you are : home : journal : ns 65-66 : "About Samuel Delany "
Josh Lukin is a Lecturer in English at Temple University. He is the co-editor of Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres 18: "Fifties Fictions." His recent scholarship addresses gender and emotion in post-World War II genre fiction.

The Feral Issue

ns 73-74 | Fall 2009/Spring 2010

The "Feral Issue" presents work by a range of people, from those who have been doing animal studies all along to those newly exploring the field. If it has a leaning, it is to build a cultural materialist account of animals in our world. We hope that the writing here will give our readers a sense of what animal studies is and where it's going, and also add some new voices to its course.

Read this Issue

Published Spring 2006

About Samuel Delany

by Josh Lukin | ns 65-66

"There is a class war in the United States," wrote novelist, critic, and educator Samuel Delany, "and because no one in the public sphere has spoken about class for forty years in this country, that war can be carried out in the most appalling terms and at the most crazed levels of cruelty." He was writing early in September 2005 about New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a U.S. city that had been mysteriously abandoned by the forces of government to the forces of nature, its population decimated, the popular imagination engaged in racist fantasies about its inhabitants that prompt the armed officials moving into it to be trigger-happy, people assembling into impromptu "tribes" for mutual aid, and contradictory reports emerging as to whether the bridges surrounding it had closed. At that time, many of Delany's readers (notably Bidisha Banerjee in Reason magazine—an unusual place to celebrate an author who styles himself a Marxist) were noticing that those conditions in New Orleans overlapped with the setting of Dhalgren, Delany's big 1975 novel of anarchy, urban decay, and semiotic confusion. But the real-life models for the city in Dhalgren were cities that had not been gutted by climatic disasters and incompetent federal officials, only by economic decline: the novel was describing social realities of the early 1970's that the dominant discourse overlooked. Indeed, the attention it paid to those realities was a source of its popularity. So although the longstanding problems of racism and class antagonism that Dhalgren addresses were thrust unavoidably into the public eye by the recent catastrophes on the Gulf Coast, this is not the first time readers of the novel have noticed its relevance to contemporary societal disintegration.

By Delany's own account of Dhalgren's reception (it has sold just over a million copies since its publication thirty-one years ago), the theme of social disintegration is a central factor in the polarization of opinion surrounding it:

... at least one academic (of highly liberal if not leftist tendencies, too) told me straight out: "I'm just not interested in the people you write about. I can't believe they're important in the greater scheme of things." What makes this significant is that the vast majority of fan letters the book received—many more, by a factor of ten, than any other of my books have ever gotten—were almost all in terms of " ...this book is about my friends." "This book is about people I know." "This book is about the world I live in." "This book is about people nobody else writes of... " After all, if the book makes any social statement, it's that when society pulls the traditional supports out from under us, we become not the proletariat, but the lumpenproletariat... . Well, there are millions of people in this country who have already experienced precisely this social condition... For them, Dhalgren confirms something they've experienced... the book reassures that what they saw was real and meaningful, and they like that. ("Semiology" 36)

People who are deeply invested in believing that they have by their own merit and efforts warded off the threat of lumpenproletarianization do not like that, as is clear from the fierceness with which some readers, including a few of Delany's longtime friends in the science fiction community, denounced the novel.

Paradoxically, the facility with which Dhalgren depicts immiseration owes much to the ways in which Samuel Ray Delany Jr. is a child of privilege. The Delany family was among the most prominent African-American dynasties of mid-twentieth-century New York. Delany's uncles included Myles Paige, the first black criminal court judge in the state of New York; Judge Hubert Delany, a towering figure in the mid-century civil rights and anti-McCarthyism movements (see Biondi); and E. Franklin Frazier, a celebrated radical sociologist. His aunts, Sadie and Bessie Delany, were renowned professional women (an educator and a dentist, respectively) and civil rights activists who wrote a joint memoir (Having Our Say) that became a Broadway play and a movie. His father was a successful businessman, running one of Harlem's busiest funeral parlors. His maternal grandfather Samuel Boyd, an associate of Asa Philip Randolph, was in charge of hiring porters at New York's Penn Station: many great black intellectuals worked their way through college under Boyd's patronage. In his childhood, Delany met Albert Einstein, Alger Hiss, and —at socialist summer camp— Pete Seeger. Among his elementary schoolmates were future playwrights Wallace Shawn and Ariel Dorfman; he attended high school with future activists Stokely Carmichael and Todd Gitlin; there he also met poet Marilyn Hacker, to whom he was married for nineteen years. Expectations of high achievement and intellectual adventure were clearly the norm. Throughout his high school years, Delany had friends who would perform the music he composed and the dances he choreographed, schoolmates who would read and critique the novels and stories he wrote, and a father who supported both his writing and his aspirations to become a nuclear physicist. Djuna Barnes and Ingmar Bergman, as well as Joyce and Faulkner, were influences on his early attempts at fiction. Ultimately he chose to focus his energies on writing science fiction because mainstream publishers thought his brands of narrative experimentation would be unacceptable and alienating to an early-1960s reading public.

