All Our Yesterdays 26
by Harry Warner Jr.


Jim Blish has suddenly become a fanzine editor. A few extremely old fans who received the first Blish-edited issues of Kalki must have dug feebly into shaky old memory cells and produced eventually remembrance that this wasn’t the first time that Blish had published a fanzine. His first was The Planeteer, issued during the middle 1930’s. The majority of the fans who have emerged in the last decade or two must have wondered at the ease with which a filthy pro had suddenly assumed the fannish capacity. Hardly a fan now alive fits into a third group of reactors - those who remembered Jim Blish’s most important fanzine, Tumbrils.

It must be the most obscure important fanzine. I haven’t seen a reference to it in print for at least a dozen years, nobody ever reprints from it, and it’s hardly known to the Fannish Index. Only one of its twenty-four issues is listed there. No conspiracy or other mysterious circumstances caused this forgetfulness to envelope Tumbrils. It had the misfortune to appear throughout its career in the Vanguard Amateur Press Association mailings. VAPA rarely had more than a couple of dozen participants, many of whom weren’t fans in the usual sense, there seems to have been little distribution of Tumbrils outside the mailings, and even when it existed, Tumbrils was almost unknown to general fandom. But it would be indispensable reading for anyone who attempted a large-scale essay on Blish as a writer, some of its contents throw interesting sidelights on Blush’s fiction because of the common subject matter, and Tumbrils provides the only large-scale look at Blish’s mature non-critical non-fiction.

Understand, this was not a fundamentalist, sercon fanzine. Blish would certainly have disdained to call it a fanzine when it was appearing from 1945 through 1950, and I’ve been afraid to ask him what he would call it today. It dealt occasionally with science fiction, more often with matters vaguely related to science fiction, sometimes with completely mundane things. In a file of Tumbrils, you would find only a couple of pieces of very brief fiction, a large quantity of poetry, mailing comments in its earlier issues, and imposing essays of every length. Blush usually wrote most or all of the contents, but occasionally published contributions by outsiders. Illustrations were rarities, and an issue might run from a half-dozen to more than 30 pages. If it had one typical attribute, it was the way it demanded the reader’s closest attention. Blish didn’t write down to his audience and obviously considered his readers as highly intelligent people capable of understanding big words and possessed of considerable basic knowledge in a wide variety of fields. His style in Tumbrils was not obscure or crabbed, but it had nothing in common with the sort of essays you found in your first grade reader.

This time I’ll stick to Tumbrils as the sermon topic, but I should point out that this was not the only fanzine productivity from Blish of the 1940’s. He published several issues of (...), devoted to mailing comments. I can’t find it at all in the Fanzine Index, but maybe that’s because I don’t know where they put the publications whose titles consist solely of punctuation marks. He also published occasional official VAPA publications and a few other less important apa titles.

One of the remarkable things about Tumbrils is the similarity of many topics in it to the matters that concern so many fans today. Do you think that Ayn Rand is a writer who has attracted fannish attention only within the past decade? You’d be dead wrong. Disguised as a letter to Chandler Davis, a long review of “The Fountainhead” appeared in the 11th issue, distributed in February 1947, with the 11th VAPA mailing. Blish said, in part:

“It’s not a great book, of course. By the nature of its thesis, it could not have been, because the great book on that thesis has already been written, and nobody in this stage of our culture can hope to do it again better than it was done in “Also Sprach Zarathustra”.....Ayn Rand may be a victim of a sort of philosophical Gernsback delusion, but she has sugar-coated one of the bitterest pills people like you will have to swallow in the comming years, which is a sort of service. If you like, you can see in “The Fountainhead” one of the great precepts made available to you by Goothe, Spengler, Korzybski, and a number of others. If you don’t like it, you can blame Nietzsche, who has earned it; of course, if you do, credit Rand, who hasn’t... It is “The Fountainhead”s thesis - not Ayn Rand’s - that only the people who are good at doing certain things are good at doing them. Not everybody. Only those who are competent are competent. Psychology, as opposed to educational psychology, philosophy as opposed to sentimental economic theory; General Semantics, as opposed to maxims; these fields make of individual differences our major materiae logica. Science is a useful habit of mind, engaged in forcing similarity; but it all begins with the recognition that every person, every object, every event, is unique and like nothing else, any place, any time.”

The same mailing distributed the 12th Tumbrils, whose lead article dealt with another topic that retains its prominence today; the draft and those who object to it. The article quoted a press release about a draft card burning demonstration in Washington “against the impending threat of peacetime conscription” and ended with Blish’s own opinions about the effectiveness of statistically small protest movements:

“This protest may not, probably will not, prevent universal military conscription from being enacted. It will pound home into the noggins of our military-headed State Department that an unknown proportion of its draft army is going to be disaffected, and that the draft army is to be a less reliable instrument of policy than they had hoped. A small result? Certainly. But it is of such paving-stones that the road to peace is made - not of pyramid-like blocks requiring thousands of people to move.”

You don’t normally think today of Blish as a person with strong interest in poetry. Of all the poets you might imagine him to write about, Clark Ashton Smith would require one of the greatest exertions of that imagination. But in the second Tumbrils, distributed in May, 1945, two pages are devoted to CAS’s poetry. Blish recalls that Edwin Markham called Smith the greatest American poet, “and while it is obvious from internal evidence that ‘The Man with the Hoe’ was a fluke, it is possible for a man to be right twice in his life.” Blish estimates that the wordage written about Smith must equal the output regarding Cabell, but finds barely 2,000 words of actual criticism of Smith in all the outpourings. He decides that “Smith has occasionally achieved some really moving effects with such eclectic material”, and occasionally “the results are more the sober reader merely the sewage of a plastic-and-chrome Eblis,” Blish finds that Smith does not have full control of prose and chose deliberately a style and material that

“is incomprehensible and boring to the pulp readers whom he has – perhaps perforce - addressed most often. It is moribund and intolerably ‘arty’ to a literate reader. The best he can hope from it is that it will please the very tiny segment of the reading public that is made up of men like Derleth and Lovecraft, who, incapable of distinguishing the artistic from the arty, can pass it through their digestive tracts and absorb from it the little nourishment that it contains. As a product of irresistible influence and inclinations, it might have been forgivable. As the conscious choice of a man who has shown that he can do better, it is funny.”

Blish’s own preference in poetry seemed to favour quite advanced style and hard-to-extract inner meanings. I hesitate to quote from his own poetry in Tumbrils, since its effectiveness increases as you grow accustomed to a lot of it. If anyone must suffer, let it be an outside contributor, Ree Dragonette. “A Dedicated Poem” appeared in the 20th Tumbrils, distributed in February, l949. Blish praised it highly, and it’s typical of his preferences in this era:

Met to no burning point
At any day’s encountered dark.

Touched somnolent recall
In monotones, of sun

Of frequent sky
From unfamiliar weather

Taught sudden modes
To quick, divergent light.

Informed astonishment of answer

In ear grown conchoid Struck to resonance.

Better known today, because of his fiction, is Blish’s interest in music. He once wrote a story in which Richard Strauss comes back to life. Only slightly less impressive is what Blish did about Richard Strauss in VAPA. He published some fifty pages of review and associated materials about one record album containing music by Strauss. In the late 1940’s RCA Victor released in this country a 78 rpm album containing four twelve-inch records. They contained with a few cuts the final scenes from “Electra” conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. This was only about forty minutes of music, but it was a tremendous event in that era, before the lp record caused the production of modern operas in uncut, complete form to become commonplace. The 21st Tumbrils, distributed in June 1949, consisted solely of a 32-page review of this album, delving deeply into the background of the music, its Freudian implications, and the Straussian composing methods in general. In the same mailing, Virginia Blish published her translation of the portion of the libretto contained in the Beecham album. As if this weren’t enough, the next mailing provided VAPA members with ten pages of “appendices” to the foregoing: musical quotations to go with the prose and miscellaneous addtional information. I feel quite certain that the “Electra” publishing must have consumed as much time as a short novel would have eaten up. The scholarship that went into it is almost frightening, dealing with this important opera in such depth and detail as nothing known to me in print in professional musicology even today. And it was almost completely wasted, as far as the readership was concerned. Perhaps five or six VAPA members were interested enough in music to be able to make sense of most of what Blish wrote, and I doubt that Blish circulated his accomplishment much outside the organisation, because of copyright problems.

Less rarefied in subject was an essay in the sixth Tumbrils, which went out in January 1946. Francis T. Laney had been propagandising for jazz in FAPA, and Blish thought that Laney was making too much of a kind of music that Blish enjoyed himself. Laney had remarked that jazz fans “are going to listen to the stuff that kicks us and to the devil with the rest of it.” Blish took this as the text for his sermon:

“It assumes that there is no way to judge a work of art - in any artform - except through the personal preference of the individual spectator or auditor, as Mr. Laney agrees in the next line of his essay. Actually it does not make any difference whether this is Mr. Laney’s opinion, and the opinion of millions, or not; it does not happen to be fact. I propose a similar example; millions believe that the world is only as old as Bible concordances make it, a matter of some 8000 years; specialists in the subject know that this estimate is wrong, and very wrong at that. In exactly the same fashion, anyone who is thoroughly familiar with music as an art-form – a field involving vast areas of knowledge outside the emotional twinges of the uninstructed - is aware that there are definite standards of judgement in the weighing of a musical composition, which seldom change regardless of what Mr. Laney or anyone else happens to ‘like’. Unfortunately Mr. Laney does not seem to know what these tastes and measurements are, let alone how they are applied; he has held the mirror of his personal preferences up between himself and music, and naturally cannot see any more therein than what he himself brings to the observing. The mirror itself is the multiplicand of his equation, and has flung back in his face, even in the course of this two-page essay, a whole series of contradictions; it has made it impossible for him to be faithful even to the method he wants to use.... Jazz, like the pulp magazine idiom, continues to forge ahead in any number of directions at once, with the astonishing commercial vitality discoverable in any industry which manufactures a utilitarian product needed in the kitchen or by the kitchen-mechanic. It has about the same artistic standing as Lowndes’ love magazines or the two-in-one corkscrew. The cook may feel that the corkscrew is a very useful object and one hell of a lot nicer to have around than an Epstein bust, regardless of superficial similarities between the two objects. Mr. Laney, in his turn; prefers Jazz.”

Despite the frightening thoroughness with which he sometimes considered a topic, Blish also had the knack of putting into compact and plain form quite difficult matters, when he felt in the mood. For instance, the fiction of James Joyce’s later years. I haven’t seen anywhere a better brief explanation of the reasons for its difficulties than a mailing comment in the 13th Tumbrils, in the September 1947 VAPA mailing:

“As for why a committee is needed to explicate Finnegan properly: Joyce spoke fluently every major language, including Russian, Norwegian, Latin, Greek, and Chinese. It had smatterings of other languages, including Sanskrit. He was a medical school graduate, with a continuing interest in the sciences. He had a good tenor voice and knew music from the technical as well as the listener’s side. And so on; he was a flabbergastingly erudite man and evidenced an eidetic memory. He used everything he knew in writing the last novel, and the reader, lacking both Joyce’s original information and the knowledge of where and how he used it in writing the book, is at a considerable disadvantage in explicating it. If you have on your committee another person who speaks fourteen languages - Pound say – then your language problem is pretty well solved; but most normal scholars rarely speak more than two languages well, so that’s seven people necessary for your committee right there. Then, philology is a special science, rarely combined with, say, knowledge of music, in the same person. Two more committee members. And does anybody in the room know Dublin well enough to tell us which church in that city is known as St.-George-The-Greek, and on which street it is located? No? Well, we’ll have to find one - and ask him if Eccles Street in Chapelizod runs as far as the house number 1132, while you’re at it, and if so, whether or not the house is still there.”

Then there were the occasional light-hearted moments in Tumbrils, not many of them, but worth the hunt. One page in the 16th Tumbrils, distributed in July 1948, would be a good candidate for reprinting intact someday, provided copyright permission can be obtained. Entitled “Bloody Pulp Stories”, it takes the hero in a few hundred words through the pulp art forms of the sea story, African adventure, gothic mystery, sport epic, and horse opera, ending with the final section for which the reader was supposed to supply his own technicalities because “we’ve had a bad day”:

Maren looked at Fenwick, the ________ standing in her ________.

He brushed her ___________ gently with his, and took her little _______________ in his huge one.

Don’t be _____________, darling, he _______________ softly.

This could go on and on. Tumbrils had splendid Eric Frank Russell articles, on Fortean theories and racism in science fiction; an extended series by Blish on the art of prosody that beats all hollow the explanations you read in college literature books; more musical material, like a long explanation of Vanguard Records, the fan-directed commercial recording firm, and an extensive commentary on Peter Grimes; a whole barrage of articles, comments, and replies devoted to another of Blish’s favourites, Ezra Pound; philosophising about the apa phenomenon in general and FAPA in particular; morsels of information about such recondite subjects as the art of silk-screening and a fantasy by James Fenimore Cooper; and, as the advertisements always say today, much more. A big anthology from Tumbrils is needed; until someone gets the ambition to publish one, keep your eyes open for the few surviving VAPA mailings, in case one should be offered for sale.

Last revised: 1 March, 2006

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