife, Warren made our young members welcome to use his Harlem home for our meetings — an offer we gratefully accepted.

(See Bill Higgins’ writeup about his efforts to track down the location of the meetings and more information about president Fitzgerald.)

When I read that the Scienceers club was founded in 1929 I gave a sardonic little laugh, because I remembered any number of Westercons where I heard another eofan, Aubrey MacDermott, harp about the Oakland club he’d co-founded in 1928. At the time I had the young fan’s tendency to scoff whenever some geezer fussed about fine points of ancient fanhistory. Now I’m no longer a young fan and I have to laugh because Aubrey managed to etch that 1928 date on my memory anyway.

MacDemott also did some of his fussing in a 1980 issue of Asimov’s when he thought Darrell Schweitzer had slighted his contributions to history:

I see by reading Darrell Schweitzer’s article in the December 79 issue of lASFM that I founded an “impure” Science Fiction club in Oakland in June 1928.

We had over twelve “impure” members to start. Among them were Clifton Amsbury, Lester Anderson, A. S. Bernal, Louis C. Smith, Ray and Margaret St. Clair, Fred Anger, Vincent Brown, and later Forrest J Ackerman. We had the imposing name of East Bay Scientific Association until Forrie joined. Then we changed the name to Golden Gate because Forrie lived in San Francisco. Since he was only twelve years old, his mother would not let him take the long trek across the Bay to East Oakland, by street car, ferry, red train and then again a street car. So we on occasion all went over to Forrie’s Staple Street home.

We read, discussed, traded magazines, wrote letters to magazines and authors. We even put out a hectograph sheet each month for the members.

I know only too well that at that time East Coast fans considered any activity more than 100 miles from New York to be non-existent. But surely not today. As a matter of fact Sam Moskowitz in his Immortal Storm mentions Clifton Ansbury, Lester Anderson, and myself.

Moskowitz’ Immortal Storm testifies to both MacDermott and Glasser’s Scienceers“Aubrey McDemott” is mentioned in connection with the Science Correspondence Club – which was in general, as its title states, a club that did all its activity by mail, begging the question of in-person meetings.

Ordinarily I rely on Harry Warner Jr. to referee these disputes. Unfortunately, his book All Our Yesterdays mentions neither Glasser, MacDermott, the Scienceers nor the Eastbay Science Correspondence Club, despite all he has to say about scores of other eofans and their controversies. He only discusses the international Science Correspondence Club. Jack Speer’s early fanhistory Up To Now also is silent about Glasser and MacDermott, though his original Fancyclopedia has a short entry on the Scienceers.

Fortunately, another historian has reconciled the international correspondence club and the in-person meetings of the Oakland chapter. John Cheng’s Astounding Wonder: Imagining Science and Science Fiction in Interwar America says:

In 1928 Aubrey Clements of Montgomery, Alabama formed what he called the “Science Correspondence Cloub,” announcing the club in the pages of Amazing and gathering members as responses came in.  In the same year, while corresponding among themselves, Walter Dennis and Sydney Gerson, c/o 4653 Addison, Chicago, Illinois, also set upon the idea of a correspondence club, which they also called the “Science Correspondence Club,” to disseminate “science and scientific thought among the laymen of the world.” They announced their idea in the pages of Amazing Stories Quarterly and by the next year their group claimed two dozen members while Clements’s had twenty-five members. Membership was not mutually exclusive and indeed overlapped. Although he was the founder of one SCC, Dennis was also the sixth person to join the other, where he served as chairman under Clements’s presidency.

…In 1928, Aubrey MacDemott, Clifton Amsbury, Lester Anderson and Louis C. Smith on the Berkeley-Oakland side of San Francisco Bay began meeting monthly as the Eastbay Science Correspondence Club (ESCC). Raymond Palmer, originally a Chicago SCC member, suggested a national merger between the various organizations. By late 1929 the two original SCCs and willing members of the ESCC, which had reorganized as the Eastbay Scientific Association, merged into one club under a constitution drafted by Dennis, Clements, and A.B Maloire of Chealis, Washington.

