After a difficult 36-hour labor, on April 1st, 1942, at seven o’clock in the morning, Samuel Ray Delany, Jr., was born at Harlem Hospital on Lenox Avenue and 138th Street, in New York City’s black ghetto. Because he was cyanotic, there was some suspicion he might be brain damaged.
The youngest of four daughters, Delany’s mother, Margaret Carey Boyd Delany (June 16th, 1916–March 2nd, 1995), was a short, level-headed, intelligent woman — exactly five feet tall — who’d met her husband while she worked for the WPA. For a while, after her marriage to Samuel Delany, Sr., Margaret had worked as a stenotypist. At her husband’s urging, she got her own license as a funeral director, though she never practiced.
Samuel R. Delany, Sr. (May 6th, 1906–October 1st, 1960), was the youngest of ten children in a family of black educators and professionals involved with the black Episcopal college, St. Augustine’s, in Raleigh, North Carolina. In 1923, at age 17, Samuel Ray Delany had followed his older brothers and sisters to New York. After a first marriage at 19 to a young woman named Mary, of which his family generally disapproved, followed by a brief stint owning a haberdashery on 138th Street, he became a successful Harlem undertaker, initially in partnership with an older black man, a Mr. Levy. Delany bought out Levy in 1938, the year of his second marriage, to Margaret, but kept the name of the funeral establishment, Levy & Delany’s, which he moved to 2250 7th Avenue, across and one block up from the old Lafayette Theater (a supermarket by the time of Samuel junior’s childhood; later it would become a church). Often Delany senior said he owed Levy a great debt: “He showed me almost every way possible not to run a successful funeral business!” In a November 1978 talk Delany junior delivered at the Studio Museum of Harlem (“The Necessity of Tomorrows”), he said:
I wonder, with my father dead twenty years now, if the two of them found any irony in the suggestion of the Jew and the Irishman running what, by the middle of the 40s, was considered a rather swell Harlem funeral establishment. At any rate, the irony was misleading. Both were black men. Both owed their ethnic patronymics to the whites who had owned their grandparents, their great-grandparents.
The name Levy & Delany appears in stories by Langston Hughes and other black writers chronicling Harlem in the 1940s and ’50s. Managed by his nephew and several younger business acquaintances, the business persisted — under that name — for more than twenty years beyond Delany-senior’s death at age 54 from lung cancer. A tall, slender, handsome man, the senior Samuel was even-tempered in his work but often angry and anxious with his family. He was talented in both art and music and taught his son to play the violin.
Delany Senior’s own father — young Delany’s grandfather, Henry Beard Delany — had been born in slavery in Georgia in 1857 and was seven in 1865 at the time of emancipation. (The middle name, Ray, which Delany Junior and Senior shared, came from an older brother of Henry Beard’s.) Henry Beard’s memory of the great event was of running excitedly around the house of his Scottish masters, wearing a small apron, which, untied, flapped around him. Along with the other slaves, he shouted, “I’m free! I’m free!” but, inside, he was unsure what “free” meant. Against the law, little Henry Beard had already been taught to read and write by his owners. (Often he would say, “Once emancipation came, we were so busy trying to survive, there would have been no time for me to learn.”) By his death, in 1928, he had become Vice Principal of St. Augustine’s (today we would say Vice Chancellor), and white and black ministers together had elected him the first black suffrage bishop of the Arch Diocese of North and South Carolina. Both W. E. B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington were his friends and oft-times visitors to the college. Activist and entertainers Paul Robeson and Cab Calloway, Nobel Prize winner Ralph Bunche, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Robert Weaver, and singer Marian Anderson were all friends of his children. Delany-senior’s mother, Nan Logan, had been a teacher and eventually Dean of Women at St. Augustine’s, as well as the mother of Henry Beard’s ten children, of which, as we have already said, Delany senior was the youngest.
Margaret’s father, Samuel Hugo Boyd, had been Chief Red Cap at Grand Central Terminal during the twenties and thirties. (Delany Senior had spent some time working as a red cap at Grand Central, where Samuel Hugo, deciding that he was a reliable young man, had brought him home to meet his family.) Traveling about the country in his teens, Samuel Hugo had run an elevator for a while in the Callahan Building in Dayton, Ohio, at the same time as black poet and novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Born in the 1870s, Samuel Hugo was, of course, too young to have any memories of slavery. Frequently he told this story about his slave-born father, however, to his children and grand children. The day emancipation came was a hot one in Virginia. As a boy Samuel Hugo’s father was sitting in a hogshead beside a road with another, older slave for the shade, when a white officer on horseback rode past, reigned up, and called down, “You’re free, old man! You’re free!” The elderly black man leaned forward and declared, “Oh, thank you, sir! Thank you, sir!” The intensity with which the old man expressed it was the first indication Samuel Hugo’s to-be-father had of the significance of the coming transformation for his people. Among the adult Samuel Hugo’s closest friends was Matthew Henson, the black explorer and writer who had accompanied Admiral Peary to the North Pole and who had reached the pole a day before Peary.
