I am about halfway through Robert A. Heinlein – In Dialogue With His Century, by William H. Patterson. I am reading it in 100 page chunks on the bus. Much of this extremely well documented book is surprising to me.
My opinion of Heinlein has changed a little because of the book. It is an authorized biography, but since Ginny Heinlein is dead, I think that some of the material that Ginny might not have allowed, such as RAH’s sex life and his nudism, have slipped in.
My opinion of RAH as a writer has dropped a little. It seems that he relied heavily on others to edit, rewrite and rebuild his stories. Heinlein’s best stories were molded by his wife and his editors. John W. Campbell, Jr. took RAH’s first stories and chopped them up, rearranged and sometimes rewrote them. His second wife Leslyn was a script doctor in Hollywood for years and a published author herself. Heinlein relied on her for feedback and even rewrites of his work. The ideas are all his, and the basic plots are his, but the complex treatments, characters, and some of the structural details can be traced to Campbell and Leslyn.
Heinlein was a good writer because he had excellent support. Heinlein was also very lucky. Some of his less stellar stories sold, first because in the late 1930s SF boomed, and almost any story would sell somewhere. Campbell and other pulp editors were badly in need of the kind of stories that RAH wrote. Second, once he sold some stories, his name and style were easily recognized and he could sell even his stinkeroos (as he called them).
His first four decades (he’s about 40 when I stopped reading this morning) are stressful because of his health, but also because he seems to make bad decisions on a moment’s notice. He was very unlucky in his personal life in many ways. He made snap decisions that I am sure he regretted, but he was the kind of person who stuck to his guns. He wanted to be loyal and respected duty and honor, but his own dumbness in some areas made this kind of life painful for him. He stuck with toxic relationships when he should not have. People continually took advantage of him, and he never seemed to catch on.
I have not reached it yet, but he divorces the alcoholic Leslyn and marries Ginnie. Ginnie, I think does a much better job protecting him, but I think that his writing started to drop in quality when he lost Leslyn.
The book is huge and meticulously documented. There are a few typos and sometimes there is a mangled sentence that I have to read twice, but that will all be fixed in the second edition. In spite of Ginnie being gone for a while, the book still has her stamp on it. In the footnotes, many of the references to events involving Leslyn have been provide by the Ginnie who married RAH after he divorced Leslyn, and might be colored by Ginnie’s opinion of the wife she replaced. I find that the Ginnie quotes concerning Leslyn that are included in the text detract a little from the air of impartiality that a book like this requires.
Heinlein seemed to know all the Golden Age SF writers, especially those on the west coast. (The east coast was Fred Pohl’s territory). The book is important as a history of the Golden Age in much the same way Pohl’s The Way the Future Was is important. (Pohl is working on release 2.0 of The Way the Future Was, and I interesting to re-reading it and comparing it to In Dialogue With His Century)
If you enjoy golden age SF, then buy the book. It is well worth the read and is as close as we will probably ever get to revealing the “real” Robert A. Heinlein.