Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1 (1907-1949): Learning Curve


Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) is generally considered the greatest American SF writer of the 20th century. A famous and bestselling author in later life, he started as a navy man and graduate of Annapolis who was forced to retire because of tuberculosis.  A socialist politician in the 1930s, he became one of the sources of Libertarian politics in the USA in his later years. His most famous works include the Future History series (stories and novels collected in The Past Through ...

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Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) is generally considered the greatest American SF writer of the 20th century. A famous and bestselling author in later life, he started as a navy man and graduate of Annapolis who was forced to retire because of tuberculosis.  A socialist politician in the 1930s, he became one of the sources of Libertarian politics in the USA in his later years. His most famous works include the Future History series (stories and novels collected in The Past Through Tomorrow and continued in later novels), Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Given his desire for privacy in the later decades of his life, he was both stranger and more interesting than one could ever have known. This is the first of two volumes of a major American biography. This volume is about Robert A. Heinlein's life up to the end of the 1940s and the mid-life crisis that changed him forever.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780765319609
  • Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
  • Publication date: 8/17/2010
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 624
  • Product dimensions: 6.48 (w) x 11.04 (h) x 1.32 (d)

Meet the Author

William Patterson lives in San Francisco, California.

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Robert A. Heinlein



Butler, Missouri, has been the county seat and market town for Bates County since the resettlement of the "dark and bloody ground" after the Civil War. Eighty miles southeast of Kansas City, in 1907 it was in its third decade of sustained growth and had achieved a kind of stability that let its residents—most of them—enjoy what is now seen as a golden age of America, though in October of that year they were in for another depression, as debilitating as the savage depression of 1893.

Both the Heinlein and Lyle families were well established in Butler. Rex Ivar Heinlein and Bam Lyle Heinlein grew up there (though Rex's father, Samuel Edward Heinlein, was a traveling salesman working out of Kansas City), and they began dating when both were attending Butler's Academy (the local equivalent of a college). Rex enlisted for the Spanish-American War, and when he came back, sick and "on a shutter," as family lore has it,1 they were married in November 1899.

The couple immediately moved into Bam's parents' house—a common practice in the days before installment credit contracts brought the purchase of a house within the range of newlyweds. Extended families were the rule, and houses were built to accommodate generations living under the same roof. Even so, the Lyle ménage must have been crowded: Bam's six-year-old brother, Park, was living at home, and when her older sister, Anna, was widowed, leaving her to support her daughter, Thelma, by teaching, she, too, had gone back home to Butler and to her father's house.

Fortunately, Dr. Lyle's horse-and-buggy medical practice was flourishing; even with the additional people in residence, he was able to indulge in trotting races as a hobby, running a fashionable sulky—a light cart with only a driver's seat—in the annual Bates County Fair, drawn by a half-brother of the famous Dan Patch.

In 1899 Rex Ivar had prospects: he was working as a clerk and bookkeeperin his uncle Oscar Heinlein's dry goods store in Butler, a kind of combination hardware and general store. Uncle Oscar, in his mid-thirties, was unmarried and childless; it was understood that, if he applied himself and worked hard, Rex Ivar might inherit O. A. Heinlein Mercantile one day.2

Rex Ivar and Bam started a family: their first child, a boy, was born on August 15, 1900. They named him Lawrence Lyle Heinlein, honoring grandparents on both sides of the family. On March 25, 1905, another boy was born. They named him Rex Ivar, after his father. A year later, Bam Heinlein became pregnant again.

On July 7, 1907, not-quite-seven-year-old Larry Heinlein was delegated to keep his two-year-old brother, Rex, under control, at least till his father got home from work.3 Bam Lyle Heinlein was upstairs for her lying-in, attended by her father's office partner, Dr. Chastain, since it would have been improper for Dr. Lyle to attend his own daughter. Shortly after 3 P.M., she delivered a fine baby boy. They named him Robert Anson, after her great-grandparents Robert Lyle and Anson S. Wood.

But by 1907 Rex Ivar's prospects in Butler no longer seemed quite so rosy. Like the biblical Jacob, he had served his uncle for seven years, and that was enough. The October stock market crash and Panic of 1907 threw the country into a depression. That winter Rex Ivar decided to give up on Butler and joined his father and uncles (plus aunt Jessie) in Kansas City.

