David A. Kyle and Arthur L. Widner
Discuss "First Fandom"
64th WorldCon: LACon IV: Anaheim, California 2006
|David A. Kyle and Arthur L. Widner Discuss "First Fandom"
World Science Fiction Convention, Los Angeles, CA (August 25, 2006)
(Recorded and transcribed by John L. Coker III)
David A. Kyle: First Fandom consists of those fans who were active somehow – by writing letters to the editors, having club memberships, etc. – prior to the First World Science Fiction Convention in 1939. So what happened to First Fandom that over the course of years it metamorphed into an association? Ray Beam said, as a kid, “Can I be part of First Fandom?” I said, “You can’t be part of First Fandom because of the limitation on the time, but you certainly can associate with us because you’re so active,” and so forth. So I proposed an associate membership and he was accepted as an associate member.
The next thing you know, it was Jack Chalker and a couple of other people who became associate members, and maybe Jay K. Klein. The associate members were very helpful (for purposes of the record) in running errands for the old-timers. The next thing that I was conscious of was that the associate members outnumbered the old-time members.
There was a convention in Collinsville, Illinois in 1995, and I arranged for a telephone call to Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka. Arthur said, “I received the membership list and Ray Bradbury is not on the list.” I said, “Well, I’m not in charge anymore, Arthur. Mark Shulzinger is the power behind the throne as secretary-treasurer. He made up the membership list, and I’ll now let you talk to him.” So Mark gets on, and says, “Arthur, Ray Bradbury didn’t pay his dues when I sent him notices, and so he was dropped from the membership of First Fandom.”
Arthur said, “Ray Bradbury doesn’t have the money for membership? I’ll pay his dues.” There was an example of what was going on. If you didn’t conform to the new regulations of the associate membership, you weren’t considered a member of First Fandom. So guess what? I got dropped from the membership and I was out of the so-called membership of First Fandom for a couple of years until Fred Pohl said. “This is ridiculous, Dave. I sent money into the treasurer and told them to put you on the mailing list.” So I went back into First Fandom again.
This is a brief capsule of what has happened to First Fandom.
Well, obviously, one of the things that is going on is
that, from year to year, almost from month to month, the First Fandom people
have been dying off. I made a speech once where I said, “Say that
someone is a veteran of World War Two. And he comes home and tells
about what he did, and some youngster says, “Hey, you did this and that
in France or the South Pacific?” And the veteran said, “Yeah.”
So the youngster says, “Can I go to your meetings?” And the veteran
says, “Well, yes, sure, if you’re really interested in the history of what
was going on during World War Two. Certainly you can come to the
meetings.” The next thing you know, the youngster not only comes
to the meetings but he’s wearing a veteran’s hat and he’s getting elected
and says, in effect, “I’m a veteran of World War Two.” He couldn’t
be one because he hadn’t been born yet. Well, that’s what happened
with First Fandom. This is the basis of my conflict with First Fandom.
However, you notice, I wear my shirt that says “First Fandom,” and on my
badge it says “The Genuine and Original First Fandom.” End of my
When the group got started in the 1950s, I had gafiated. I was very active in the Thirties and Forties, but then I got married and started to raise a family. The G.I. Bill had enabled me to go to college, which I had never expected to do in my whole life. This left no room for fanning. Besides, I moved from Boston to L.A., where I lived for seven years until I escaped. During all of that I didn’t know about First Fandom and only found out about it later on. At that time I heard something, which I think is probably apocryphal but which attracted me to it, that it is a Last Man’s Society. There was a bottle of champagne that we put in care of Forry Ackerman, because he was non-alcoholic.
David A. Kyle: He could have the brandy and it would be safe with him.
Arthur L. Widner: Do you know if that exists?
David A. Kyle: Well, I know that Forry didn’t drink it.
Arthur L. Widner: Well, where is it?
David A. Kyle: That’s a very good question. It may be that you and I will be getting the bottle from Ackerman and drinking it.
Arthur L. Widner: Yes, rather than the last man. Otherwise it would be pretty lonely.