Margaret Delany’s mother, Sara Fitzgerald, had followed her own mother, Ophelia Fitzgerald, a fancy pastry cook, from Petersberg, Virginia, to New York City by boat, to work as a maid in 1898, when she turned eighteen. (Sara’s father, Archie Fitzgerald, Jr., a laborer, had died of a stroke, working in the fields in the hot sun, when she was a child.) Sara Ophelia and Samuel Hugo Boyd had been childhood sweethearts in Petersberg. Soon Sara was living in the first house in Harlem open to blacks working for the Germans in the neighborhood — a rooming house on 132nd Street between Seventh and Lenox, owned by a white woman married to a black man, literally around the corner from where her youngest daughter’s family would live, forty years later. (This is not to be confused with the apartment house on 133rd between 5th and Lenox whose white landlords, two years later in 1904, evacuated all the white tenants and moved in single black male laborers, which started protests and even riots in the neighborhood. Some people tried to fence the house in. Often this is cited — incorrectly — as the first house where blacks lived in Harlem.) Samuel Hugo came to New York in 1902. He and Sara were married in 1904. All four Boyd daughters (one died in infancy) were born at home, on Morris Avenue in the Bronx. Born in eighteen-eighty (she lived with Delany’s mother, Margaret, till her death at a hundred-two in 1982), Sara Ophelia Fitzgerald Boyd had her own tales of slavery times, from her mother Ophelia Fitzgerald. The eight-year-old Ophelia had had a cruel master who often punished her unfairly. At one point, when her master was ill in bed and a guest had stopped by to see him, he ordered the little girl to bring the guest a glass of water, but, because she was angry with him, just outside the door, she stopped and spit in the glass, then came in and handed it to the visitor. After the visitor left, the master called the little girl to him. “I saw what you did,” he said. “I want you to know, as soon as I get up out this bed, you will get another whipping!” Well, Sara would comment, with a twinkle that mimed the way her mother had told the tale to her, she just made sure he never got up!
The implication (though neither Sara nor, apparently, her mother had ever confirmed it) was that the little girl had proceeded to poison her white master to escape the coming flogging — for, indeed, coupled with his own illness, the man had died.
“Did she really kill him…?” Sara’s half dozen grandchildren would demand, as indeed Ophelia’s own children had probably demanded in their own childhood.
“A little girl kill a grown man? Oh, I really couldn’t say. I just don’t know!” But when, a month or a year later, they would ask her to retell the tale, Sara Boyd would tell it with the same wicked twinkle. In later years, young Samuel often thought it a particularly interesting story from a woman who would go on to be a much sought-after cook of wedding cakes, fancy pies, charlotte russes, cookies, éclairs, and fine pastries, especially by white clients, both in the south and in the century’s early years in New York City. Another story, this one of his maternal great-grandfather, an ex-slave with brick red hair and freckles, who went without shoes all year long, told how Archie, Sara’s grandfather, had sat on his porch with his bare feet on the railing and a loaded shotgun across his lap, arguing off half a dozen white men, who’d stormed into his yard “looking for a nigger to lynch,” while little Sara and her sister Martha crouched inside the country shack, peeking out under the blue speckled curtain, through the window. But, along with another family lynching story from his father’s family that he made use of in both his fiction (Atlantis: Model 1924) and his non-fiction (“The Semiology of Silence”), these were among the tales that came to Samuel Junior as part of his black heritage.
A bright and out-going child, young Samuel grew up in the two floors over his father’s Harlem funeral parlor on 7th Avenue between 132nd Street and 133rd. When Samuel was four, his mother enrolled him in the Vassar Summer Institute for Gifted Children, at Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, New York. Mother, son, and infant daughter Sara stayed for the six-week summer session, not far from Hopewell Junction, where Samuel Senior had built a modest summer home (four rooms, an attic, and an unfinished cellar), and where each Labor Day, from several years before he was born until Samuel Junior was sixteen, the family held an annual barbeque. An eighty-pound pig was roasted on an outdoor grill throughout the night. The next day upwards of a hundred family and friends would gather to drink and eat barbeque, along with tubs of cole slaw, boiled corn, potato salad, and endless homemade pies, to tell stories and generally enjoy themselves.
When young Samuel was about ten and his younger sister Peggy eight, Margaret went to work as a New York City Public Library clerk. Before the Schomberg Collection of Black Literature received its own building on 135th Street, Margaret Delany was the senior clerk in charge of the Collection and also of the library’s Russian Collection, in their joint home on the second floor of the Countee Cullen branch library on East 125th Street. Later she worked in the Film Department of the newly opened Donnell Branch on 53rd Street, across from the Museum of Modern Art and, in the years just before her retirement, at the St. Agnes branch on Amsterdam Avenue, across the street from where her son now had his own apartment.
The number of Samuels in the family may have encouraged Samuel, Jr., to change his name. Until he was ten, his aunts, uncles, and cousins usually called him Little Sam or even Sambo, to distinguish him from his father, Samuel, and his maternal grandfather, Samuel Hugo. In the summer of 1952, in the first year at his second summer camp, Camp Woodland, Delany gave himself the nickname Chip, which stuck for the rest of his life.
With his sister, Delany attended largely white, private schools (Horace Mann Lincoln, The Dalton School) and went to Sunday school and Sunday services at the black Episcopalian Church, St. Philips, in whose basement, where now he went Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings to choir rehearsal (for a season he was an altar boy), the Broadway cast of Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts had rehearsed with choreographer Frederick Ashton and director John Houseman over the winter of 1933-34.
(Henry Beard died in 1929, a baker’s dozen years before Samuel Junior was born. Samuel Hugo died of stomach cancer on Christmas Eve, 1950, when Samuel Junior was eight.)
