First Fandom Experience

A Remarkable Letter — John W. Campbell’s 1937 Job Search

In May 1937, John W. Campbell, Jr. was looking for work. He was in good company — the unemployment rate in the United States was fluctuating around 15%, reflecting the lingering economic malaise of the Great Depression. Despite his degree in Physics and some success as a writer of science fiction stories, Campbell hadn’t found a steady gig.

This was to change in the Fall of that year when Campbell was hired as the Editor of Astounding Stories, where he reigned until his death in 1971. His Wikipedia entry describes his subsequent impact on science fiction:

“Referring to his time spent as an editor, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction wrote: ‘More than any other individual, he helped to shape modern sf. Isaac Asimov called Campbell ‘the most powerful force in science fiction ever’ and said the ‘first ten years of his editorship he dominated the field completely.’ In his capacity as an editor, Campbell published some of the very earliest work, and helped shape the careers, of virtually every important sf author to debut between 1938 and 1946, including Robert A. HeinleinTheodore SturgeonIsaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke.”

As a tribute to Campbell, in 1973 the World Science Fiction Society established the “John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.” This prize has been awarded yearly ever since — until Tuesday, August 27, 2019.

The award still exists, but on that day was renamed the “Astounding Award for Best New Writer.” As reported in the New York Times and elsewhere, this shift was driven by renewed attention to Campbell’s well-known, publicly-expressed racism. Jeanette Ng, winner of the 2019 Best New Writer prize, called out Campbell to cheers from the audience:

“John W. Campbell, for whom this award was named, was a fucking fascist. Through his editorial control of Astounding Science Fiction, he is responsible for setting a tone of science fiction that still haunts the genre to this day. Sterile. Male. White. Exalting in the ambitions of imperialists and colonisers, settlers and industrialists. Yes, I am aware there are exceptions.”

As we seek to tell the story of science fiction fandom in the 1930s and 1940s, repugnant attitudes among early fans and professionals are impossible to miss, should not be missed, and should not be dismissed or ignored. By documenting this period in what some might deem a celebratory way, we’re in no sense endorsing these views — nor will we shy away from them.

Through our research, we have an opportunity to share insight into Campbell’s life prior to his work at Astounding. The letter presented here in full was penned by Campbell on May 15 1937, several months before he was hired as an editor. The recipient, Robert D. Swisher, was himself a research chemist and early science fiction fan. Swisher and Campbell corresponded regularly through the 1930s and 40s. It’s presented here by expressed permission from Perry A. Chapdelaine Sr., who acquired the letter from the Campbell estate. The San Diego State University watermark isn’t original to the letter — it’s an artifact of the archive where many of Campbell’s letters are physically stored. We appreciate the assistance of Alec Nevala-Lee and Doug Ellis in sourcing and establishing the provenance of this document.

Notes and my perspective on the content of the letter follows each page. Click the individual pages to view them in full resolution.

The vital role played by Mort Weisinger in launching Capmbell’s career as an editor demonstrates the vivid connection between fandom and the pros. Fanzines such as Weisinger’s Science Fiction Digest and Charles D. Hornig’s The Fantasy Fan served as the Grapefruit League for the draft class of professional editors recruited by the pulps in the mid 1930s. Weisinger’s relationship with Campbell was further brought to life by Julius Schwartz in an interview with John L. Coker III:

Before he became an editor, John W. Campbell used to write science fiction, what is referred to today as hard science fiction, much in the vein of “Doc” Smith stories.  He tried to broaden his market, so he submitted stories to Mort Weisinger, but Mort rejected them.  Finally, Campbell says, “Mort, what is wrong with my stories?  Why aren’t I writing the type of stories you’re looking for?”  Mort says, “You’re writing the type of scientific stories that I don’t want to bore the readers with.  I want you to get to where you’re going, tell an exciting adventure story, and don’t load it down with too much science fact.”  Campbell says, “I’d like to take a chance on it.  Can you give me an idea what style I should use?”  So Mort says, “My favorite writer is Stanley G. Weinbaum.”  They were human interest stories.  They were believable.  Campbell read the stories of Stanley G. Weinbaum, and he submitted a story and Mort bought it.  Campbell was very happy and he started writing a series of stories along the same line. 

The issue came out with the first story in it, and Campbell went up to see Mort.  Campbell says, “Mort, what did you do to the story that appears in the current issue?”  Mort says, “I’m an editor, I get paid to edit, so I edited it.”  Campbell says, “Does that mean you can change the title of a story of a script that I sell you?”  Mort says, “Of course, if I don’t like the title I change it to a title that I like, or something that I think will appeal to my young readers.”  Campbell said, “You mean you can take the title of a story you bought and change the title?”  Mort said, “Yeah, didn’t you look at the back of the check?  It says we can edit and make it suitable for publication.”  Mort said, “I cut out the dull parts and got into the action.”  I don’t remember the title of the story that Campbell had, but Mort changed it to “The Brain Stealers of Mars.”  Any young person must read a story entitled “The Brain Stealers of Mars,” even a few of you adults would want to read a story like that. [Campbell’s original title was ‘Imitation.’ We have to agree that Weisinger’s title is a more likely hook. – dhr]

Campbell said, “I didn’t know you could do that.  Let me ask you a few more questions.  Why did you change so much of my copy?”  Mort says, “John, I told you that I didn’t want to be burdened with your science facts.  Get to Mars, don’t tell me how much oxygen there is or isn’t.  Let’s get to the story and the damsel in distress.  Let everything roll.  Get the action going.  So, I put that stuff in there for you.  I have to do it.  Leo Margulies, the editorial director, looks over all our scripts to make sure we’re earning our money, so there’s plenty of rewriting.” 

Mort asked him if he had any other problems he wanted to hit him with. Campbell said, “I don’t think that it was the world’s greatest illustration.  Those stories had illustrations to excite the reader to read it.”  Campbell asked, “How is the selection made for the artist to draw?”  Mort said, “I give the artist the story to read, pick out an exciting scene.  I will write a description and give it to the artist, and he will draw the story as I instruct him to do.”

Campbell asked Mort, “After you edit the story, and make all the corrections, what do you do with it?”  He said, “Send it to the printer so he can set it up in linotype.  When we get it back we proof-read it for typographical errors.”  Campbell said, “I know your magazine has one hundred sixty pages.  How do you make it come out even?”  Mort said, “That’s the easiest part of all.  All you have to do is put in all of the stories and ads for one hundred fifty two pages, then put in eight pages of letters, and you get one hundred sixty pages.” 

John W. Campbell patted Mort Weisinger on the shoulder and said, “I want to thank you very much for these instructions, and I want you to be the first to know.  I’ve just been made the editor of Astounding Stories and I didn’t know what an editor does.  Thanks to you, I know.” 

I told that story when Fred Pohl was present and he said, “No, that’s not true.  Mort told a lie.  All John W. Campbell did was go to Leo Margulies and Margulies told him exactly what to do.” 

Campbell’s letter appears to support Schwartz’s version of events.

The current intense discussion of Campbell’s definitive influence and his deep personal flaws should continue. We hope this contribution adds to the beautiful bonfire.