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William Tenn's Influence on American Popular Culture
An Appreciation, by Laurie Mann
One of our Guests of Honor, Phil Klass, also known as the satiric science fiction writer William Tenn, has been known to, well, exaggerate. Just a tad. But he didn't write the title of this piece. Honestly. Phil's reach into popular culture extends a little further than you might think.
First, a little background. Phil was born in London in 1920. As he describes his parents, "They had a marriage-long fight because my father was a socialist and my mother was an imperialist." The Klass family emigrated to the U.S. during the '20s. Phil grew up in New York City and read science fiction ("intellectual pornography," as he called it in those days), but had no idea that fandom existed. After military service during World War II, he took to writing fiction during the lengthy commute to his day job at Bell Labs in New Jersey.
Phil wrote voraciously in many genres: science fiction, mystery and romance. He had different pen names for each genre. When his fiction started to sell, it was his science fiction that sold first and most often. Soon, Phil Klass was much better known as the science fiction writer, William Tenn. He sold over 60 stories in about 20 years. Theodore Sturgeon was his agent (and that of other up-and-coming writers like Damon Knight and James Blish). Sturgeon introduced Phil to fandom in the late '40s. At first, people thought William Tenn was a new pen name for Lewis Padgett. But, soon, Phil was making the convention circuit in person, as he relates in his essay elsewhere.
Tenn's short fiction has recently been collected by NESFA Press and published as Immodest Proposals and Here Comes Civilization. Unlike much science fiction from the '50s, the Tenn stories are quite fresh. Most of his stories are societal and business satires, demonstrating that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Phil is probably fortunate to have written most of his professional fiction under a pseudonym. There is another Phil Klass out there who writes about things out-of-this world. Philip J. Klass is an academic, about the same age as our Phil Klass, who writes to debunk UFO sightings. As a result, some people confuse the science fiction writer with the anti-UFOlogist. The TV talk show host David Susskind once wanted the two Phils to debate UFOs on his show, with William Tenn taking the "pro" position to Philip J.Klass's "con." Our Phil declined. To this day, checks or invitations to speak are sometimes sent to the "wrong" Phil Klass.
Phil is also part of a literary dynasty of sorts. Phil's wife, Fruma, has published SF poetry and received an honorable mention in the Writers of the Future contest. His younger brother, Mort Klass, was an anthropologist who wrote anthropological textbooks (Ordered Universes: Approaches to the Anthropology of Religion) and the occasional work of SF (Earthman's Burden). Mort's daughter, Judy, has written science fiction short stories and a Star Trek novel. Another daughter, Perri, has written very successful non-fiction about the life of a physician. Their brother, David, has written screenplays for movies like Kiss the Girls. Phil's sister-in-law, Sheila Solomon Klass, writes juvenile non-fiction. His sister, Fran Klass, is not a writer, but is active in the arts as a painter.
Phil isn't just a writer. He has edited several anthologies, notably Children of Wonder in 1953. He was one of the first editors to anthologize now-classic stories like "That Only a Mother" by Judith Merrill and "Born of Man and Woman" by Richard Matheson. Phil showed himself to be an editor of excellent taste.
During the '50s and early '60s, Phil and his wife Fruma lived in Greenwich Village. They got to know the writers living in the city at the time, folks like Robert Silverberg and Harlan Ellison. He has many amusing stories about the foibles of writers who lived in New York City in those days.
He helped many young writers. Daniel Keyes, who wrote the wonderful "Flowers for Algernon," was a friend of Phil's. Daniel told Phil that an editor wanted him to change the ending of "Flowers" to a happy ending. Phil is reported to have said, "If you change one word of that story, I'll go break the editor's kneecaps." Keyes did not change the ending. The story was extremely well-received, won a Hugo and a Nebula and received a literate translation to the big screen.
During the '60s, '70s and '80s, Phil was a professor of English at Penn State. Dozens of his students went on to be writers and thousands more continued to be readers. Many of his former students, including Kevin Riley, Eva Whitley and Bill Jensen, are active in fandom to this day. During the late '70s, while living in State College, Phil and Fruma welcomed their daughter into the family. Adina has attended Penn College and ran baby-sitting for years at Pittsburgh's local science fiction convention Confluence (a lovely, small convention which Phil always attends in late July!).
It was while at Penn State that Phil may have made his most well-known contribution to popular culture.
No, he did not wander through the Pennsylvania wilderness with a sweatband, guns and ammo, mumbling incoherently and shooting at anything that moved. But one of Phil's students was David Morrell. David wrote a number of novels over the years, including one called First Blood. First Blood featured a dark protagonist named Rambo who became a vigilante, later made famous by Sylvester Stallone. Morrell wrote in a later edition of First Blood: "...if not for the CBS Evening News, if not for Rimbaud, my wife, and the name of an apple, if not for Philip Klass and my determination to be a fiction writer, a recent edition of the Oxford English Dictionary wouldn't have cited this novel as the source for the creation of a word."
Phil's teaching and writing will continue to influence generations of readers and writers. Talk to Phil at Noreascon 4 there may be a little Rambo in you too.