Early interests in both science and the arts led Samuel to the Bronx High School of Science, in 1956, where almost immediately he began to write seriously and make friends with others with similar interests.
Delany spent his adolescence writing novels, composing music; and when, in 1954, his family moved from over the funeral parlor on 7 Avenue to Morningside Gardens, at the west edge of Harlem just above Columbia University, he even choreographed several dances at the General Grant Community Center. There, when he was seventeen, he taught remedial reading to an after-school class of Puerto Rican young men — the more remarkable, since he suffered from severe dyslexia, a condition not acknowledged at the time but which had already caused his frustrated parents to retain half a dozen special tutors and even psychotherapists to deal with the discrepancy between his obvious verbal ability and his appalling spelling and writing. Like many bright dyslexics before and since (the condition has plagued a number of writers, including Gustave Flaubert, William Butler Yeats, and Virginia Woolf), Delany was slowly developing strategies to get around it, most of which were, as they had been with these other writers, a matter of endless revisions, endless rewriting.
Shortly after his father’s death in 1960, the eighteen-year-old Delany dropped out of his first year of City College and at nineteen married a high school friend, a talented eighteen-year-old poet, then at NYU, Marilyn Hacker. At their apartment on East 6th Street in the newly named East Village, Delany wrote his first science fiction novel, The Jewels of Aptor — completed when he was nineteen. Working as an editorial assistant at Ace, Hacker had first brought the MS to the editor-in-chief’s attention, saying she had found it in the slush pile. In December 1962, when he was twenty, Ace Books published it. Over the next six years eight more Delany science fiction novels appeared, including a trilogy of novels, today known by their collective title, The Fall of the Towers (1963, ’64, ’65). The trilogy was followed by The Ballad of Beta-2 (1965), Babel-17 (1966), Empire Star (1966), The Einstein Intersection (1967), and the highly acclaimed Nova (1968), two of which — Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection — won Nebula Awards from the Science Fiction Writers of America as best SF novels of their respective years.
The period was not placid, however. In winter of 1963, after a breakdown brought on largely by overwork, Delany spent three weeks in Mt. Sinai mental hospital. The winter following his release, Delany and Hacker entered a three-way relationship with a young man a year their senior from Lakeland, Florida, Bobby Folsum (he was twenty-four). When, at the advent of Folsum’s wife, Darlene Folsum (twenty-eight), the menage broke up, Delany and Folsum took off together to work on shrimp boats in Arransas Pass, Texas, on the Texas Gulf, just south of Corpus Christie. After the briefest attempt by the three to get back together in New York, Folsum returned to Florida (and a twenty-year jail term), and Delany and Hacker separated. Hacker chronicles all this in her sequence of poems, “The Navigators,” included in her first collection, the National Book Award-winning Presentation Piece. The sequence takes its title from the “triple” relationships described among the spaceship navigators in Delany’s sixth novel Babel-17. The affair’s tale takes up the last third of Delany’s Hugo Award-winning autobiography The Motion of Light in Water (1988).
October 18, 1965, on an Icelandic airlines flight, Delany flew to Europe for six months, with a friend, Ron Helstrom, whom he had met during the summer when he’d worked as a header and cook on shrimp boats on the Gulf Coast. Empire Star had been written in New York City over eleven days that August to finance the trip.
After visiting Luxemburg for a week and Paris and Venice for two weeks each, Delany, Helstorm, and a third friend Bill Baluziac, whom they’d met on the plane over, spent most of the next four months in Greece, first in the Cyclades, then on the mainland, while Delany worked on his novel The Einstein Intersection (1967: then called A Fabulous, Formless Darkness). By way of Munich, London (where he met fellow SF novelist John Brunner and the writer/editor Michael Moorcock), Rheims, and Luxemburg, Delany arrived back in New York on April 15, 1966.
Hacker and Delany separated and rejoined several more times over the next eight years. Delany was gay, and while this was not a central node of tension between him and his wife, certainly it contributed to what tensions there were. During this time, Hacker pursued several relationships, most importantly with a young half-Native American poet named Link (Thomas Luther Cupp, 1947–1973). Link had been an adolescent protege of the San Francisco poet Jack Spicer and, when he and Hacker began their friendship, was the twenty-one year-old lover of twenty-eight year-old poet and critic Hunce Voelcker. For a while Hacker and Link lived together in San Francisco, on Perine Place. Soon Link began a relationship with a young man from Georgia half a dozen years his senior, George Ponder, and Hacker moved into a flat two houses away at 1067 Natoma Street, upstairs from a middle-aged black woman named Helen, who practiced witchcraft.
After becoming a major member of the gay theater collective The Cockettes, during an extended trip to Cambodia in 1974, Link died of cholera and malnutrition; Hacker’s other major relationship during this time was with an older Englishman, the “D. G. B.” of a number of her poems from those years, who first visited San Francisco in 1971 and whom Hacker followed to London at the end of the year.
Shortly after Delany returned from his Greek stay, while he was living with a young baritone, Ron Bowman, at 33 St. Marks Place in New York, on March 11th of ’67, Delany’s ’66 novel Babel-17 won him his first Nebula Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America as best SF novel of its year.
He was not yet twenty-five.