Both the Scienceers and Eastbay Science Correspondence Club may have leaned more towards science than sf (some of the Scienceers would be drawn away to join an amateur rocket group) but their members were part of the social network of earnest teenaged readers of Gernsbackian magazines, many of whom became inextricably linked to 1930s sf fandom. Glasser and MacDermott each claimed the club they helped found was the first sf club to meet regularly in-person — one in December 1929, the other in June 1928 – and it seems, of the two, MacDermott’s group has the best claim.

Hertz: Moskowitz to Eaton, $250 to DUFF

home_eaton-collection-hours_columnBy John Hertz: An anonymous donor has given DUFF $250 to send a rare copy of Sam Moskowitz’ Immortal Storm to the Eaton Collection.

SaM chaired the first World Science Fiction Convention. Besides his fan activity he edited a Gernsback magazine, wrote s-f, anthologized, and was generally a force of nature.

The Immortal Storm is his history of s-f fandom from the 1920s to World War II. Its title indicates its impassioned style. It remains indispensable.

This copy is from the limited mimeograph edition of 1951, after the Storm burst in Langley Searles’ Fantasy Commentator, before the 1954 hardback. A knowledgeable collector has estimated it is in Very Good condition.

DUFF the Down Under Fan Fund, like TAFF the Trans-Atlantic Fan Fund, sends fans on long-distance visits. TAFF began in 1953, DUFF in 1972, others followed, all sustained by donations. DUFF goes between North America and Australia – New Zealand.

Eaton, the world’s largest publicly accessible holding of science fiction, fantasy, and like that, is located at the Riverside campus of the University of California.

Last year Chicon VII the 70th Worldcon, at Chicago, had as is customary an auction to benefit the fan-travel funds. It was held in the exhibit hall, next to the Fanzine Lounge.

Some items came too late to be auctioned and will have to be used for raising money otherwise. One was this copy of Storm from Bob Passovoy (with his wife Anne, Fan Guests of Honor at Chicon VI) who could not get to the con that day but wanted to support DUFF.

Speaking as DUFF’s North America Administrator, I do not consider DUFF or its sister funds sell things.

As an Englishman once said, the exchanges which take place are measures of mutual assistance rendered by friends, in a spirit of confidence, sympathy, and good will.

A copy of this edition of Storm shows how physical production can be informative. It illustrates the art of mimeography.

The texture of the paper, the color of paper and ink, the appearance of typewriting, done by hand, teach what amateur publishing was sixty years ago, even to someone who may never have practiced slipsheeting or worked at a collating party.

Dr. Melissa Conway, head of Special Collections & Archives at U.C. Riverside and thus of Eaton, says the Storm has arrived.

Artifact as well as thought is elemental to history.

He Was the Dean

Promotional copy for the new Murray Leinster biography says he was known as “The Dean of Science Fiction.”

I should not have been surprised: I read this in Sam Moskowitz’ Explorers of the Infinite: Shapers of Science Fiction way back in the Seventies. However, I’d managed to forget it since. Or possibly repressed it, because as a young fan my fannish loyalties were to that rival claimant of the title: Robert A. Heinlein.

Heinlein acquired the title “Dean of Science Fiction” sometime around 1960, says J. Daniel Gifford in Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader’s Companion.

How? Thomas Clareson suggests in his essay for Voices for the Future (1976) that whoever wrote the jacket copy on his books was responsible:

Today Heinlein is known to many, thanks to paperback advertising techniques at least, as the “Dean” of science fiction writers, not so much because of his length of service as because of his relationship to the corporate body of science fiction.

Certainly a book cover was the first place I saw Heinlein called “Dean.” On the other hand, Leinster was called “Dean” in 1949 by no less an authority than Time Magazine

In the U.S., Will F. Jenkins, a 27-year veteran, who also writes under the pen name of Murray Leinster, is regarded as the dean of writers in the field.

