By Bud Webster
Still I Persist in Wondering
Always I have welcomed the sound of the night wind moving, as the leaves are passing on their secrets and sometimes falling, but falling lightly, easily, because their time to fall is come. Dressed in high colors, they fall to the day winds too this time of year, this autumn season. The smell of earth mold is spice on the tongue. I catch scent of apples ripening, windfalls rich-rotten pleasuring the yellow hornets. Rams and he-goats are mounting and crazy for it — O this time of year! They fall to the day winds echoing the sunlight, the good bright leaves, and that's no bad way to fall. — from "The Night Wind"
Edgar Pangborn (1909-1976) was already 42 years old when his first sf story, "Angel's Egg," appeared in the June 1951 Galaxy, but don't think for a minute that he'd been twiddling his literary thumbs all that time. Nay, hence, and get that idea right outta your mind. By the time that famous story was published, he'd been a working pro for 21 years. Under the pseudonym Bruce Harrison, his first novel, A-100: A Mystery Story, was published by Dutton in 1930 when he was, himself, 21. He freelanced until he went into the Army Medical Corps in 1940, then took a two-year break from things authorial after WWII ended.
His time pre-1930 wasn't ill-spent, either. In fact, it had a significant impact on his later writing: he studied musical composition at Harvard (at the age of 15!), and later at the New England Conservatory, although he never got a degree from either institution. Whatever his music may (or may not) have been like I have no way of knowing, but the influence of rhythm, harmony, melisma and dynamics on his novels and stories is undeniable.
(I'll take this moment to mention that although Pangborn never really discussed his musical training, neither, apparently, did he give it up. 27 years after his death in 1976, a large number of his compositions were found in the attic of the house where he'd lived, including not only chamber music but symphonic works as well. There's a project underway to convert them to MIDI files and make them available for the listener. Get behind me in line.)
Pangborn was, first and foremost, a humanist. Not in the Campbellian way (as Eric Frank Russell and Christopher Anvil were, for example) with bright and crafty humans winning out over stupid, hide-bound aliens every time, but in the sense that his writing addresses human concerns and aspirations. Writing in The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (ed. James Gunn, Viking 1988), Edgar Chapman says of Pangborn, "In general Pangborn's SF is distinguished by an urbane and sometimes poetic style, depth of characterization, and a mature and compassionate humanism."
In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (St. Martin's Press 1993), co-editor John Clute more or less concurs, albeit with a mild caveat, when he writes of Pangborn's 1966 novel The Judgment of Eve which, he contends,
...represents the deepest of [Pangborn's] frequent descents into distinctly uneasy bombast. When, however, he was able to control himself — the early novels, most of Davy, and most of the stories in Good Neighbors and Other Strangers sidestep these pitfalls — the inherent though sometimes self-consciously rural decency of his view of life won through.
Like Clifford Simak, Pangborn was a pastoralist, but without Simak's occasionally awkward phrasing and with a broader literary palette with which to paint his portraits. In the headnote for Pangborn's "The Red Hills of Summer" in his anthology Another Part of the Galaxy (Fawcett 1966), editor Groff Conklin wrote:
One of the reasons I am so fond of "Red Hills of Summer" is that — as in all of Edgar Pangborn's fiction, science or otherwise — the people are genuine human beings, vividly real. Pangborn's truly novelistic talent for character, which I think is a kind of artist's empathy for his puppets, is particularly well developed in this tale....
Conklin's comments echo those of Clute and Chapman, and with the authority not of the lit-crit, but of the guy who signs checks made out to the writer. He used three of Pangborn's stories over the years, including one — "Pick-Up for Olympus" in The Supernatural Reader (edited with wife Lucy, Lippincott 1953) — which was previously unpublished, one of only a half-dozen original stories that Conklin would buy in his 22-year career.
Nor was Conklin the only anthologist who valued Pangborn: Terry Carr gave us no fewer than four stories in his Universe series, including the exquisite "The Night Wind;" Roger Elwood published five, one each in his four excellent Continuum books and another in his singleton Ten Tomorrows; and this doesn't count the reprints.
What of Pangborn, the man? I've already said he was a serious musician, and that it had an enormous influence on his writing, but why did he drop it almost completely in favor of literature?
Well, his home and family environment may have had its effect as well. His mother, Georgia Wood Pangborn, was herself a writer of ghost stories for the slicks. His father, Harry Levi Pangborn, was not only an attorney, but an editor for Webster's Dictionary. As a kid, Pangborn and his sister, Mary, would write and illustrate their own storybooks, alone and with each other. Mary Pangborn is herself a published writer, so it was natural for him to turn to literature when it came time to choose a career.
Not that it was terribly distinguished at first. Pangborn himself considered most of what he wrote for the pulps (under a number of pseudonyms) hackwork, stuff he cranked out just to make a living. He did that for twenty years, off and on, until he created his first mature work, the aforementioned "Angel's Egg." This remarkable story seemingly came from nowhere. Pangborn simply wasn't known to the reading public as Pangborn, and his combination of style and subject matter was an unusually poetic one, even for Galaxy. It was very well received and has been reprinted at least a couple of dozen times since it first appeared in 1951. Even Damon Knight was impressed:
Edgar Pangborn's first published science-fantasy story was a novelette... whose style and mood were perfectly suited to the story and its narrator — a gently loving old man who offers himself up, in a peculiarly moving kind of self-immolation, to an "angel" from another star. The style is leisurely and reflective; the mood is one of blended sorrow and delight.