Over the ’66-’67 Christmas/New Year’s season for three weeks Delany returned to London, to see Moorcock, Brunner, Judith Merrill, and meet Thomas M. Disch, J. G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, John Sladek, and Pamela Zoline. Back in New York Delany finished writing his ninth novel, Nova. By June, Bowman broke up the St. Marks Place apartment. During another brief stab at getting back together with Hacker, Delany turned his first published short SF work, a novella, The Star-Pit, into a two-hour radio drama for Baird Searles’s Mind’s Eye Theater, on WBAI-FM, directed by Daniel Landau, in which Delany played the main character. With special effects by a young musician, Susan Schweers, the radio drama premiered during the Thanksgiving week of 1967, just after Delany himself had joined a commune, centered around a rock group he’d been working with, The Heavenly Breakfast, composed of Steve Wiseman, Schweers, and Bert Lee (later of the Central Park Sheiks) and Delany himself. By now Hacker had gone to San Francisco to rejoin Link.
The Star Pit was broadcast annually for more than ten years over WBAI-FM in New York City, and even today, on Jim Freund’s Hour of the Wolf, gets broken out every few years as an exemplar of ambitious radio drama.
A dozen years later, the notebooks from this period yielded Delany his third nonfiction book Heavenly Breakfast: An Essay on the Winter of Love, which — especially since its 1997 republication by Bamberger Books — has become a popular teaching text in universities around the country, for classes dealing with the sixties and alternative life styles.
Just after the Heavenly Breakfast disbanded Nova appeared in the spring of ’68. Longtime SF critic Algis J. Budrys wrote in a 1968 Galaxy review:
Samuel Delany, right now, as of this book, Nova, not as of some future book or some accumulated body of work, is the best science fiction writer in the world, at a time when competition for that status is intense.
The book had been completed in the two months after Delany turned twenty-five. He was now 26, though many people, including Budrys, were under the impression he was several years older. Delany won two more Nebula Awards for short fiction. “Aye, and Gomorrah…” (1967) won the award in 1968 for best SF short story, the same year as The Einstein Intersection won for best novel. Two years later, “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” (1968) won Delany his fourth Nebula while he was living in San Francisco, again with Hacker. By then the story had also won a Hugo Award. Both were included in Delany’s first short story collection, Driftglass (1971).
The end of 1968 and the beginning of 1969 saw Delany’s first two experiments in pornography. Written shortly before he took off from New York to San Francisco, the first was a novel called Equinox, completed in September ’68 but not published until 1973 (under the title Tides of Lust, by Lancer Books). A night-long critical session over the manuscript with Michael Perkins convinced Delany that a great deal more, however, might be done with the genre than he’d tried so far. Delany delivered his talk “About 5,750 Words” at that year’s Christmas meeting in New York of the Modern Language Association and, on New Years’ Eve, flew to San Francisco to rejoin Marilyn. His major project, at that time, was his novel Dhalgren, but, after stalling on the first chapter in the west coast city, Delany directed a production of Jean Genêt’s Les Bonnes, in French, with William Alvin Moore as Claire, Gerald Fabian as Solange, and Marilyn Hacker as Madame. The production played for three weekends in a theater space Delany and Hacker set up in their front hall (with Link running lights): Le Théatre du sorbet. On opening night, after the show the cast and crew, along with house-mate Paul Caruso, served the audience lemon sherbet and coffee. Besides directing, Delany designed and executed the unit set: the elaborate chairs, tables, fireplace, windows, a vanity, and wall sconces for Madame’s boudoir were elaborately drawn with thick black marker on large fragments of white paper, which were stapled to the working chairs and tables the actors used or were hung on the dark gray walls. That audience included many poets and artists then working in the city — among them Robert Duncan, Paul Mariah, Bill Anderson, Knute Stiles, Ebbe Borregaard, Jack Thibeaux, Joanne Kyger, George Stanley, Lewis Ellingham, John Ryan, Deneen Peckinpah (novelist neice of the film director Samuel Peckinpah, whose first novel Delany was instrumental in getting published), Richard Brautigan, Nemi Frost, and James Alexander — with Gerald Fabian faithfully fulfilling Genêt’s exhortation that in every performance the set be covered with colorful bouquets of real flowers, supplied to Fabian from the weekly discards of a florist friend across the river in Berkeley. Relieved by cascades of yellow, blue, white, and purple flowers — as well as a pair of startling red rubber gloves — the stark black and white sets and costumes were highly effective. After three weeks, the production moved to a church basement theater, where it ran on weekends for another three months. Finally it was recorded and broadcast (still in French) over KPFA-FM, in Berkley. Another theatrical project from the same period was a ten-minute super-eight-millimeter film, Tiresias, in both color and black and white, which Delany wrote and directed with Robert Mooney filming (the single copy has since been lost). Again it starred Hacker, Moore, Fabian, and Mooney’s then-lover Peter Rooney.
Dhalgren was still undergoing a great deal of conceptual reorganization at this time; so, from March through the end of June, with many of Perkins’s comments in mind, Delany wrote out in longhand a draft of a pornographic novel, Hogg, filling most of four notebooks, before plunging into the reconceived Dhalgren that summer. Despite the subscription date at its end, Hogg’s first draft was finished perhaps days before the June 27th Stonewall riots in New York.
In an interview article in the L.A. Times, by Anthony Miller, Delany has described Hogg: “It’s the last pre-Stonewall gay novel written in America… It’s very much a book that comes out of the anger of a gay man who wants to tear the whole thing down. Once Stonewall comes, once there was a concerted gay-liberation movement and there was a way for these disruptive energies to channel in more constructive ways, I don’t think I could have thought Hogg at all.”
The book was rewritten several times over the next few years, though it was not changed substantially in terms of plot. It was only published twenty years later, however, in 1995, by Fiction Collective Two’s Black Ice Books.
In the last years of the sixties and throughout the seventies, Delany wrote and published a series of critical essays on science fiction, which turned on the idea of science fiction not as a particular kind of text, but rather as a discourse — in his words, “a way of reading, a way of making certain texts make sense.” At the same time, his critique was deeply grounded in the material reality of the genre: printing practices in pulp magazines, editorial conventions and history, biographical occurrences in the lives of writers, editors, and the particularly committed readers who put on SF conventions and published SF fanzines since the thirties. On the strength of these early essays, Delany and Hacker were invited by Paperback Library to put together a journal on the model of the highly successful New American Review, then out from Signet Books. Between 1970 and ’71, four issues of Quark appeared, before the publisher Hy Steerman withdrew his support. On his return to New York, Delany wrote two issues of Wonder Woman comics for D.C., the second of which was the first of a six-issue story arc. Changes in administrative policy made Delany lose interest in the project, when D.C. scuttled his next five story outlines.
Delany essays from the period that received particular attention included “About 5,750 Words” (1968), The American Shore (1975) — a book-length essay on a single SF short story (“Angouleme,” by Thomas M. Disch), a study which to many SF scholars seemed a paragon of involuted theoretical tortuosity, but still stands in the landscape of SF criticism today, a daunting crag to be side-stepped by some or to be scaled by others — as well as an examination of Ursula K. Le Guin’s seventh novel, “To Read The Dispossessed” (1976), its title a play on Louis Althusser’s book-length essay, “Lire Le Capital.”
In 1972, during a year-long stint living at the Hotel Albert back in New York’s Greenwich Village, Delany made another film, The Orchid. Produced by Barbara Wise, in 16-millimeter, it was 35 minutes long, in sound and color. Again with Gerald Fabian in the lead role, Delany shot the film over twelve days in February, with a cast of approximately fifteen. The production employed the Wise’s then-17-year-old son, David Wise, as cameraman. Already a talented film-maker, David’s work had been shown at the Museum of Modem Art. Delany edited The Orchid in his room on the tenth floor of the Albert Hotel. It was finished that summer, with an original score by John Herbert MacDowell. Primiered at the World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago that September (Delany himself was not present), it caused a riot. Outraged fans tried to shout the film off and even pulled down the screen.
On Christmas Eve, at Marilyn’s entreaty, Delany flew to London, again to get back together with his wife, who by then was running a successful rare-book business with her partner John Sims in the Kings’ Road Market in London’s Chelsea. In April of that year, at an SF convention in Bristol, their daughter was conceived. In London Delany rewrote Dhalgren one more time and, at Hacker’s insightful urging, added the last chapter, “The Anathēmata.” Delany also wrote (or better, constructed from his journals) his 30-thousand-word essay “Shadows,” published in two issues of the journal Foundation. As well he rewrote Hogg. In the ten months before and just after the birth of their daughter Iva Alyxander Hacker-Delany at Queen Charlotte’s Maternity Hospital in Hammersmith, he also wrote Trouble on Triton.
Shortly after this time, Delany took an active part in the Women in Science Fiction Symposium (published 1975), organized by Jeff Smith, with Joanna Russ, Louise White, Kate Wilhelm, Suzy McKee Charnas, Ursula K. Le Guin, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Vonda McIntyre, James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), Virginia Kidd, and others.
Almost a year after Iva’s birth, just before Christmas of 1974, Delany, Hacker, and Iva returned together to the States. In September, as a result of an exchange of letters, critic Leslie Feidler invited Delany to take a position as visiting Butler Chair Professor at SUNY Buffalo for the following term. Late that December, with Iva, Delany and Hacker returned to the States and saw the first printed volumes of Dhalgren in a Kennedy Airport book rack, even before they arrived in customs, and, as they came out, they saw, slouched back wide-kneed on a chair in one of the waiting areas, a U.S. sailor in uncharacteristic winter whites, reading a copy.
That Christmas they stayed with Delany’s mother. In January Delany went on to SUNY Buffalo to accept a visiting Butler Chair Professorship for the term. Hacker returned to London with their infant daughter. Four months later in April of that year, Hacker’s first volume of poems from Viking Press, Presentation Piece (1975), won the National Book Award for Poetry. She returned to New York to accept the prize at the award ceremony at Lincoln Center and, sending Iva with Delany up to Buffalo, began a reading tour — which included an evening’s reading and reception Delany arranged at Buffalo. Then, with Iva, once more Hacker returned to London.
Delany was now 32 and a father. His eight-hundred-seventy-nine page science fiction novel, Dhalgren, from Bantam Books, had been the product of five years’ labor. The novel deals with the disaffected young, black and white, and the tensions between them, unto interracial rape — yet always with an uncharacteristic take. Its hero is an amnesiac half-breed American Indian, who hitch-hikes to the burned-out city of Bellona, where talent, celebrity, and even the performance of laudable and praiseworthy acts others might call heroic turn out to be largely a matter of chance, mistake, or social misapprehension. These socially created images — illusions, really — are wholly apart from, and sometimes in direct opposition to, the will of the characters. Easily the most controversial SF novel of its decade, Dhalgren portrays graphically — and sympathetically — both homosexual and heterosexual behavior. Rather than spaceships and interstellar travel, many of its images come from the burned-out inner city of the sort Delany’s old neighborhood Harlem had become, back in New York, and which now blighted block after block of most major American cities.