The other thing that I thought about when I decided to join First Fandom is that there would be a kind of link between First Fandom and present day fandom. And that’s become more and more desirable. Look at this convention, for example. The present day fans know little and care less about First Fandom; how it all got started, what the history was and who some of the great old-timers were. These things are not part of their perception, that fandom started with Star Trek, or else their particular little branch of fandom or their city or club is all that there is. They’re busy fanning away, reinventing the wheel and not being in touch with the rest of us.
I think that First Fandom is equally guilty, that we have sort of set back in our little ivory tower and not made much of an effort to contact others. I think of the example of Jack Williamson, who I believe is a member. He is the one science fiction author that has changed with the times. He has been through the whole of civilization. When he was a boy, he came to New Mexico on an oxcart, a covered wagon. He’s experienced all of the vast changes of the Twentieth Century. First Fandom has a tendency to venerate E.E. Smith and all of the other writers from the old Gernsback AMAZING STORIES as if they were it and nothing much has happened since. I think that we ought to really get with the times and become a little more acquainted with the high-tech civilization that is going on.
And many of the predictions that we thought about at that
time are coming true, and we’re living in the Year 2000. I always
wondered if I’d live to see that year, which at that time would make me
eighty-three. I’m now almost eighty-nine.
David A. Kyle: Let me mention something about this changing culture. In the days of First Fandom, that is, when we’re talking about the creation of science fiction (named for the first time in 1929 by Hugo Gernsback in SCIENCE WONDER STORIES), and with the formation of several clubs like the Scienceers, from the first generation of First Fandom people, who would be Julie Schwartz and Mort Weisinger, and you have to include Forry Ackerman, and Ray Palmer, that the people who were fans then were fans because of one thing: that was, they developed a spontaneous society. Because of Gernsback’s idea of publishing letters in the magazines that he had, people who wrote letters also had their addresses included. It became an activity on the part of generally young people of corresponding by using addresses that they found in the backs of these science fiction magazines. From the correspondence there grew an association, an awareness of where others lived, and clubs developed. So, the formation of science fiction fandom as a cohesive group came out of the pages of the Gernsback magazines.
Now what was it that brought these people together, that really created First Fandom, and why was First Fandom something special? That was because when the fans got together, not just through correspondence, when we met, we all had a common ground, in that there were only a few magazines and we all read them and we all knew what we were talking about. Therefore, in our social gathering we talked about what we had read in the latest issue of AMAZING STORIES and WONDER STORIES. You participated in the discussions about the ideas that the authors were presenting. There was at that time, going back to the late-1920s and early 1930s, a common ground and a reason for people to be able to discuss things.
Now let’s jump way into the future, which is today. What have we got? We have a lot of science fiction people who don’t read science fiction. They don’t read it! They don’t even know who necessarily who Bob Heinlein is, for example. One of the things that happen in this strange amorphous group of science fiction fans is that it is not necessarily printed word-based anymore. It can be movies, television, things like fantastic gaming, all types of associated things and you may find it difficult to find somebody at a science fiction convention who is willing to talk about the ideas expressed in the latest book by somebody. That’s because there’s so much material out there, even a popular book is read by only a small fraction of those people who are attending science fiction conventions.
Arthur L. Widner: I remember an article by Isaac Asimov called “The Sound of Panting.” It was one of Campbell’s editorials, and he was bemoaning the fact that in his discipline of biochemistry that he could no longer read the abstracts, or even the abstracts of abstracts in his field. One person could no longer be acquainted with all of the knowledge that was available. And, a similar thing has happened in science fiction. I can’t possibly keep up with it, trying to read all the books. There was another change that was remarkable to me when I had been away for thirty years and came back into it. It was a whole different thing. There was this idea that Dave mentioned about the spectator and the participant. Today’s fan’s attitude toward a convention is, “Okay, I bought my ticket, entertain me.” It’s like they are going to a rock concert, whereas in the First Fandom days we were all critics. We weren’t very good critics, we would write to ASTOUNDING and say, “Gosh, wow, boy, give us some more!”
David A. Kyle: Oh, you read my letter.