One wonders what factors in his background might have molded Pangborn into the somewhat mournful, if optimistic, humanist he must have been to have created the body of work he left behind. Perhaps it was the home-schooling he received until age ten; perhaps it was his training on violin and piano. Maybe it was just a combination of the random arrangement of genetic material and life in New York City in the middle of the Progressive Era. The cause is academic; the result is wondrous and moving.
Like many another writer, especially in the sf/fantasy genre, Pangborn couldn't quite resist the temptation to write connected stories, which brings us to his best-known novel.
I'm Davy, who was king for a time. King of the Fools, and that calls for wisdom. — Davy, first lines.
Now, Pangborn was far from the first writer, in or out of the genre proper, to speculate on what would happen after some cataclysmic event brought the Age of Modern Man to a screeching halt; Mary Shelley's The Last Man was published in 1826, eight years after that other book she wrote that I can never remember the title of. Nor did he write the only fine novel based on that idea. Walter Miller's A Canticle for Liebowitz is a classic example, as are George Stewart's Earth Abides and Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon. I could go on — the list is a long one — but you get the idea. "We all create worlds, and writers of projective fantasy are especially prone to let them grow up on paper," Pangborn wrote in his introduction to Still I Persist in Wondering, a collection of stories issued posthumously that are set in Davy's world. (As a writer of fiction myself, I can understand that and possibly even aspire to it, because it's a rich and fertile ground for almost any kind of treatment.)
Nor was he satisfied with writing only the one. Judgment of Eve and The Company of Glory would follow, as well as about a dozen stories, scattered throughout a future history that spans the late 20th Century (you remember back that far, right?) to 600 years from now.
An atomic war (the author himself, perhaps ironically, calls it a "twenty minute war") does what atomic wars do when left to themselves, and brings down Civilization-As-We-Know-It. Disease and plague spread, the population is reduced to the minimum number required for survival of the race, and a new Dark Age ensues.
Davy, the character, comes along 250 or so years later, born into a country divided into feudal enclaves. Reading and writing are taught, but material from before the war is forbidden except to the priests. Davy writes not in the current manner of the Church, nor in the common speech, but in what he calls "Old-Time style," because it's "...the only language I could have in common with you who may exist and one day read this."
The story itself is told as Davy looks back on his life and accomplishments, in a sort of melancholy wistfulness that briefly recalls (but doesn't ape) Bradbury's small-town ruminations.
And here my meager skills as a critic fail me, because Pangborn's prose is so lovely, so human, that it defies any attempt on my part to describe it adequately. In the long run, it would be simpler for me to hand you a copy of the book and watch as you read it.
This is true with his other work as well. Simak tried to capture the rural expression, Wellman found a similar voicing in the rhythms and cadences of his beloved mountain-folk, but Edgar Pangborn's words sing across the page like stones skipped across a quiet pond. Damon Knight, while apparentl convinced that Pangborn's vision was clouded by what I might call a lack of cynicism, nevertheless paid him the high — if typically lit-crit — compliment of describing his prose style as "...very like the thing that Stapledon was always talking about and never quite managing to convey: the regretful, ironic, sorrowful, deeply joyous — and purblind — love of the world and all in it."
Although Davy is his best-known book, it would be a major error to ignore the others. The post-apocalyptic world of King Davy may be his most sustained work, but all the poetry and pastoral majesty are present in his first sf novel, West of the Sun, as well as A Mirror for Observers. The former tells the story of a small group of humans who crash their spaceship on a planet already populated by two dominant (but co-operative) species; when their rescue arrives, the six decide to remain on Lucifer and continue their Utopian society they built with the "natives."
In A Mirror for Observers (which won the International Fantasy Award in 1955), two Martians become involved in the life of an extraordinary human boy, Angelo Pontevecchio. Angelo is a genius, destined to play a role in Humanity's destiny, either as a major contributor to the mess Earth is in, or to help bring about its ultimate salvation and maturity. As is frequently the case with Pangborn, the two Martians are clearly delineated as Good and Evil; the latter, Abdicator Namir, is of the opinion that in order for the Martian race to survive, Humanity must die, and he sets about influencing Angelo to do just that. The other Martians, considering Namir to be a rogue and an outcast, send the Good One, Observer Elmis, to prevent it from happening.
This is an over-simplification, of course. Pangborn is nothing if not subtle and complex, with layers of subtext going on to conceal that the Mirror of the title is aimed square at Us and not just the society in his book. This is what almost every fiction writer does, especially those who write speculative fiction, but Pangborn's skill is quietly exceptional here, and throughout most of his writing.
