Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder 

Robert A. Heinlein Letter to Rita Bottoms and a Reply from Alexei Panshin

  In 1973, I applied for access to the Robert A. Heinlein Special Collection at the University of California at Santa Cruz.  I was told that permission to use the collection was necessary, but was denied me "explicitly." So I wrote again to ask what credentials were necessary to gain admittance.  

  In answer, I received a copy of an 8-page letter from Heinlein to the librarian in charge of the collection, the final two-and-a-half pages of which concerned me and my application, along with a letter of permission from the librarian.  The relevant portion of Heinlein's letter appears below, followed by the letter that I wrote to Robert Heinlein in response to several questions he'd raised.

  Robert A. Heinlein Letter to Rita Bottoms:

Mrs. Thomas V. Bottoms
Special Collections Librarian
University of California
Santa Cruz, California  
10 September 1973

Dear Rita:


  Forgive me many digressions -- I have not wanted to discuss the last item of business I must discuss with you today.  I will say this for Mr. Panshin:  He has not to my knowledge ever published any personal facts about me that were not already public knowledge.  So I trust him on this point.  He has published many things I do not like .. especially unfounded conjectures inaccurate and offensive to me.  But he has never (so I believe) published anything as wild and nastily offensive as some no-byline writer did in the Chronicle about me and the Manson case -- especially distressing to me as I had met Sharon Tate and liked her very much.  (But all I could do about that piece of nastiness was to refuse to comment; anything I could say would only make matters worse for me and especially her poor husband.)

  I do not like Mr. Panshin -- but I do not think he is that sort of utter skunk.  You may send a Xerox of this letter to Mr. Panshin and later you may send him copies of exhibits to be appended to this letter as part of it -- when I get time to write them.

  I do not think Mr. Panshin will like some of the things in this letter and its exhibits but he has been quite free in publishing in open print many things I do not like so I now feel equally free in speaking of him in what is not open print but can be seen only by serious scholars, not the public.

  My prime reason for disliking Mr. Panshin is that he obtained and read without my knowledge or permission a file of very personal letters from me to my dearest friend -- all this after my friend's death.  Details, with proof, will be Exhibit A.  A man of meticulous honor does not do this.  In the words of a great statesman:  "Gentlemen do not read other people's mail."

  When I found out about this detestable invasion of privacy, I resolved neither to read anything written by Mr. Panshin, nor ever to have anything to do with him.  I kept this resolution until you told me of his second letter.  Up to then I had not read one word of his book HEINLEIN IN DIMENSION, nor any of his fiction.  But I have a file of a periodical which published several excerpts (not read by me) from this book.  I have now read them, which caused me to send for a copy of the book.  I will read it carefully and write a review, not for publication but as Exhibit B.

  From the sample I have read, I do not expect Mr. Panshin to like my review.  I shall be factual and as fair as a self-interested critic can be.  I shall avoid making the sort of wild conjectures he makes in his book.  But I will not be gentle; the facts are rough.

  I have here, but have never read, a novel by him; I bought and filed it because I had heard from many sources that it is a pastiche of my work.  Ginny has just read it and agrees with this opinion, so now I shall read it and review it, Exhibit C not for publication.  Again I shall stick to facts and to opinion so labeled -- I will not use the sort of wild non-sequitur with which he larded the excerpts I have read of HEINLEIN IN DIMENSION.

  But my dislike for Mr. Panshin goes back to an item he wrote for an amateur fan magazine more than a year earlier than his reading of my letters to my deceased friend.  (So far as I know HEINLEIN IN DIMENSION was almost the first writing for which Mr. Panshin was paid although he often referred to himself before that time as "a young professional writer."  Being a "professional" can be a state of mind -- but the Authors' League of America defines it explicitly and so does The Science Fiction Writers of America.  I would be mildly interested in seeing proof that he could qualify under either professional society's quite liberal definition on 31 Dec 1964, that being the date of a letter to my agent in which Mr. Panshin so described himself, then asked many, many improper questions about my private business affairs -- all of which my agent refused to answer but quite gently in view of Mr. Panshin's representations.  I will believe that Mr. Panshin was a "professional writer" at that time only when and if I see proof; as of now I am not convinced.  I conjecture that it may have been a boastful exaggeration intended to cause strangers he quizzed about me (many!) to take his inquiries seriously.

  The amateur article referred to above was titled HEINLEIN: BY HIS JOCKSTRAP.  Mr. Panshin told me in a letter dated 15 Dec 1964 that the title was placed on his article by the editor, but he did not assert that the title was used for his article without his permission.  I think that the title was exceptionally apt, as it fits perfectly the content and tone of his article.

