Do we really know the writers we read?
October 25, 2013
I am always surprised, even amazed, to have the veil ripped away from my misconceptions about those writers I have admired for so much of my life.
Take Robert Heinlein, for example. He is the reason I became a reader of science fiction at an early age, and he would become known as the dean of science fiction writers.
There have been a lot of great ones. But no one ever did it better.
Heinlein was one of those writers who gained notoriety writing brilliant prose on the pages of pulp fiction magazines. And when I read him, I was mesmerized by heart-pound, adventure stories of men and women exploring the far reaches of outer space. Little did I realize, as I do now, that Robert Heinlein’s stories, especially such novels as Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, were packed with social themes that ranged from liberty to expressions of free love. It was said: “He imagined how everything about the human world, from our sexual mores to our religion to our automobiles to our government, to our plans for cultural survival, might be flawed, even fatally so.”
He was, as some wrote, “a full-service iconoclast.”
He was controversial as hell.
I simply thought Robert Heinlein was a great storyteller.
If you really want to understand the depth of his heart and soul, however, all you have to do is read the words he spoke on Edward R. Murrow’s radio show in 1952. I believe that his thoughts reflect the conscience of us all.
He said: “I am not going to talk about religious beliefs, but about matters so obvious that it has gone out of style to mention them.
“I believe in my neighbors.
“I know their faults and I know that their virtues far outweigh their faults. Take Father Michael down our road a piece –I’m not of his creed, but I know the goodness and charity and lovingkindness that shine in his daily actions. I believe in Father Mike; if I’m in trouble, I’ll go to him. My next-door neighbor is a veterinary doctor. Doc will get out of bed after a hard day to help a stray cat. No fee — no prospect of a fee. I believe in Doc.”
“I believe in my townspeople. You can knock on any door in our town say, ‘I’m hungry,’ and you will be fed. Our town is no exception; I’ve found the same ready charity everywhere. For the one who says, ‘To heck with you — I got mine,’ there are a hundred, a thousand, who will say, ‘Sure, pal, sit down.’
“I know that, despite all warnings against hitchhikers, I can step to the highway, thumb for a ride and in a few minutes a car or a truck will stop and someone will say, ‘Climb in, Mac. How how far you going?’
“I believe in my fellow citizens. Our headlines are splashed with crime, yet for every criminal there are 10,000 honest decent kindly men. If it were not so, no child would live to grow up, business could not go on from day to day. Decency is not news; it is buried in the obituaries –but it is a force stronger than crime.
“I believe in the patient gallantry of nurses…in the tedious sacrifices of teachers. I believe in the unseen and unending fight against desperate odds that goes on quietly in almost every home in the land.
“I believe in the honest craft of workmen. Take a look around you. There never were enough bosses to check up on all that work. From Independence Hall to the Grand Coulee Dam, these things were built level and square by craftsmen who were honest in their bones.
“I believe that almost all politicians are honest. For every bribed alderman there are hundreds of politicians, low paid or not paid at all, doing their level best without thanks or glory to make our system work. If this were not true, we would never have gotten past the thirteen colonies.
“I believe in Rodger Young. You and I are free today because of endless unnamed heroes from Valley Forge to the Yalu River.
“I believe in — I am proud to belong to — the United States. Despite shortcomings, from lynchings to bad faith in high places, our nation has had the most decent and kindly internal practices and foreign policies to be found anywhere in history.
“And finally, I believe in my whole race. Yellow, white, black, red, brown –in the honesty, courage, intelligence, durability….and goodness…..of the overwhelming majority of my brothers and sisters everywhere on this planet. I am proud to be a human being. I believe that we have come this far by the skin of our teeth, that we always make it just by the skin of our teeth –but that we will always make it….survive….endure. I believe that this hairless embryo with the aching, oversize brain case and the opposable thumb, this animal barely up from the apes, will endure –will endure longer than his home planet, will spread out to the other planets, to the stars, and beyond, carrying with him his honesty, his insatiable curiosity, his unlimited courage –and his noble essential decency.
“This I believe with all my heart.”
Robert Heinlein in 1952 copyrighted the words he spoke to Morrow, and in 1988 his wife, Virginia, read the words when she accepted, on his behalf, NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal.