Cover of the July 1973 Edition of
The Penn Stater
Penn State's Alumni Magazine.
Philip Klass: Wit with a Flair for the Incredible
(This article originally appeared in the July 1973 edition of The Penn Stater, accompanying Phil's essay "Jazz Then, Musicology Now," Phil's essay was republished in Dancing Naked)
How do you write about a writer who's so good that even his students are impressed?
Start at the beginning and let the highlights fall where they may--there are dozens of them.
Philip Klass was born in London in 1920, moved to New York City at the impressionable age of 1½, was reared in Brooklyn's slums and has written inimitable dialect humor based on both subjects.
In fact, there isn't much that he hasn't written: fiction, science fiction, nonfiction, humor, satire, technological articles, radio scripts, scholarly papers, stuff for experimental publications that paid off in subscriptions or Green Stamps instead of money--even a little poetry.
What's more, he's been a stand-up comedian of the Mort Sahi variety (unfortunately it was before that species became popular) , an editor, a co-editor, a consulting editor, a talk show TV host and ofttimes guest, a student, and now Associate Professor of English.
"I attended several universities but never got a degree and that makes me a real oddball in this community," he says. But, as his students say: "He's a helluva teacher!" Besides which, he's famous--as William Tenn, master of the humorous and satirical in science fiction.
Almost no one was writing humorous science fiction when William Tenn opened the door with "Child's Play," a funny story about a present-day lawyer who receives a Christmas gift meant for a child of the future and sets about making people with his Build-A-Man kit.
"Child's Play" (Astounding Science Fiction magazine, May 1946) was wildly acclaimed--even the sophisticated New Yorker carried a piece on it--and by now it may be the most widely anthologized of all science fiction stories.
It wasn't Tenn's first story, but it was the one that established his reputation for humor and satire. A year earlier, after World War II duty as a combat engineer in Europe, Klass got a job as a technical editor with an Air Force radar and radio laboratory. But he knew if he were to have enough money to help out at home since his father's death, he'd have to make it moonlighting. He really didn't know anything about radio, or radar either (except that "they had something to do with coaxial cables"), but that didn't stop him. He wrote "Alexander the Bait," a story that had to do with a radar beam aimed at the moon. And sure enough, a Signal Corps lab not far from his own base of operations bounced a radar beam off the moon a couple of months later and his first story was obsolete almost before it was published.
"It was a bad story," Klass lamented, "just good enough to be published. Others in the same magazine (Astounding) were much better, so I really worked hard on my second one. I did as well as I knew how." "Child's Play" was the result.
He had been experimenting with a variety of pen names (mostly because he didn't know any better, but also because Samuel Clemens used a pen name, and a little bit because science fiction writing still wasn't an altogether respectable way to make a buck). He stuck with William Tenn when "Child's Play" was such a smash.
Tenn's first book, Children of Wonder, was published by Simon and Schuster in 1953. Interested in the ways in which writers of fantasy perceive the real age of fantasy--childhood--he put together an anthology of tales about the "children of wonder" --most of them quite horrifying, he notes.
By now, science fiction was beginning to gain a little stature and he wanted to do the book under his own name, but the publisher asked, "Who ever heard of Phil Klass?" Even Fruma, one of Harper and Row's top copy editors and the woman who would one day be his wife, hadn't heard of him, although she was reading science fiction and she was becoming a William Tenn fan. At any rate, William Tenn it remained.
There have been other books: Of All Possible Worlds, The Human Angle, Time in Advance (a collection of four short novels), and in 1968 a grand total of six William Tenn books published by Ballantine, plus a seventh which Klass claims the less said about the better.
He's his own worst critic, saying the farther away he gets from his stories, the less he likes them. But he does have a favorite book: The Wooden Star, a collection of science fiction satires published in 1968. And his favorite William Tenn story is one of those satires, "The Masculinist Revolt," which inspired hate mail by the carload. Reactions to it were insane, Klass says, noting that it was better likely by university audiences than elsewhere. Playboy wanted to run it to the exclusion of all other fiction in one issue until Hugh Hefner read it and reacted with a violent "No!" recognizing what his editors had not: that it was a satire on the Playboy empire.
What kind of story could provoke such emotion? An early 1960s story about a 1990s unisex society (the publisher said the timing was off because such a thing could never happen for at least 150 years) . Men and women dress alike and look alike. The federal government has special agencies to deal with sex discrimination. The Masculinists are campaigning for repeal of the 19th Amendment, chaining themselves to lampposts and chanting "Give back the vote!" The opposition candidate, Elvis Presley Borax (faithfully modeled after Richard M. You-know-who) is fighting with the one-word campaign slogan, "Mom!"
"I have written more about sex than any science fiction writer alive without once having written anything capable of exciting a granite slab. And I have discovered that it isn't sex that bothers people, it's sexual identity. It's the identity thing that's genuinely upsetting," Klass said. And "The Masculinist Revolt" is a satire on the question of sexual identity.
Irate readers, apparently forgetting that William Tenn was the master of humor and satire, accused him of homosexuality, wrote ugly letters to his wife, and some, who saw the story as an affirmation of maleness, even wanted to "beat up the bitches." In spite of--or maybe because of--the raging, it's still Klass' favorite story.
In comparison, Tenn's other "sex stories" are tame. There's "Venus and the Seven Sexes" about a creature with seven sexes (one's a timekeeper and coordinator) all of which must be working in perfect order and synchronization in order to perpetuate the species. And in "Party of the Two Parts" an amoeba-creature tries peddling to people on earth his "feelthy peectures" (of amoebic division, naturally) -
Klass wondered how they'd handle the "feelthy peectures" accent in the French translation of his story and was delighted to discover that an ingenious translator had given the creature a Marseilles dialect. "But of course," said the author's French friends, "where else but in Marseilles would they sell such things?"
William Tenn stories have been translated into almost all languages and are popular in Holland, Scandinavia, Japan, France, Russia, Germany, and more. He gets a kick out of reading the translations--he's pretty good at French, not bad at German, reads a little Russian, but invariably holds the Japanese upside down.
Several years ago a Latin American television representative offered Klass $50 each for the TV rights to several stories. By this time, of course, William Tenn was a highly paid name and Klass was ready to shrug off the proposition until the representative explained:
The television in this Latin American country is government controlled. It is very flattering to be offered $50 because most writers are offered nothing. This special recognition is being offered for William Tenn because the boss happens to be especially fond of his stories. If you don't take the offer, the end result will be the same except that you'll have no money. In order to get any you'll have to sue the government.
"So I took the $50."
Tenn had the privilege of being attacked in 1963 by the Soviet Liturnaya Gazeta, one of Russia's outstanding literary journals, and called a jackal (a meat eating wild dog). In a discussion of science fiction, Liturnaya Gazeta singled out for special derogatory mention two American writers, Robert Heinlein and William Tenn, pointing out that these two writers, no matter how far they peer into tomorrow, seem to see no future for the human race but capitalism. The only difference, the journal pointed out, between these two men, in its judgment, is that whereas Heinlein sees this future as a cause for optimism, Tenn sees it as a cause for pessimism.
Numerous Tenn stories have been in "best of the year" collections; many have been dramatized for radio and television. In 1969 Britishers were treated to a BBC Festival of William Tenn in which a whole batch of his stories was dramatized. Just this year WPSX-TV (Penn State's educational television station) did two Philip Klass shows, one on dialect humor, the other "William Tenn--A Lifetime in the Fantastic.'
In the late '50s Klass became interested in nonfiction and has become "reasonably successful" at it, selling articles to such magazines as Playboy, True and Esquire. One nonfiction article, about a character who makes complex customized bugging equipment for people on both sidles of the law, has been anthologized and was selected for Best Magazine Articles: 1968.
Klass believes nonfiction is currently "where it's at," with the new journalism allowing a better style and more experimentation even than fiction.
How did Penn State nab such a mover?
Partly it was because of the first scholarly paper Philip Klass ever wrote ("there were so damn many footnotes you couldn't find the body copy"). . He presented it at the Modern Language Association seminar on science fiction and Art Lewis heard it. Arthur 0. Lewis Jr. is now Penn State's Associate Dean for Resident Instruction, and is well known in the science fiction world for his long and successful pioneering campaign to have science fiction recognized as a legitimate academic pursuit.
Partly it was because S. Leonard Rubenstein, Professor of English, now also director of the English Writing Option, knew of Klass and got to talking to Lewis about the kind of teachers Penn State needed to turn out good writers.
Partly it was because Philip and Fruma Klass had lived in Greenwich Village when it was a village, when Villagers were people interested in and involved in the arts, when everybody knew everybody else, and before the high rises and changing Village culture prompted all their friends to flee.
"By 1966 we concluded we just had to get out," Klass said. Their options:
San Francisco where many of their friends had relocated; or a university community where they could have the village life plus people with mutual interests. They thought awhile about Chapel Hill (University of North Carolina) and had just about decided to sublet their apartment and try it for a couple of months to test their survival instincts when the feeler came from Penn State.
The post-interview offer was a one-year appointment as assistant professor. "We decided it was a good deal. We could try living in a university community and I could try teaching and we'd get paid for the experiment. Fruma made the real sacrifice. She had just been offered the managing editorship of Harper and Row's medical division. "But she likes me, so she came along," Klass said.
That was seven years ago and Klass can still say "I like teaching and I like the University. And very specially I like Penn State, because it's a state university with an incomparable student cross-section, where the well-to-do sit side-by side with first generation college students."
And Klass is still a mover (just try to get him on the phone one time) --he has helped organize the writing option; helped bring his professional friends to the campus to teach; was elected to the University Senate; served on the English Department's governance committees: the Rank and Tenure Committee and the policy-making Agenda Committee.
He is director of the Department's recently established internship program under which writing students work for one term in publishing jobs. He teaches writing courses; has taught interdisciplinary classes in prediction and prophecy and in ethnic and regional humor (he has one of the best libraries in the country on this subject) and is developing the first science fiction course to be taught as a part of the English curriculum.
His office bulges with students during office hours; his phone never stops ringing; his "vacation" is frequently spent teaching summer institutes on fantasy and science fiction at Stanford University, and his home is no sanctuary because people seek him out there when they can't track him down on campus.
Klass also serves on the executive board of the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) and this year will be chairman of the Modern Language Association panel on science fiction. In September he will serve with Art Lewis as co-chairman of the sixth annual SFRA conference ("Secondary Universe") at Penn State.
In his spare time he's getting together a long book on Mark Twain to be called "The Connecticut Yankee and Other Travelers." But that's another story.
Official Home Page of William Tenn