Rex Ivar's father, Samuel Edward Heinlein, had been in Kansas City for some years, working as a traveling salesman for the Kansas-Moline Plow Company. In 1903 he moved to the Midland Manufacturing Company, where his brothers Harvey and Lawrence also got work as salesmen and his sister Jessie was a clerk. In 1906 Samuel Edward was promoted from traveling salesman and assistant manager to full manager for Midland Manufacturing (soon to become Midland Implements, Jobbers of Implements & Vehicles), and with the attendant raise he bought a larger house. In December 1907 Rex and Bam and the three boys moved into his father's house. Rex Ivar, too, started out as a traveling salesman for Midland, and Robert remembered being taken several times by his mother to the train station at the foot of Wyandotte (building torn down in 1914) to meet his father returning home from his sales route.4 Soon, however, Midlands promoted him to clerk and cashier, and he was able to rent a small house of his own at 2605 Cleveland.5 Now Rex and Bam felt truly launched in Kansas City.6 They would work hard and strive—and have many more children.

Robert Anson was an easy baby for his mother. She later said he gave no trouble and always entertained himself.7 Robert later recalled that he was fedon Eagle Brand condensed and sweetened milk, rather than breastfed like the rest of the children.8 No explanation for this has survived. Sometimes it just happens that lactation does not start.

Robert's infancy cannot have been easy for him, though: a middle child, between the older boys and the new babies that came one by one, he was outcompeted for his mother's attention. He said on several occasions that he was a stammerer as a young man, and stammering is often associated with family disturbances during the time when a child is learning to speak, roughly from about ages two through five—for Robert, that was from 1909 through 1912.9 Bam seems to have preferred her father's day-to-day care during her pregnancies (there are no records of perinatal doctoring or midwifery), and she spent a great deal of time in her father's house in the early days.

A baby girl, Louise, arrived on February 27, 1909. In 1910 Midland failed and went out of business. In 1911 brothers Samuel and Harvey Wallace Heinlein put the Heinlein family's expertise to work and set up their own company—Heinlein Brothers, Agricultural Implements—across the street from the old Midlands site. Rex Ivar was their clerk-cashier.10

He was thirty-one years old; he was also sickly and had a series of operations during Robert's childhood. Work, church, and politics left very little time to spend with the family. When Bobby was five years old, he noticed unusual tension in the house; he later found out his father had received word from a local doctor that he had only three months to live—a false alarm, it turned out.11

The children shared two bedrooms, with the smallest children in a crib in the parents' bedroom. Nor were there enough beds to go around. Heinlein recalled as an adult that he slept on a pallet on the floor for years, in a constant state of amiable warfare with baby sister Louise, "a notorious pillow-swiper (with nine in the family, pillows were at a premium) clear back when she pronounced the word pillow as 'pidduh.'"12

As is common in large families, the older children had to help raise the younger. Bobby adored his oldest brother, Lawrence, but not brother Rex. Rex was only two years older, but gave himself privileges Bobby did not appreciate. A family anecdote from about 1911 or 1912 illustrates the problem: Rex came running in to their mother complaining—tattling—that Bobby was standing by the curb and saying hello to everybody who came along, and Rex didn't approve of that.13 Rex continued trying to raise his brother for a very long time, and this was a source of strain between them as they grew older.

On September 10, 1912, another boy was born, Jesse (later called "Jay")Clare, named for his Aunt Jessie. Then Rose Elizabeth on July 23, 1918, named apparently for the paternal and maternal grandmothers, Rose Adelia Wood and Elizabeth Johnson (much as Robert Anson had been named for the grandfathers). Mary Jean, arriving on Christmas Day in 1920, rounded out the family at seven children. Bam Heinlein was forty-one years old.

Until 1914 Bam and the children went by train to live with Dr. Lyle in Butler during summers and holidays. There she and the children could get out from under many of the pressures and privations of their life in Kansas City and Bam could let the children run (relatively) free in the cleaner, rural environment. Rex Ivar was bound to his desk in Kansas City, joining them when he could get away—weekends occasionally; a full week when possible. (In 1909 he had taken a temporary job with a bank in Butler while Bam was pregnant with Louise.)14

Young Bobby seems to have been a particular favorite of Dr. Lyle's, and the affection was certainly reciprocated; Dr. Lyle built a special seat in his sulky for the boy, so he could accompany him on his medical rounds. Dr. Lyle did not shield the realities from the boy: outside the very largest and most advanced hospitals, medical practice consisted of iodine and aspirin, and encouraging people to heal themselves.15 Years later, Robert remembered seeing Dr. Lyle burn and bury his instruments after an infectious disease case, possibly anthrax.16

Dr. Lyle also taught Bobby to play chess at age four. As Dr. Lyle died in August 1914, when his grandson had just turned seven years old, these incidents must have made a very deep impression on him. Heinlein was to take Dr. Lyle as his pattern for all the American frontier virtues of intellectual range and toughness, patriotism, and pragmatic morality in his fictional portrait of Lazarus Long's grandfather, Dr. Ira Johnson, in Time Enough for Love (1973) and To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987).

But Kansas City was home, more and more. The Heinleins had an almost proprietary, family interest in Swope Park, since an uncle Ira (who had married Bobby's Aunt Jessie) worked for the city, and he drew for his own amusement a detailed map locating every rock and shrub in the park (he also achieved renown for collecting a large ball of twine).17 Later, Heinlein recalled stripping and playing naked in the park, before World War I, pretending he was Tarzan.18 Nakedness became an important sensual experience for him. Years later, for fictional purposes, he recalled:

When I was a boy, ages and ages ago, it got unbearably hot in July and August where we lived—the sidewalks used to burn my bare feet. Houseswere bake ovens even at night—no air conditioning. An electric fan was a luxury most people did not have. Nights when I couldn't sleep because of heat I used to sneak quiet as a mouse and bare as a frog out the back door, being oh so careful not to let my parents hear, and walked naked in the dark, with grass cool on my feet and the soft night breeze velvet on my skin. Heavenly!19

For recreation, the Heinleins had books, family Bible readings, Sunday school, morning church, evening church, prayer meeting, and church socials and entertainments. Bam was a strict churchgoer, and Rex Ivar was a deacon, very serious about his ecclesiastical duties.20 Most of his friends were drawn from church rather than from his business activities. At the age of three, Bobby was already enrolled in the Cradle Roll of the Grand Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church, as a surviving birthday card attests.

The Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) is not the same as the Missouri Synod Methodist churches more familiar in the rest of the country—or in the rest of Missouri, for that matter. Neither the Missouri Synod Lutherans, commonplace elsewhere, nor Catholics were present in any sizable numbers in Bates County, where Bam had grown up. The predominant sects were the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Baptists, and the MEC, in two synods, the other denominating itself as MEC South. The congregation had split in the Civil War along Abolitionist/pro-slavery lines and had never merged back together. Abolition was a minority sentiment in Missouri, a slave state because of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, but that was the side the Lyles and the Heinleins were on.

The Heinleins stayed with the Methodist Episcopal Church, moving their membership from Grand Avenue to the Phoenix Park MEC when they moved to 2605 Cleveland in 1910. Early in 1914 the family moved again, and took their church membership to the Martha Slavens Memorial MEC for most of Bobby's youth. He was thus, as he had remarked on several occasions, raised Methodist, in the strict 1904 Discipline—though he also called himself an "outstanding failure" of Martha Slavens Memorial Church, which he characterized (sardonically) as a "soul-saving institution."21 But it was a success in at least one way: the family's MEC was Abolitionist and antiracist, and so was he.

In addition to church, the Heinleins were also active in local politics. They were a "mixed marriage," as Bam was Republican while Rex Ivar was a Democrat, but their political activities were Democrat, at a time when Democratic Party politics in Kansas City almost necessarily meant the Pendergast political machine.

Jim Pendergast had been alderman of the city's river-bottom First Ward since 1892, and in the second decade of the new century was one of the principal controllers of the city's political machine, which could be characterized as a relatively benign version of New York's Tammany Hall.22

Alderman Jim Pendergast died in 1911, leaving his organization in the hands of his much younger brother, Tom. Rex Ivar was one of Tom Pendergast's Joe Doakeses, who helped administer the organization. By 1927 Rex worked his way up to the minor patronage job of Collector (a low-level city office).

Most people remember only fragments and images of their life before the emotional watershed of puberty, but Heinlein's recollections of his early childhood were sharp and thoughtful. His continuous stream of memory starts at the age of five, in 1912. He remembered that year playing the part of Captain Miles Standish in a school pageant—undoubtedly Sunday school—and "thot it was dreadful to have to carry a musket to church."23 He recalled with great pleasure his first ride in an automobile—at a breathtaking seventeen miles per hour. His fascination with the stars had started even earlier: his brother Lawrence took him out in the yard one night to see the 1910 apparition of Halley's Comet.24 Bobby was three years old. Heinlein remembered Lawrence patiently explaining a lunar eclipse to him in 1912,25 and the understanding—at the age of five—gave him his first of what, by inference from his later remarks on the subject, must have been an epiphany—an emotion of awe and wonder and intellectual exaltation.

