Published Spring 2006
About Samuel Delany
"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
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
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].
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
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,
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
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.
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
---. "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.
---. "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):
---. 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
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