As one reads over the negative reviews today, it’s clear the most angering aspect of the novel was that it presented a view of the world counter to the heroic individualism at the center of so much science fiction adventure. But both inside and outside the science fiction world, however, there were many positive reactions: “I have just read the very best ever to come out of the science fiction field,” Theodore Sturgeon began his March 1975 review of Dhalgren in Galaxy.
Over the next dozen years Dhalgren sold more than a million copies, netted the writer a good-sized mailbag of enthusiastic fan letters, was turned into a rock opera by a young Los Angeles composer, Quentin Llorentes; and, in The Libertarian Review, critic Jeff Riggenbach wrote in 1981:
A nearly 900 page tour de force of a novel, Dhalgren still seems to me, after five years and two thorough readings of its extensive text, to stake a better claim than anything else published in this country in the last quarter century (excepting only Gass’s Omensetter’s Luck and Nabokov’s Pale Fire) to a permanent place as one of the enduring monuments of our national literature.
Delany’s next novel Trouble on Triton (1976: originally published as Triton) tells the story of a man in the twenty-second century, born on Mars and living on Neptune’s larger moon, who decides midway through the book to deal with his numerous personality problems by becoming a woman. Many consider the book to synthesize Delany’s concerns in Dhalgren with the color and adventure of his early science fiction. Triton has been repeatedly discussed in contemporary considerations both of Utopia and gender questions and was eventually reprinted by Wesleyan University Press with an introduction by Kathy Acker.
Trouble on Triton led directly to Delany’s next major enterprise, a series of eleven tales — including short stories, several novellas, and a four-hundred-plus-page novel — which together fill four volumes. The series is called Return to Nevèrÿon. Set in the distant past, rather than the future, the stories are leisurely, developed with care, and written in a style combining precise analysis with colorful description. They tend to turn on intriguing paradoxes: What if a man who has committed himself to ending slavery in a primitive culture is sexually excited by the accoutrements of slavery — whips, chains, and iron slave collars? What are the parallels — and differences — between a fatal, sexually transmitted disease that comes to a primitive city at history’s dawn and the spread of AIDS in New York City over 1983 and the first months of ‘84? This last, “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals” (1984), was the first novel about AIDS from a major publisher in the United States.
Among science fiction readers, Return to Nevèrÿon (which consists of Tales of Nevèrÿon [1978: five stories]; Neveryóna, or: The Tale of Signs and Cities [1982: novel]; Flight from Nevèrÿon [1985: two stories and a short novel]; and Return to Nevèrÿon [first published as The Bridge of Lost Desire (1987: two novellas and a reprise of the opening story)]), was as controversial as Dhalgren, if not more so. In the midst of the series, even though the mass-market paperback sale for each of the separate volumes was in the two- and three-hundred-thousand range — quite respectable for a mass-market book — for a couple of years Delany was effectively blacklisted by the then largest American bookstore chain, Dalton Books, along with Barbara Hambly and Tanith Lee, two other fantasy writers whose works dealt, as did Delany’s, with gay material. When Dalton Books explained that they would no longer be stocking any Delany, Delany’s publisher Bantam Book declined even to read the manuscript of the fourth and final volume in the series, Return to Nevèrÿon. When the book was eventually published in hardcover by Arbor House in 1987, the editor, Delany’s long-time friend David Hartwell, changed the title to The Bridge of Lost Desire as a marketing strategy to dissociate it, in the minds of bookstore stock buyers, from the contaminated series, even though, by now, as a result of letters and articles in a number of gay newspapers, the ban on Delany (and Hambly and Lee) had been lifted when Dalton Books was sold to Barnes and Noble. Indeed, one way to look at the growing conservatism throughout publishing in particular and the book business in general during those years was simply as a response to the collapsing and merging of U.S. publishing itself. By the end of 1987, pretty much all of Delany’s fiction — as had most fiction by what the industry then called “mid-list” writers (i.e., writers like Delany with high critical reputations and substantial and faithful audiences in the hundreds of thousands, whose books still failed to break into the two-million-plus sales of the bonafide paperback “Bestseller”) — had been dropped from the catalogues of publisher after publisher.
Delany’s essays on SF continued to appear through the seventies and eighties, however. Some scholars found them richly suggestive, others intricately frustrating. After his term as visiting Butler Chair Professor at Buffalo in 1975, Delany spent a few months again living at the Albert Hotel in Greenwich Village, then moved into a fifth-floor Upper West Side apartment, where, with a term out here or a term out there as a guest University teacher, he lives to this day. Though they had officially separated in ’75, Delany and Hacker only divorced in 1980. In 1977, on a July 14th of torrential rains in New York City, Delany met Frank Romeo at the Variety Photoplays Theater. Soon the two men were living together. During his eight years with Romeo (a sometimes singer and sometimes film-maker) there were two more multi-week trips to Europe, one by air to Paris and another by boat to Antwerp. The first year they visited Rome and made a return-trip to Greece. The second, they revisited Rome and took a train trip to Romeo’s family village in the Abruzzi mountains, Calomel. In ’81 the two men took another train tour, this time of the United States, through Miridian, Mississippi, to New Orleans, with a detour by car among the canyons and national parks of the southwest (the Grand Canyon, Arches National Park, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Canyon Land), Death Valley, and a few of the surrounding ghost-towns, then by train again to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver, Chicago, and Montreal. On the train with Frank, coming down from Canada, Delany completed the handwritten draft of Neveryóna. That journey would also mark the landscapes of Rhyanon and Velm in Stars in My Pocket Likes Grains of Sand (1984).
During these years, Delany held several visiting academic positions:
For two weeks in November, 1972, he was a visiting writer at Wesleyan University’s Center for the Humanities.
For Spring of 1975, as mentioned, he was visiting Butler Chair Professor at SUNY Buffalo.
(In 1976 Delany began a project with artist Howard Chaykin that, two years later, in 1978, would be published as the 106 page graphic novel, Empire.)
For a term in 1977 he was a Senior Fellow at the Center for Twentieth Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin.
For two weeks in 1978 he was Writer in Residence at SUNY Albany.
In 1984 Delany published Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, set many years in the future amidst an interstellar society of some 6,000 worlds, in which all intelligent living beings are known as women and womankind — much the way humanity was once know as man and mankind. But even the meanings of “she” and “he” are completely other in these far-future days. The story details the love between two men, one, Marq Dyeth, an ultra-sophisticated and well-traveled “industrial diplomat,” and the other, Rat Korga, the most ordinary of uneducated workers, who happens to be the lone survivor of a world which has destroyed itself through a violent political process called “cultural fugue.” Even before the book was published, Delany’s publisher wanted a sequel to the novel. Not very enthusiastically, Delany agreed to do a second volume to complete the story of Marq and Rat. Though he planned it out and even began writing it, and here and there (in Reflex Magazine and The Review of Contemporary Fiction) sections of the sequel have appeared, the book was never finished. In January 1985, the eight-year live-in relationship with Frank came to an end. A few months later Delany was honored with the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association of America, for excellence in SF scholarship. His essays continued to appear in Science Fiction Studies and, even more frequently, in The New York Review of Science Fiction.
In 1987 for the fall term Delany was a Senior Fellow at Cornell’s Society for the Humanities and roomed on the Cornell campus in Telluride House. While there, he was interviewed by then-undergraduate Kenneth R. James. A second, written interview with James would appear in Silent Interviews (1994). In December 1987, while still at Cornell, Delany was invited to join the faculty of the University of Massachusetts as a (full) Professor of Comparative Literature, where he began teaching in September of 1988. Earlier that year, Delany’s autobiography The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing, 1957–1965, came out. In 1989, when he had been at the University of Massachusetts for a year, the World Science Fiction Convention in Boston voted the book a Hugo Award for best non-fiction title of its year. On the strength of this book, his last ten years’ of science fiction, and his Nevèrÿon tales, in 1989 the Lambda Book Report included Delany among its “Fifty Men and Women Who Have Done Most to Change Our Attitudes Toward Gayness in the Last Hundred Years.” The same year he won a life-time achievement award from the Dark Room, Harvard University’s black students collective.
For three weeks in 1993 he was a visiting Senior Fellow at the University of Michigan’s Humanities Center; in the same year he was a visiting professor at the University of Kansas, at Lawrence.
For two weeks in September 1995 he was Distinguished Writer in Residence at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho. In the same term he was Cole Visiting Honors Professor at the Honors College of Michigan State University at East Lansing, Michigan. In November of that term, for two weeks, he was a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Center for the Arts at Daytona Beach, Florida.
In 1997, in New York, Delany was honored with the Kessler Award from the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS), and delivered that year’s prestigious annual Kessler Lecture, “…Three, Two, One, Contact: Times Square Red.” Four months later, “Times Square Red” was delivered as a Chancellor’s Distinguished Faculty Lecture at the University of Massachusetts, on his receipt of the University Chancellor’s Distinguished Faculty Medal.
During his second year at the University of Masachusetts, Delany published an article, “Twilight in the Rue Morgue” (Transition 54), examining the work of historian of science and culture critic Donna Haraway; another, “Street Talk / Straight Talk” (Differences. A Special Issue on Queer Theory), was sharply critical of AIDS research and the dissemination of medical information.
In October of 1991, after he delivered his keynote lecture, “Aversion/Perversion/Diversion,” at the Fifth Annual Lesbian and Gay Studies Conference at Rutgers University, from the thousand attendees squeezed into the auditorium that evening Delany received a boisterous standing ovation. Almost equally successful was his presentation of “The Rhetoric of Sex / The Discourse of Desire” as a two-hour long evening lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In 1990, during the first of two terms he spent as Head of the Comparative Literature Department, while he commuted back and forth between Amherst, Massachusetts, and his New York City apartment, Delany met and befriended a 36-year-old homeless man, Dennis Rickett, who sold books from a blanket on 72nd Street. In February of ’91 Dennis and Delany began to live together.
