Stephen Kahn

The dangers of meeting famous writers

In Hard to tell on October 16, 2011 at 7:20 pm

Instead, I am going to talk about science fiction. I will start with my father and the once well-known science fiction writer, A. E. van Vogt.

First, a little background.

My father was very bright, very angry, very unhappy, and very confused.

I know he was very bright because he was a bit of a child prodigy (as a chess player) and as an adult he worked as a computer programmer in the earliest days of the computer industry (helping a defense contractor prepare to send bombers to blow up the Soviet Union in case of nuclear war). (See Dr. Strangelove to get an idea of the times and the terrifying mission my father was marginally engaged with.)

I know Michael (my father) was very angry and unhappy because he was a terrible, angry father, and because my parents had a terrible relationship. I also know he was angry and unhappy because my grandmother, Agnes, was a bitter feminist pacifistic narcissist, so I presume she was a terrible mother. Also, my father grew up during the height of the Great Depression which was a generally bad time.

I think my father was confused because his father, Harry, was a charming and feckless dentist/alternative health practitioner who studied with John Harvey Kellogg, the pioneering alternative health practitioner so well described in T. C. Boyle’s brilliant and hilarious work of historical fiction, The Road to Wellville. My grandfather, Harry Kahn, was not portrayed in that book (which is closely based on historical events and real people), but he would have fit right in.

Apparently the main thing that Harry decided from studying from Kellogg was that enemas would cure and prevent all illness, so he gave lots of enemas to people all over Chicago, staring with my father and his three sisters, Diana, Henriette, and Naomi. Later my parents imprinted on J. I. Rodale, who founded Organic Gardening and was one of the leading lights of the organic gardening movement. I got a few enemas as a child, but mostly I was preached at about the evils of white sugar and the benefits of organic food, fresh eggs, and raw milk. As a child, I helped my family make compost, grow organic food, care for chickens and ducks, and I milked a cow and a goat and drank raw milk. It amuses me that I now make compost, grow organic food, and care for chickens. I omit the ducks, the cow, and the goats. We live in degenerate times. On the other hand, my daughter and granddaughter can stand to be around me, so maybe we are living in improving times.

Anyway, van Vogt began writing science fiction around 1940 and became one of the earliest “big thinker” science fiction writers who dreamed big and thought that visionaries such as himself could change the world. The most spectacular (and nutty) of this crew was L. Ron Hubbard, the inventor of a new psychology/religion known first as Dianetics and later as Scientology. Van Vogt for a while allied himself with Hubbard and helped with his efforts to get his cult goin

My impression is that my father read some of van Vogt’s early work and was quite taken with the writer’s imagination and vision. Michael’s family was quite active in Chicago’s bohemian society of the late 30s and early 40s. One of my aunts, Naomi, became a ballet dancer, and later ballet teacher; one of her sisters, Henriette (still alive) strove (without success) to become an opera singer. My mother’s sister was married to a publisher, and her brother became an obscurely famous composer (who had a brief, passionate, and unhappy affair with my father’s sister, Diana). Apparently, at one of these (wild?) bohemian parties my father met the science fiction writer van Vogt. Before the meeting, my father was excited at the prospect; I guess imagining some sort of dynamic, visionary, charismatic leader. In reality, van Vogt turned out to be rather prosaic and uninspiring. “Don’t meet writers you admire; they will disappoint you,” my father said to me.

Interestingly, about 30 years after my father met and was disillusioned by his meeting with van Vogt, a fairly well-known science fiction writer and critic, Damon Knight, invited me to lunch at the University of Oregon Faculty Club. Although Knight was quite elderly and not in great health at that time, I found his personality charming and interesting, and was not disappointed at all.

As I was just reading a bit about both writers to refresh my memory, I was interested to discover that when van Vogt’s reputation as a writer was at its zenith, Knight reviewed him rather acidly and dismissively. (Knight, based on my meeting with him, was a pleasant and gracious individual in person, but as a critic he was severe with the writers he reviewed.)

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  1. You could write a book about your family. I can see it then being filmed & presented on Masterpiece Theater.

    Except that Masterpiece Theater isn’t Masterpiece Theater anymore. It’s Masterpiece Classic or Masterpiece Contemporary or Masterpiece Mystery.

  2. Karen, have you ever watched the Frank Capra movie You Can’t Take it With You about a zany family, or the play the movie was based on? Even though there are a thousand differences in detail, when I first saw that movie I exclaimed, “It’s my family!” So, it’s been done.

    Also, have you ever read The Egg and I by Betty McDonald about raising chickens? In a sense, that book started the entire modern “confessional memoir” movement.

    If you take all of McDonald’s books, and off of her sister’s books, you also get a portrait of my family. Interestingly, the place where Betty and her first husband lived and raised chickens is not far from here. We live on Whidbey Island. Betty and hubby lived in the hills not far from Port Townsend, a fairly short ferry ride from where we live.

    So my family and its times (or something like it) is covered well enough. If civilization survives, perhaps someday Anne Elise will create some work (in a medium we cannot even imagine at this time) describing her sensible grandma, crazy grandpa, their dumb chickens, and life with two mommies in Seattle and two daddies who live in Chicago, not to mention, Sylvie, the world’s most lovable cat.

  3. correction: “and ALL of her sister’s books…”

  4. Speaking of movies…Did you know that Arsenic and Old Lace was loosely based on a true story that happened here in Connecticut? The lady who murdered her tenants ended up in the same mental hospital my great-grandmother was in.

    There’s a book about the case, called The Devil’s Rooming House (or something very similar). Just recently bought the book but haven’t read it yet.

  5. Forgot to say that yes, I have seen You Can’t Take It With You. Also saw the movie of The Egg and I.

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