Delany's background facilitated his developing an approach to the social world that is inimical to a certain kind of conventional mindset. Writing in 2001 about readers hostile to Dhalgren, he speculated that:

some traditional science fiction readers wanted a story in which the non-normal situations could be explained away by science... Some...weren't prepared for a book in which the anxiety quotient connected with such images came from the fact that the scientific institutions that could have afforded explanations...were what had eroded from the landscape. You couldn't call up the astronomy department [to ask why there were suddenly two moons in the sky]. ("Conversation" 4)

To refuse such assurances is to debunk an aspect of SF that attracts many of its fans: the potential omnipotence of technological solutions, conceived according to voluntarist premises (see Joanna Russ for a critique of that feature). The heroic starship captain or engineer or self-educated outcast who either solves the problem central to the story or fails for reasons that can be explained in individualist terms was central to many stories of Verne and Wells, Heinlein and Asimov, and even Alfred Bester and Theodore Sturgeon. An SF novel that calls attention to the tenuous infrastructure upon which the possibility of heroism and scientific genius depend was anomalous even as late as 1975. Delany learned at an early age that Art, Science, and History are not transcendent ideals validated by the distant gods but human creations dependent upon human institutions. And this demystification is the intellectual imperative that drives Delany's writing.

In 1967, Delany taught his first fiction-writing class; in 1968, he published his first essay outside the genre of music journalism. The former endeavor fed into the latter, as he set about demystifying the writer's task, demonstrating to idealistic writing students that the romantic concept of "pure storytelling" was a construct with no utility for the writing process. The confidence of his critical prose increased substantially after 1972, when he discovered French critical theory and became enamored of Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Goldmann, et al. He found in the poststructuralists' attention to semiosis and language an affirmation of and inspiration for his own critical project: his first two collections of essays are The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (1977) and Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (1984). In between those came two book-length essays, The American Shore: Meditations on a Tale of Science Fiction (1978) and Heavenly Breakfast: An Essay on the Winter of Love (1979), his first memoir. Foucault's Madness and Civilization influenced Dhalgren; the early works of Baudrillard informed Neveryóna (1982). For Delany, theory "was simply the license to be as intelligent as we could, about pretty much whatever we wanted to" ("Velocities of Change" 286, see also "The Kenneth James Interview" and "Thoughts on the Passing of Jacques Derrida").

Delany has never been sexually closeted or sought to "pass" racially; he has never disavowed the specifics of his identity in the name of a fantasized humanist universalism. But he is also a notorious anti-essentialist, and identity is among the chief targets of his demystification. Delany describes in his latest book, About Writing (2005), how he wrangled in the mid-1960s with the desire to transcend categories of race and gender:

I present that as an error in my thinking that I got trapped into... Only when I began to get it back together...did I realize that I was a "black man, a gay man, a writer"; that these were specific, if complex, categories. As categories, they were social impositions—not essences. They were what had always given me my identity; and an identity was something to be examined, interrogated, analyzed: vigilance and, often, resistance were the conditions of being able to function. [When one claims to be above or outside categories,] one is precisely not in a condition of freedom—but of entrapment. Saying "I am not a part" is very different from saying, "Because I am a part, I will not participate in that manner." The first is delusion. The second is power... ("A Poetry Project Newsletter Interview" 303-4)

His sixth novel, 1967's Babel-17, can be read as addressing the perils of trying to transcend the self. Robert Scholes has suggested that it be taught in all freshman English classes for its views on "Language and Human Subjectivity" because it is "focused on a language that is dehumanizing precisely because it lacks the pronouns I and you" (122). After Dhalgren, Delany's next novel addressed the theme of why white guys are so weird, inaugurating the field of Angry White Male Studies years before Fred Pfeil's White Guys and Sally Robinson's Marked Men. Trouble on Triton features a protagonist who, in the middle of an interplanetary war, comes to believe a sex change will allow him to transcend his narcissistic personality disorder. In creating the loathsome Bron Helstrom for that novel, Delany touched a nerve: he has received fan letters from readers of both sexes who claim to have been terribly unsettled by just how much they found themselves identifying with the man.