Arthur L. Widner: I’ll have to tell you a little anecdote about that. I became an academic and I taught English and communication for many years at the community college level. In the 1970s, science fiction became very relevant, with all of the hippies around. The administration of colleges got a skewed picture of all of this, and they said, “We’ve got to have science fiction courses.” Their idea of someone to teach those courses was the youngest member of the English department, who would read STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND and DUNE and think that he knew something about science fiction. Then, he would teach it from that viewpoint. You should be a fan in order to teach science fiction, not that science fiction can really be taught in the first place. For the college level, you should have the background of a fan who has been around for a long time and has seen the literature take wing and grow. This is different from an academic, who comes from a very tight confined background. They never heard of Sturgeon’s Law, etc.
So, there were about seven people who came out of my classes who became fans. They probably would have become fans anyway. I don’t want to take credit for it. But two of these knew how to work on me, because they came up to me in my office very humbly and respectfully and said, “Mr. Widner, do you think for our term project we can do a fanzine?” That hit me right in the soft spot right where I live, because I’m basically a ‘zine fan. I said, “Sure.” What they did was to come out with a ditto thing called LETTER COL. They were book dealers, and they had access to all the old prozines. They had dug into all of the letter columns, among them some of the “gosh, boy, wow” letters that I wrote. My only consultation was that Asimov and Bradbury and several others were represented by the same sort of letters.
The other thing that was interesting was that the proportion of pure fantasy, sword & sorcery stuff to hard science fiction with at least an attempt to get the science right has reversed itself. In the First Fandom days, it was about eighty or ninety percent hard science fiction and about ten percent fantasy. I remember that the average fan that I wrote to or talked to (you didn’t get to meet very many of them until 1939) would read the “big three” magazines: ASTOUNDING, AMAZING and WONDER STORIES. We’d exhaust that and ask, “What do we read now?” and the sort of poor relative was WEIRD TALES. They would occasionally have a science fiction story among the vampires and the werewolves and the sword & sorcery stuff.
I can personally testify that at the first Chicon and the first Denvention females were very scarce. If you were a female and you showed up at a con, you would be surrounded by dozens of sex-starved teen-agers. Most of these females were there, not because they were fans in their own right but they were somebody’s sister or girlfriend or daughter.
David A. Kyle: I wrote an article about sex in science fiction, which indicated that there wasn’t any. One thing that we have to bear in mind is this: once upon a time there was such a thing as a science fiction convention, and it was focused on science fiction reading material. The basis of this group of readers, who were enthusiasts and were known as science fiction fans, were the science fiction magazines. Contrast this with today, as to what has happened and what has been developing. We have a science fiction convention, we have a fantasy convention, we have a Star Trek convention, we have a horror convention, we have a Xena convention, we have a Buffy the Vampire Slayer convention. So, it’s fragmented, to the extent that a science fiction convention, generally speaking, has all of the elements of all of these conventions, so that the purist – those that consider science fiction as a special thing – is inundated and lost in this welter of people who are interested in, in effect, fantasy. It may be a science fiction fantasy. It may be the fantasy of sword & sorcery, and so forth. It may be all based upon visual, such as the movies or shows that have been seen on television.
In an entirely different picture, First Fandom was the genesis of what we have today. It was the kernel of fantastic literature assembled into a classification that didn’t exist. Once upon a time, there was such a thing as a Jules Verne story or an H.G. Wells story, but there was no classification. Gernsback, who started the first science fiction magazine, is responsible for creating the field of science fiction. He didn’t call it science fiction. He made up the word “scientifiction,” and when he lost control of his AMAZING STORIES and he couldn’t use that term anymore, he called it simply “science fiction.” The term has stuck and that’s what we have.
