© William H. Patterson, Jr., art by Donato.
I don’t read many biographies, but this, of one of my favorite writers, was preordered as soon as I learned of it. It’s very long, over 600 pages (and that’s just volume 1 of 2, though about 100 of it is notes), and will take me a while, so I thought I’d report on it as I read. At present I’ve read the first 10 chapters, 125 pages.
Heinlein wrote very little about his own life directly, aside from one travel book (“Tramp Royale”) and in his rare interviews he usually answered only questions about his work or his philosophy. Therefore, nearly everything I’ve read so far here has been completely new information. I find that biographies are often most revealing in the early chapters, covering childhood, as we can often see how family, upbringing and pivotal events lead a person to the life we know them for, and it’s very true here. Author Patterson was chosen by Heinlein’s widow Virginia for this project, and he’s clearly spent years in research. He tells what he knows succinctly, offering some opinions but usually keeping the facts in the forefront. He also makes connections to Heinlein’s fiction where pertinent, as where the writer drew on his grandfather’s persona in some works.
It’s fascinating to think of what a different world young Bobbie came into in 1907 Butler, Missouri and soon Kansas City. Cars were a rare novelty, his grandfather did country doctoring with a horse and buggy. Rural Butler, the home of Heinlein’s mother’s family, seems an idyllic pastorale just barely past the Civil War era. The family was large, Heinlein was the third boy, other boys and girls followed. While their father worked hard, he never could really get ahead of the costs of raising that family, and young Bobbie soon learned that each of them were expected to fend for themselves much of the time. The older brothers got most of the parental attention, too. While at times cash poor, the entire family was intelligent, hard working and religious, and Bobbie learned to pull his own weight early, starting to find work of his own at age 12, and doing all kinds of jobs while still going to school. Having spent some time in Kansas City myself in the early 1970s, though it was very different by then, I got some extra enjoyment of Patterson’s descriptions of the settings.
All of the family were avid readers, and Bob read everything he could get his hands on. One favorite author was H.G. Wells, but he read widely. Other than Wells, there was little that could be called science fiction when Heinlein was young, but as soon as Hugo Gernsbach started publishing it in his magazines, Heinlein was reading it.
Military careers were a tradition in the family, one reason Bob pursued that avenue, but it was pragmatic, too. He found an opportunity to get recommended for either West Point or Annapolis through his local Senator, and it looked like the only way to get an advanced education for not much money (and even then it was a struggle). Heinlein managed to work all the angles and get a Navy appointment at Annapolis, where his older brother Rex was already attending. His time there is covered in these chapters, and while some of it is lists of classes and studies, there are many surprising moments and adventures, from practice cruises around the Atlantic to fencing victories to petty brutality and unfair treatment.
After graduating, Heinlein’s story continues to be surprising. An early marriage just before he went off for his first Naval assignment was news to me, and it doesn’t seem like much of a marriage, as his wife continued to live at home with her parents while Bob reported to San Pedro, California for duty. Later, Heinlein is sent to New York City for training for several weeks. His wife declined to join him there, too, so the young man got an apartment in Greenwich Village and briefly lived the Bohemian life.
There is also, of course, discussion by Patterson of what may have informed the adult Heinlein’s viewpoints on all aspects of life, from morals to religion, politics to philosophy, the latter a topic the young man is said to have loved to discuss. Again, events that seemed pivotal are highlighted and commented on, and where Patterson found no facts, and is just speculating, he says that. I’m impressed with the author’s work so far.
I’m having a great time reading this. If you’re a Heinlein fan I can’t recommend it enough. More later.