One of the gauges of the effect a writer has on his or her colleagues is influence: not just how much, but whom. Peter Beagle has cited him on any number of occasions as a seminal inspiration, and his affection and respect for Pangborn were apparently reciprocated, as he became Pangborn's literary executor upon his death in 1976. No less a monster writer as Ursula K. Le Guin has stated that it was Pangborn who showed her that worthwhile science-fiction stories could be written at all. What a dismal place we would inhabit without The Last Unicorn and The Dispossessed, too.
When Pangborn died in 1976, he left behind a legacy far greater than the number of stories he wrote. He was witty, smart, and he loved people — and the idea of people - with a level of emotion that bordered on passion and which forgave folly. In his forward to Still I Persist in Wondering, a collection which he himself prepared before he died, he evoked all this with only a few (perhaps prophetic) words:
...[It] is comforting to reflect that in a universe of infinite universes, like ours, there must be a good many where things turned out more pleasantly — good Christ, there must even be one where Nixon wasn't re-elected!....It takes a bit of time to build a world....In a universe of infinite universes there must be one where you could keep at it for another fifty or sixty years, or until you got tired. With infinite royalties.
Amen, and so endeth the lesson. A fellow poet once remarked to me upon first reading Davy that it was a shame that Pangborn had never published poetry. He did, though. It's on nearly every page of his books.
As is the usual case, the following bibliography is limited in intent and almost certainly incomplete; as is also the usual case, I welcome corrections and additions.
"Angel’s Egg" — June 1951 Galaxy
"The Singing Stick" — ? 1952 Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine
"Mrrrar!" — July 1953 Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine; also as "Darius".
"Pick-up for Olympus" — The Supernatural Reader, ed. Groff & Lucy Conklin, Lippincott 1953
"The Music Master of Babylon" — November 1954 Galaxy
"Bottle Babe" — June 1956 F&SF
"The Red Hills of Summer" — September 1959 F&SF
"The Naked Man in the Elephant House" — December 1959 Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine; appeared also as "The Ponsonby Case".
"The Wrens in Grampa’s Whiskers" — April 1960 F&SF
"The Good Neighbors" — June 1960 Galaxy
"The Golden Horn" — February 1962 F&SF
"A War of No Consequence" — March 1962 F&SF
"Maxwell’s Monkey" — October 1964 Galaxy
"Wogglebeast" — January 1965 F&SF
"A Better Mousehole" — October 1965 Galaxy
"Longtooth" — January 1970 F&SF
"Mount Charity" — Universe 1, ed. Terry Carr, Ace 1971
"Tiger Boy" — Universe 2, ed. Terry Carr, Ace 1972
"The Freshman Angle" — Ten Tomorrows, ed. Roger Elwood, Fawcett 1973
"My Brother Leopold" — An Exaltation of Stars, ed. Terry Carr, Simon & Schuster 1973
"The World Is a Sphere" — Universe 3, ed. Terry Carr, Random House 1973
"The Company of Glory" — serialized novel, August-October 1974 Galaxy
"The Children’s Crusade" — Continuum #1, ed. Roger Elwood, Putnams 1974
"The Legend of Hombas" — Continuum #2, ed. Roger Elwood, Putnams 1974
"The Night Wind" — Universe 5, ed. Terry Carr, Random House 1974
"The Witches of Nupal" — Continuum #3, ed. Roger Elwood, Putnams 1974
"Harper Conan and Singer David" — Tomorrow Today, ed. George Zebrowski, Unity 1975
"Mam Sola’s House" — Continuum #4, ed. Roger Elwood, Putnams 1975
West of the Sun — Doubleday 1953, Dell 1966, Old Earth 2001
A Mirror for Observers — Doubleday 1954, Dell 1958, Old Earth 2004
Wilderness of Spring — Rinehart & Co. 1958
The Trial of Callista Blake — St. Martin's Press 1961, Dell 1963
Davy — St. Martin's Press 1964, Ballantine 1964, Old Earth 2004
The Judgment of Eve — Simon & Schuster 1966, Dell 1967
Good Neighbors and Other Strangers (collection) Macmillan 1972, Collier 1976
The Company of Glory — Pyramid 1975
Still I Persist In Wondering (collection) Dell 1978
In addition, Pangborn left behind a number of unpublished stories and novels, including an erotic novel set in the "Davy" timeline titled An Atlantean Night's Entertainment. Phil Stephensen-Payne, raconteur, historian and bibliographer extraordinaire, was kind enough to alert me to that one, as well as the following:
"Amateur Snatch" — written in 1934 for Detective Story Magazine .
"Birth of a God" — "sold to Terry Carr for an anthology."
The Boss is Dead — a novel that may or may not have been published; the manuscript says "published in 1935/36" but no trace of it has yet been located.
Hurricane Hill — unpublished mystery novel.
Island of Departure — unpublished novel from the 1960s.
"The Life and the Clay" — his Last Dangerous Visions story.
Light Another Candle — unpublished historical novel, written in the 1970s with his sister, Mary Pangborn.
Miranda— unpublished novel written in 1967.
Poor Devil — unpublished three act play.
The Training of Karen O'Reilly — unpublished novel.
The Voyage of the Fulmar — unpublished novel.
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