  Exhibit D:  a photostat of that article, a factual review of it, and what I think it shows about him as a "literary critic" -- as that article had much to do with my decision not to answer his letter (the other major factor being the tone of his letter -- photostat, Exhibit E), choosing instead to consult by telephone the editor (Earl Kemp) who, so Mr. Panshin asserted, commissioned him to write a book about me -- because I knew Kemp and at that time trusted Kemp, whereas I had never met Mr. Panshin (and still have not, and do not intend to, nor speak with him by telephone, nor answer letters from him); all that I knew about Mr. Panshin up to the time I saw that article HEINLEIN: BY HIS JOCKSTRAP was that he had been a bumptious and argumentative teen-ager about seven years earlier, who had written to me many long and tiresome letters, several of which I answered, several of which Ginny answered when I was busy writing -- then we both got fed up with his manners and his illogic, and stopped answering . . and after a while he quit writing, to our great relief.

  I was never able to determine the facts about this alleged assignment to write a book.  Only one thing is clear:  Either Earl Kemp lied to me about Mr. Panshin or Mr. Panshin lied to me about Earl Kemp.  But I changed my mind with cause about Kemp's reliability; I now judge tentatively that Kemp lied and Mr. Panshin told the truth or close enough to the truth.  I still would be somewhat interested in proof, either way, if convincing proof exists.

  Rita, you can see by now why my first reaction on hearing from you about Mr. Panshin's first letter and your telling me that you had some doubts and wanted my advice was, in substance:  "Thank goodness you asked me about it . . as Alexei Panshin is the last person I would ever willingly let see the Robert A. Heinlein Special Collection."

  I do not like Mr. Panshin.  I judge him to be neither a careful scholar nor a competent literary critic.  I think he lacks judicial temperament and the proper scholarly coolness of approach.  I know that he frequently misunderstands the clearest English I can write -- then jumps to unfounded conjectures that he then treats as if they were proved conclusions.  I hope that he never writes another book about me -- I hope he never writes another line about me.  I hope that he will never see any part of the Robert A. Heinlein Special Collection.

  Nevertheless I have thought over his arguments in his second letter to you, and have reached these conclusions:

  Mr. Panshin has a degree which supports his claim to be considered a serious scholar.  I believe his assertions that he has taught at college level, as I seem to recall having heard this either from Professor Jack Williamson or from Professor Philip Klass or both.  He has had two books published that I know of, one about me, one a novel, and he has sold some short stories that I have seen but not read.  I think he has published another book of criticism and two or three more novels.  He may have published book reviews other than in fan magazines.  At least two years ago he was a member of SFWA, so I assume that he qualified before then as a genre professional by their rules.

  If I were to see a similar list of credentials for any writer not known to me, I would assume that he was a scholar who might have acceptable reason for seeing the Robert A. Heinlein Special Collection.

  This does not change my opinion of Mr. Panshin as a man nor my opinion of his competence as a critic.  But in fairness I must treat him in this professional matter exactly as I would treat a stranger having equivalent credentials.  Therefore I place no obstacle to his seeing that unsealed portion of the collection now in the University Library.  (But not that portion in my home; I will not have him in my home.  If he wants to see the rest, he must either wait until I am dead or see installments as I turn them over to you.)

  I urge you to ignore my personal animus and to do exactly that which you judge to be professionally correct -- as if it had not been possible to consult me.  If your professional judgment under those assumed circumstances (i.e. unbiased by any word from me) would tell you to let him have access to the Collection, then that is what I think you must do.  If you do, you will never hear any objection now or later from me or from Mrs. Heinlein.

Robert A. Heinlein

  I replied to this letter on September 13, 1973:

Dear Mr. Heinlein,

  I received a copy of your letter of 10 September to Mrs. Rita Bottoms this morning.  Thank you for suggesting that it be sent to me.  It was a very pleasant surprise to hear from you again, even indirectly.

  In your letter, you state yourself interested in two matters of fact.  To the best of my knowledge, the facts are these:

  1.  Earl Kemp of Advent: Publishers suggested to me in August 1964 that I write a critical book on your work.  No contract was signed but it was understood between us that I would write such a book and Advent would publish it.  After you threatened the possibility of a law-suit in February 1965, Advent returned my incomplete manuscript and enclosed a check for $50 "in discharge of all obligation on our part" -- which indicates obligation on their part.

  2.  As of 31 December 1964, I had sold seven professional stories.  One of these was "Down to the Worlds of Men," a portion of Rite of Passage, which I sold to If in March 1962, and which was published in July 1963.  I was a charter member of the Science Fiction Writers of America.

  One further matter.  I did not give the artlcle "Heinlein: By His Jockstrap" to the editor who published it.  I did not know that it was to be published.  I did not know of the title and was ashamed of it when I saw it.  I apologize to you for it, and had I been older in 1963, I would have apologized to you for it then.

  I look forward to seeing your comments on Rite of Passage and Heinlein in Dimension.  Though Rite of Passage was influenced by your work, I think you will find that it is not a book you would have written, and that its materials, sentiments and conclusion are mine, not yours.  Since you did not choose to give me your suggestions, comments and criticism on Heinlein in Dimension when I asked for them in my letters to you of December 15, 1964 and February 25, 1965, I am especially looking forward to your comments now for correction of my errors.

Alexei Panshin

  I never received the promised copies of Heinlein's five exhibits, including his critical commentaries on Heinlein in Dimension and Rite of Passage.  Perhaps, he was just never able to bring himself to deal with them and gave up on the idea.

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