That same year he remembered the Titanic incident (1912) as awe-inspiring: "I remember so sharply the extras about it, and my own awe and lack of understanding—I had never seen water bigger than the Missouri River."26 A little while later, he saw one of the last performances of Buffalo Bill's traveling circus. "He looked like Mark Twain with a goatee,"27 Robert remembered.

An incident witnessed on a family outing in Swope Park in 1912 stayed with him for the rest of his life. He would take it out of memory and turn it over in his mind again and again, examining it with wonder:

A young couple was walking along a set of railroad tracks that cut through the park in those days when the woman got her heel caught in a switch—a nuisance, until they heard a train whistle approaching at speed. Another young man—the newspapers later said he was a tramp—stopped to help them get free. As the train bore down on them, the husband and the tramp struggled to get the woman free and were struck, all of them. The wife and the tramp were killed instantly, the husband seriously injured.

Why did he do it? Not the husband, who was, after all, simply (simply!) doing his duty by his wife—but the tramp, who had no personal stake in their welfare and could have jumped aside, even at the last minute, to save himself. Why did he do it? wondered little Bobby and then adolescent Bobby—and so, repeatedly, did Midshipman Bob and politician Bob and adult Robert, understanding a bit more, a bit differently, every time he looked at it.

An artist works in images and articulates images even when he can't necessarily articulate the meaning. This incident became a core image for him, one that showed him in a way beyond words what it means to be a human being. At the end he still could not articulate it. All he could say about it was: "This is how a man dies. This is how a man lives!"28 And that was enough. It was in images Heinlein worked, and while we can recognize that unnamed tramp most obviously in the end sequences of "Gulf" and Starship Troopers, his example formed the core of Heinlein's understanding of what it meant to be a self-responsible being, giving back to those around you, and thus was a shaping influence on Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress—three books that transcended genre and gave Heinlein an important place in the lives of his readers.

Copyright © 2010 by William H. Patterson, Jr.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 11

1 The Heinleins of Butler, Missouri 17

2 Growing Up, Kansas City 24

3 A Jazz Age Teenager 33

4 Plebe Summer 48

5 Plebe Year 61

6 Youngster Year 74

7 Second Class Year 87

8 First Classman 97

9 Frying Pan and Fire 110

10 New York State of Mind 121

11 Robert and Uncle Ernie 126

12 Leslyn MacDonald 144

13 Swallowing the Anchor 158

14 Baptism of Fire 173

15 Party and Shadow Party 185

16 Party Animal 201

17 The Next Thing 214

18 And the Next 224

19 Not Quite Done with Politics 236

20 Out and About: The Long, Strange Trip 252

21 Expanding Horizons 271

22 "And put aside childish things..." 293

23 "Do with thy heart what thy hands find to do..." 306

24 Keeping On 324

25 Stabilizing, Somewhat 338

26 Dangerous New World 352

27 Settling In 371

28 Writing Factory 393

29 Separation. Anxiety 411

30 Also on the Road 433

31 Once More, Dear Friends 448

32 Fresh Starts 458

Acknowledgments 475

Appendix A: Family Background 479

Appendix B: Campaign Biography 493

Notes 495

Index 595

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  • Posted September 17, 2010

    Heinlein in Context

    Robert A. Heinlein stands at the pinnacle of science fiction, one o the "Big Three" along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Heinlein is a polarizing figure within fandom, yet except to a few, very little was known about a deeply private man.

    Today biographies are often tell all books determined to soil their subjects with every misdeed in order to bring them down or are ghost written fluff pieces that reveal little. This biography is neither.

    While it is evident that Patterson is a fan of Heinlein's writings, he makes no effort to apologize or hide the warts of Heinlein's life. And with good reason. Patterson lays out the experiences that shaped Heinlein and provided him with the building blocks of his writing career, The Learning Curve subtitle of the Biography.

    The other subtitle of the biography, In Dialogue with His Century, lays out a second thread of exploration and discovery that winds throughout the biography. The effects of events throughout the US and the world that impacted not just Heinlein but society.

    The result is a reveal of a man who was not a god on a pedestal, but a complex human being who engaged the world and gave back more than he received.

    10 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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