Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

The Mystery Deepens

  by Alexei Panshin, J. Neil Schulman and Alexei Panshin

Alexei Panshin to J. Neil Schulman, September 4, 2007:

Neil --

  Hello to you after all these years.  I like the picture of you in the beard on your website.

  I'm just about to post a variety of eyewitness accounts of my encounter with Robert Heinlein in 1974 on my webpage under the title "Showdown at the Poetry Center."

  There will be my own description of what happened, followed by four different accounts published in 1974, the newsgroup account by Gary Farber in 1995 which touched off a humungous flamewar on, and my own afterword.

   As I've just been reading all of it over, however, it occurred to me that Neil Schulman had a unique view of what went down that night.   You may not know everything, but you know things I don't know and you saw things I didn't see.

   I'd like to invite you to tell your version of the story.  Say whatever you have to say on the subject, and I'll post it with the rest.

  Are you game?  If you are, I'll hold up on the post until I have what you write.


J. Neil Schulman to Alexei Panshin, September 4, 2007:


  I know quite a bit.

  You told me in one of our phone conversations that you were going to try to talk to Heinlein after his talk at the Y. YMHA? YWHA? I don't remember which it was.

  Keep in mind, also, that I'm remembering conversations from 34 years ago; my memory of the discussion is general, not in terms of specific dialogue, though I'll attempt to re-create some.

  You told me that this was going to be your attempt to explain to Heinlein the circumstances under which you had inadvertently come into possession of some of his letters, and see if he was willing to forgive and forget.

  I thought if Heinlein knew in advance that this was your intent, and that your approach to him would be conciliatory rather than confrontational -- that if he knew in advance he wouldn't be taken by surprise and react in the moment -- it might work out better for you. So I told Heinlein that you were going to come up to him after his talk and try to make peace. Heinlein thanked me for the information but told me the dispute between you was unresolvable, and he requested me not to tell you that we'd had a conversation about this and asked specifically that I not tell you that he knew you were going to approach him or try to stop you. I agreed.

  The night of the event, I sought you out and attempted to warn you within the limits of Heinlein's wishes. I said to you something on the order of, "Alex, are you sure this is a good idea?"  You didn't take the hint and told me you were going to go forward with it. I couldn't say more without violating my promise.

  I was standing close by when you reached Heinlein, who was seated at a table.

  "Mr. Heinlein, I'm Alexei Panshin."

  "You are? Goodbye."

  "Mr. Heinlein--"

  "I said, 'Goodbye.'"

  You then quoted something he had written about forgiveness, to which he replied, "Not on this."

  You made one final attempt, "Mr. Heinlein--"

  At which point, Heinlein rose out of his chair and roared, "YOU READ MY MAIL!"

  I don't remember what else Heinlein said, but I remember that you withdrew and that was the end of the incident.

  I remember a conversation I had with Karl Pflock, sometime afterwards, in which I recounted this incident, and I said to Karl that I thought Heinlein was being unreasonable regarding what I considered an inadvertent invasion of privacy that any journalist might find himself party to while researching a story.  And Karl told me that the mail wasn't what Heinlein was really angry about; it was (according to the late Mr. Pflock) that you had "threatened a lawsuit against the University of California, which was a public institution, enjoining them from keeping the Heinlein collection closed to all legitimate researchers" and that Heinlein "found himself in the position of having to grant you access to the Santa Cruz collection in order to save the university from the costs of defending themselves from a lawsuit caused by his donation of his papers to them." According to Karl, this is what Heinlein never would forgive you for.

  That's what I got for you, Alexei.

  By the way, years ago you turned me on to one of Idries Shah's books on the Sufis, and I went on to read Sa'adi's Bustan.  I found it most worthwhile.



Alexei Panshin to J. Neil Schulman, September 5, 2007:

Neil --

 Thanks for writing back so promptly.  But while what you have to say of the incident at the Poetry Center itself pretty much confirms the other accounts I have and also helps clarify them, your Karl Pflock anecdote only increases the mystery of the occasion for me.

  That is, however modified this story may have gotten by the passage of time and however distorted it may have become while Pflock had it, its substance could only have come from Heinlein, just as Pflock said.  It sounds like Heinlein.  But as a justification for the way he behaved that night, it's not merely insufficient, it isn't true.

  Strange.  Very strange.

   I never threatened a suit against the University of California.  In fact, with the exception of two arbitration hearings -- one over return of a rent deposit and the other over money owed me by Ace Books -- I've never come close to suing or threatening to sue anyone in my life.

  The grain of truth this is built on is that when I learned that the Heinlein Special Collection had been established at the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1973, I applied for permission to do research there and was explicitly refused it by the curator, Rita Bottoms.  I wrote back pointing out that a public university collection ought to be open to the public and that I had legitimate credentials as a student of Heinlein's work.  If I couldn't get in the door, what did it take?

  In response to this, I received a copy of an 8-page letter dated 10 September 1973 from Heinlein to Mrs. Bottoms -- which Heinlein  had requested be forwarded to me!   Two-and-a-half pages of the letter concerned me and my request for access to the collection.

  He wrote:  "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.'"

  After Heinlein finished reviewing the things he didn't like me for and listing what he intended to include, together with appropriate commentary, as Exhibits B, C, D and E in the file he was establishing on me in his collection, he wound up by reiterating:

  "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 assertion 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."

  Heinlein then told Mrs. Bottoms to ignore his personal feelings and to do that which she judged to be professionally correct.

  Attached was another letter to me from Mrs. Bottoms dated 11 September 1973 saying in its entirety:

  "In accordance with Mr. Heinlein's letter, you are granted permission to study the Robert A. Heinlein Special Collection subject to hours and policies set by the Librarian."

  Doesn't exactly sound like I'd been threatening to sue the University of California and had Heinlein by the short hairs, does it?

  So why did Heinlein tell Karl Pflock that I'd used the threat of suit to get access to the collection and that was my unpardonable sin?

  Heinlein did get his wish to this extent:  Thirty-four years after I received permission to do it, I have yet to set foot in the Robert A. Heinlein Special Collection at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

  However, I did send Heinlein the entire correspondence I'd had with the widow of "Sarge" Smith and ask him to place it in the file he was establishing on me in his collection.  I figured that whether he did it or not would show if he was an honest man.

  I have yet to look inside Exhibit A to see if the correspondence is there.  Like Schrodinger's Cat, as long as I don't look, there's a chance that the cat is still alive.

  I'll look one of these years.  [I have looked.  There was no Exhibit A -- or B, C, D and E -- but there was a Panshin file and it did contain the Smith correspondence.]

   Having possession of the Smith correspondence would not affect what Heinlein said to me at the Poetry Center.  That Henry Stimson line was just too good for him not to use again.

   But it apparently was enough to cause him to replace it with the alternate story he told Karl Pflock.

  Curioser and curioser.

  Thanks again for your memory of what happened.


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