Leinster was rather humble about the whole thing. In his introduction to Great Stories of Science Fiction (1951) he explained that he was sometimes called “’Dean’ of science fiction writers by virtue of my having outlived a number of better men. This wholly accidental distinction is perhaps the reason I was given the opportunity to compile this book.”

And as Leinster makes clear, the term “Dean” was primarily associated with seniority, length of service in the sf field. Lester Del Rey in The World of Science Fiction, a survey of the genre published in 1980, echoed the choice of Leinster:

…Murray Leinster, whose work remained popular in science fiction for more than fifty years and who was rightly named “the Dean of science fiction writers.”

I don’t know whether Heinlein liked being called “Dean” or thought it mattered at all. Maybe Bill Patterson can answer this in a later volume of his Heinlein bio. From a fan’s viewpoint I thought the name suited RAH because so many of his stories involved mentoring, the acquiring of self-discipline, or were delivered in the voice of a respected elder who has things to say about life, like Lazarus Long.

After Leinster died in 1975 some of the writers who acknowledged him as the “Dean” thought the title deserved to be perpetuated, which meant picking a successor. Isaac Asimov made it clear he preferred length of service as the criterion for naming someone the “Dean.” In his 1979 essay for IASFM “The Dean of Science Fiction,” Heinlein was not a finalist. Asimov listed Jack Williamson, Clifford D. Simak, L. Sprague de Camp and Lester Del Rey. And just a few years later – even while all four were still alive – Asimov seemed to have narrowed his list to two, saying in The Hugo Winners: 1980-1982 (1986) “the only writer who can possibly compete with [Clifford D. Simak] as ‘dean of science fiction’ is Jack Williamson, who is four years younger than Cliff but has been publishing three years longer.”

Both Simak and Heinlein died in 1988. Del Rey died in 1993. De Camp died in 2000.

Williamson seems to have been the writer most people felt comfortable calling the “Dean” in later years. Several of his peers labeled him by some version of the title both before and after Heinlein died. Interestingly, when Algis Budrys dubbed Williamson the “Dean of Science Fiction” in a 1985 essay for The Science Fiction Yearbook the usage even passed muster with the volume’s editor, Jerry Pournelle, a good friend of Heinlein’s. Williamson lived on until 2006, continuing to produce, his last novel The Stonehenge Gate published just the year before he died.

Some others regarded Arthur C. Clarke as the true heir to the title. Gerald K. O’Neill in The High Frontier (1989) called Clarke the dean of science fiction, and so did a contributor to a 1989 volume of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Clarke passed away in 2008.

People outside the field have always bandied the title about – Ray Bradbury was called the Dean on a TV show in the Sixties. Now he practically qualifies, though not quite – I imagine Fred Pohl has the edge in years as a professional writer.

Other specialties in the science fiction field have their “Deans.” Google tells me Frank Kelly Freas was called the “dean of science fiction artists,” though I must say I managed to go my entire time in fandom up to today without ever hearing him called that.

The New York Times once referred to Donald Wollheim as the “Dean” of science fiction editors, according to a 1981 article in The Bloomsbury Review.  Campbell had been so-called at least as early as 1947 — in Samuel Stephenson Smith’s How to Double Your Vocabulary, of all places — but he’d been dead almost ten years before The Bloomsbury Review took up the subject.

And let’s not forget that in Ann Arbor in 1975, Dean McLaughlin, author of “Hawk Among the Sparrows,” was who trufans called “Dean of Science Fiction.”

Of course, many will have become aware that no woman author’s name has been mentioned at any point, even in touching on the most recent decade. Ursula K. LeGuin regularly offers wisdom about topical issues in the field, and until death ended her long career Andre Norton was respected and influential, so there are women who might have been nominated to the role. However, I suspect the whole notion of a “Dean of Science Fiction,” which was never more than of anecdotal significance, is fading from fannish awareness too rapidly for a real sense of injustice to take hold.

[Thanks to John Lorentz, Google Ngram and Steven H Silver’s SF Site for help with this story.]