Arthur L. Widner: That’s an example of the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for, you might get it.” I can recall us elementary critics wishing for more science fiction movies and science fiction drama on radio programs. Of course, there’s the famous Orson Welles one that scared the wits out of half of America. But, then came along Star Trek. In my not-so-humble opinion, that set science fiction back forty years. Written science fiction was beginning to evolve, coming in to something better and more interesting, and the movies took over. It was like the old story of the camel getting into the tent. Hollywood-type of science fiction, mostly in the movies, have only the very basic elements of science fiction (and doesn’t really deserve to be called science fiction). One thing that I’ll never forgive Forry for was inventing the term sci-fi, because that has given me so much grief as I’ve tried to talk with mundanes and tell them that science fiction is a real part of literature and is worth reading and paying attention to.
David A. Kyle: Yeah, but when I use SF on something, people think that I’m talking about San Francisco. When you say sci-fi, they know immediately what you are talking about.
Star Trek is an example of an entirely new group. Star Trek fans discovered that they didn’t necessarily know anything about science fiction or read science fiction. But, they became enthusiastic about this TV show. Stat Trek created fans that were a cohesive group. I think of Bjo Trimble, who did a lot of letter writing when the show was canceled, drumming up support to get Star Trek back on again. Star Trek science fiction did not evolve out of the written science fiction. It was a new growth, not a split, as a branch on the tree of science fiction. In the early days of science fiction, we thought that Tarzan was science fiction, because there were things that were happening that were very imaginative, which did not fit ordinary literature. Nowadays we don’t think of Tarzan as being connected at all with science fiction because it is so ordinary. But, it wasn’t ordinary back then, I’ll tell you. When he was writing back in the 1920s, Edgar Rice Burroughs created a whole new genre with his stories of John Carter of Mars.
As far as First Fandom is concerned, those people who got together because they were interested in this particular type of literature, that came at the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s. It caught us when we were young people.
Arthur L. Widner: I see the splintering as not a well-defined event that you can point to, and see it happening or take steps to prevent it, but rather somewhat like what happened with the protestant church during the Reformation. All of these minor denominations went off on their own in different directions. Today, for example, we have in science fiction the masqueraders, and the filkers, and the gamers, the media, and the fanzine fans.
David A. Kyle: First Fandom represented a time when they were developing all of the things that are so common now, like fanzines and organized clubs and conventions. What is the role of First Fandom today? Well, like a veteran of a war, a member of First Fandom has done its time and served its purpose. Now, it’s, “Goodbye, First Fandom. You’ve done a good job but the world has changed.” That’s my opinion, my thought.
Arthur L. Widner: The First Fans were general fans, or omni fans as I call them, and did everything. For example, in 1943 I invented the first board game in fandom, called “Interplanetary.” It is still a good game, but it takes all night to play. I was astounded when I returned to fandom and found it had become popular again. I also did filking, and wrote songs. At the First Worldcon in 1939, I played in the first softball game. It was erroneously reported by Sam Moskowitz that I made a home run in that game. Actually, it was a weak grounder to short, and fans being notoriously non-athletic, they didn’t know what to do. So, they threw the ball wildly to first and I kept on going all the way around to home on three errors.
David A. Kyle: At Chicon, in 1940 I won a prize of wearing a costume (dressed as Ming the Merciless), but there were only half a dozen costumes prepared in advance. You have to remember that the costume was made by Leslie Perri and originally intended for Donald A. Wollheim. He refused to wear it, because he felt that it was undignified. I wore that costume at three different conventions.
This illustrates what fandom was like back in the days of the 1930s and the early-1940s, when it was very much a social group. Everybody knew everybody, whether you lived in California or New York, and you got together for a convention and were friends. If somebody who was a stranger showed up, they were immediately embraced by the group. Many times after I found out that it was someone’s first convention, I introduced that person around. This doesn’t exist today. People generally don’t try to introduce you or invite you to the parties.
Arthur L. Widner: We had two things that enabled us to feel superior to the muggles or the mudanes. One was the idea of space travel, going to the moon. The other was atomic power, an infinite amount of energy that would free us from all of the workaday problems. Both of those things have come true, and we have nothing much else to differentiate ourselves.
David A. Kyle: The first fans were optimistic, and science fiction – although it had its end-of-the-world stories – was an optimistic fiction, one that always in our younger days gave us a glimpse of the paradise that lay ahead through science.
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