Feminists have remarked upon Delany's meticulous attention to gender, his analysis of which owed much to his conversations with Marilyn Hacker. The fact that there is some community among women in his earlier novels that is not centered on their relationships with men (unheard of in most early-1960's fiction), the presence of credible, powerful, intellectual women, and the pointed critique of patriarchal structures moved Joanna Russ to style him the only man writing feminist fiction in that era. Novelist and publisher L. Timmel Duchamp recalls:

In the 1960s and early 1970s there was very little work by women available to buy in paperback in the bookstore.... In the first flush of second-wave feminism, I found myself constantly throwing Roth, Mailer, Updike, and Barth across the room. (These guys were the biggies that bookstores were always thrusting into my face.) I only discovered science fiction in 1974—with a truly lucky strike—Delany's Einstein Intersection (1968), which I picked up off a display table out of sheer idle curiosity... I know many women who, turned off as I was in the early 70s, have never come back to reading male writers. They don't see the point. (Personal correspondence, 2002)

Around 1976, without substantially changing his convictions, Delany decided that "the problems of Gay Liberation" would supplant feminism as the focus of his intellectual energies, simply because he felt better-equipped to effect change in that realm and to address a social problem of which he had more direct experience (Hacker Letter). His 1984 Tale of Plagues and Carnivals, was the first novel about AIDS put out by a major U.S. publisher. In 1968, overflowing with rage over the sexual politics of pre-Stonewall America, Delany had written Hogg, a pornographic novel about a young boy's submissive relationship with a professional rapist; over twenty-five years later, it was finally published to some acclaim. 1999 saw the triumph of Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, a book-length essay on sex and class in New York City, which was denounced by both John Podhoretz in The New York Daily News and Marshall Berman in Dissent for its sexual libertarianism and its harsh treatment of Mayor Giuliani. Delany's most recent novel is a short Borgesian work of metaporn called Phallos.

Delany's insistence on demystifying sex is particularly evident from Dhalgren on. Many of his novels are populated with characters whose sexual relationships are focused on mutual pleasure and communication, rather than convention, law, self-aggrandizement, or property relations. Starting in the early 1980s, when the AIDS crisis made the mystification of sex deadlier than ever, Delany has been in the forefront among those pointing out that much necessary research on HIV transmission has yet to be done. He is particularly concerned with how irrational social taboos prevent the generation and spread of life-saving knowledge: "Dealing with a topic as mystified as AIDS is like dealing with medieval sorcery. Nobody wants to think that we are all operating in a field of such overwhelming ignorance ... " (Hacker Letter). Yet he retains the hope that a sexual "revolution will come precisely because of the infiltration of clear and articulate language into the marginal areas of human sexual exploration. Indeed, as Harvey Fierstein has already said: The AIDS situation and our accommodation to it are that revolution, nascent and underway" (Motion 294).

For forty years another target of Delany's demystification has been race, which he has famously styled a "term for what I take to be in all of its manifestations a system of political oppression grounded in a biological fantasy" (Silent Interviews 8). In 1968 he was the spokesman for a group of activists who had broken into various branches of the New York Public Library and replaced "Negro" with "black" on all the signs. In 1977, he wrote a positive review of the first Star Wars movie that expressed a wish to have seen some black faces among the characters: the piece received more mail than anything else he has written, the vast majority of it from white kids under seventeen who deeply resented the suggestion, on the grounds that non-whites in movies were signs of "social problems" which they wanted no part of in "their" film. Ten years earlier, a magazine editor had rejected his novel Nova, explaining that readers were not ready for a story about a black starship captain. Simply putting African-American issues into novels is itself a tool of demystification in a climate that facilitates such judgments, but Delany has gone further: he consistently rejects the assimilationist view of "what African American literature is supposed to be about, namely the black family, black spirituality, and direct opposition to those white forces that would deny the specifically white/bourgeois version of these to blacks" (Freedman).

Although Delany's privileged origins and professional status put him in a different position with respect to class oppression than to racial and sexual discrimination, he has observed the enormity of class difference firsthand and actively sought tools for understanding it since, at the age of fifteen, he moved with his family to a part of upper Manhattan just a block away from scenes of dire urban blight. More than one instructor reports that undergraduates reading Times Square Red, Times Square Blue have no trouble with all the penises in the book but are deeply unsettled by its Red analyses of class. In fiction, he shares with Melville and Dickens a penchant for exploring class through elements of the picaresque, in a manner that puts his work at odds with the postmodern tradition of paranoia in U.S. novels: a character such as Gorgik the Liberator in the Return to Nevèrÿon tetralogy (1979-1987) does not start out believing in a just, comforting, and meritocratic world, perceive that he is excluded from it, and conclude that the rules of success are being withheld from him by a conspiracy. Instead, he understands that learning the rules in whatever social stratum he finds himself is the most urgent of tasks, but approaches that task as a practical matter of his own survival, rather than evidence that someone is denying him his due. This open-minded autodidacticism is the only mode in which he can survive: the conviction of entitlement that goes with assuming one's middle-class status to be "natural" or "deserved" shows up in Delany's novels as a most destructive psychopathology.

About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews is the first book of Delany's that frames its entire mission as pedagogical —it is addressed to novice writers who want to know about the art of writing fiction, the "socio-aesthetic" field in which the writer works, and the way literary reputation operates. But the book is hardly the first Delany piece to have a pedagogical effect on young minds. Over the past twenty years, a good number of intellectuals have learned from Delany's essays about discourse, interpellation, deconstruction, semiology, whiteness, urban gay life, and canonicity. Delany's creative writing pedagogy has long been concerned with "aesthetic discipline," which he characterizes as "[t]he structures that must be absorbed, internalized, and submitted to if one is to write anything from a sentence to a scene to a multi-volume Encyclopedia of Everything or a roman fleuve" (Rowell 264). But again, his interest in how to promote such discipline is not limited to his work as a teacher of writing: he is just as dedicated to being a teacher of reading—and not just the reading of fiction, drama, and poetry, but of all the language that constructs the world. His work provides tools for contesting the Official Story and instructions on how to use them at a time when such tools are an urgent necessity.

* * *

Note: Information and quotes, where uncredited, come from the author's correspondence and conversation with Samuel Delany. Most biographical data comes from The Motion of Light in Water.

* * *

Works Cited and Consulted

Banerjee, Bidisha. "Dhalgren in New Orleans: What an old science-fiction novel can tell us about the Big Easy." Reason online. 13 Sept. 2005.
http://www.reason.com/hod/bb091305.shtml

Biondi, Martha. To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2003.

Carby, Hazel V. Race Men. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998.

Delany, Samuel R. About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 2006.

---. The American Shore: Meditations on a Tale of Science Fiction. Elizabethtown: Dragon, 1978.

---. Babel-17. 1967. New York: Vintage, 2002.

---. "A Conversation with Samuel R. Delany, author of Dhalgren." Press kit assembled by Vintage, 2001.

---. Dhalgren. 1975. New York: Vintage, 2001.

---. "Freedman Exchange." Correspondence with Carl Freedman, September 2004.

---. "Hacker Exchange." Correspondence with Marilyn Hacker, Summer 2005. In the Delany Archive at Boston University.

---. "Heavenly Breakfast: An Essay on the Winter of Love." 1979. Flint: Bamberger, 1997.

---. Hogg. Normal, IL: Fiction Collective 2, 1994.

---. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. 1977. New York: Berkley, 1978.

---. "The Kenneth James Interview." 1986. Silent Interviews. 233-249.

---. The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village. 1987. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2004.

---. Neveryöna, or: The Tale of Signs and Cities. 1982. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1993.

---. Phallos. Flint: Bamberger, 2004.

---. A Poetry Project Newsletter Interview. 1999. About Writing. 299-310.

---. "The Semiology of Silence." 1983. Silent Interviews. 21-58.

---. Silent Interviews: On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1994.

---. Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. Pleasantville: Dragon, 1984.

---. "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals." 1983. Flight from Nevèrÿon. 1985. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1994.

---. "Thoughts on the Passing of Jacques Derrida." Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field. 53.5 (November 2004): 13, 79-80.

---. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. New York: NYU P, 1999.

---. Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia. 1976. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1996.

---. "Velocities of Change." Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres. 18 (2003): 279-312.

Delany, Sarah Louise, Annie Elizabeth Delany, and Amy Hill Hearth. Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years. New York: Kodansha International, 1993.

Fox, Robert Elliot. Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Postmodernist Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delany. New York: Greenwood, 1987.

McRuer, Robert and Abby Wilkerson. "Introduction." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. 9.1-2 (2003): 1-23.

Pfeil, Fred. White Guys: Studies in Postmodern Domination and Difference. London: Verso, 1995.

Robinson, Sally. Marked Men: White Masculinity in Crisis. New York: Columbia UP, 2000.

Rowell, Charles and Samuel Delany. "An Interview with Samuel R. Delany." Callaloo. 23.1 (2000): 247-267.

Russ, Joanna. "SF and Technology as Mystification." 1978. To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995.

Scholes, Robert. The Rise and Fall of English. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998.

MR BOOKS
Critics at Work
ed. Jeffrey J. Williams.
Critics at Work offers a guided tour through the central, sometimes confusing and frequently controversial developments in contemporary literary and cultural criticism. The tour guides, however, are not distant observers but have been primary participants in those developments, and they report on theory, cultural studies, the literary canon, the recent focus on race, sexuality, and other identities, the state of the univerisity, and the role of the intellectual. Throughout, they consider the not always easy negotiation of politics and culture.
Purchase Critics at Work.


© 2006-2010 the minnesota review. the minnesota review is a member of CELJ.