Though Delany’s fiction was by now all but unavailable in the United States, in England Grafton Books was keeping the four volumes of Return to Nevèrÿon in print, as well as Dhalgren and some of his other works. Delany’s collected short fiction, Driftglass/Starshards, appeared from Grafton in 1993. And, at Wesleyan University Press, editorial director Terry Cochran spearheaded a major move to bring Delany’s fiction back into print in this country, starting with Tales of Nevèrÿon in 1992. Meanwhile, a new novel (expanded from an old story), They Fly at Çiron (1993: Seattle), was published in an elegant limited edition and a trade edition by Ron Drummond’s Incunabula Press. Wesleyan followed the Nevèrÿon books with a collection of Delany’s written interviews, Silent Interviews: On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics, which appeared in summer ’94, and, two years later, Longer Views: Extended Essays (1996), appeared with an introduction by Kenneth R. James.
The years in Massachusetts saw still two more trips to Europe. In 1992 Delany was a guest at a science fiction convention in Oslo, with Angela Carter, Brian Stapleford, and Brian Aldiss. The following year he spent two weeks at Berlin’s Akademie der Künste, giving a seminar on science fiction to a group of young visual artists, mostly involved with film, which he co-taught with William Gibson.
Besides They Fly at Çiron, Delany completed two other notable pieces of fiction during his eleven years at the University of Massachusetts. The three stories in Atlantis: Three Tales, appeared in a limited edition from Ron Drummond’s Incunabula Press in 1995, and shortly afterward in a trade edition from Wesleyan. The first and longest story, “Atlantis: Model 1924,” is a meticulously researched historical novella about a black adolescent, based closely on Delany’s father, who moves to New York from North Carolina in November 1923 to stay with his older brothers and sisters, in the course of which he meets the poet Hart Crane in an early May walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, where he also observes a possible drowning in the East River below. (To write the story, Delany read the weather reports for every day covered by his tale. As well he researched the moon’s phases for the nights.) The text uses a number of experimental techniques to present the story. A section was excerpted in The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature (1997). In honor of the publication of that prestigious anthology, along with Ntozake Shange, David Bradley, Jamaica Kincaid, and Rita Dove, Delany read at the YM/YWHA in New York in November, 1998.
Delany began work on “Atlantis: Model 1924” in Spring of 1992. In October of that year, independently and unknown to Delany until several weeks after it was published, a young newspaper reporter, Amy Hill Hearth, wrote an article for the New York Times “Metro Section,” about Delany’s aunts, Sadie and Bessie Delany (his late father’s eldest sisters), both now over a hundred. The article elicited an extraordinary amount of mail. It was decided to turn the tapes that Hearth had recorded into a book. The following year, 1993, Kodansha International published Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First Hundred Years, by Sarah and A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth, with considerable publicity.
The book became a bestseller and stayed at the top of the non-fiction bestseller list for almost two years. For the remainder of their lives — and three more books — Bessie and Sadie became national celebrities. The book was made into a Broadway play and finally a TV mini-series.
Delany’s novella was completed in 1993. In it Bessie and Sadie appear as “Corey” and “Elsie,” along with younger versions of a number of Delany’s other paternal aunts and uncles. Though it was published in the midst of the excitement over Having Our Say, Delany refused to let any publicity suggest a relation between the two books. This may, indeed, have slowed the growth of appreciation for Delany’s novella. There are a number of places where the books touch on the same or similar family stories.
While teaching at the University of Massachusetts, and working largely over a summer that Rickett and Delany spent in Canaan, New York, as guests of their friends Leonard Gibbs and Sam DeBennedetto, Delany wrote much of the first draft of his novel The Mad Man. It appeared in hardcover in 1995, to be revised twice, first for the paperback edition of 1996 and even more extensively for the Voyant Edition trade paperback of 2002.
In 1998, Delany left the University of Massachusetts for a professorship in the English Department of SUNY Buffalo’s Poetics Program, the same university he’d taught at on his return from England to this country in 1975. In 1999 his Distinguished Faculty Lecture, “…Three, Two, One, Contact: Times Square Red,” prefaced by a new “ethnographic” memoir of his experiences in the Times Square theaters of New York City, appeared as Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, from New York University Press, and immediately broke into the bottom of the Village Voice Bestseller List. Only a few months later, a graphic novel, with a script by Delany and drawn by artist Mia Wolff, Bread & Wine, appeared from Juno Books. It tells much of the story of Dennis and Delany’s first meeting, during the time of Dennis’s homelessness, and how the two men began to live with one another. At the end of the same year, Wesleyan released Shorter Views, another hefty collection of Delany’s essays, lectures, and interviews. That same year, after educator Jill Lauren had published an account of Delany’s (and his daughter Iva’s) dyslexia in her book Succeeding with LD (1997), Delany was honored by the Mary McDowell Learning Center in Brooklyn, a school for dyslexic children, where Delany came and spoke informally about his battle with the learning disability.
Between Christmas and New Years Eve, 1999, Delany gave an evening-long reading at the Judson Poets’ Theater at the historic Judson Church on Washington Square South, during which he read to a highly enthusiastic audience from a number of his works, including his autobiography The Motion of Light in Water, Bread & Wine, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, “Atlantis: Model 1924,” and The Mad Man. It was filmed by a twin camera crew, led by film-maker Eric Solstein. An extremely effective videotape of the reading, Atlantis and Other New York Tales, is available through Voyant Publishing. In 2000, from Voyant Publishing, 1984: Selected Letters also appeared, a selection of letters Delany wrote in the year Orwell made famous, with another highly useful introduction by Kenneth R. James. Writing about it in the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review, Michael Bronski said that the collection “reads like an 18th century epistolary novel.” In January of the same year, after only a year and a half, Delany left SUNY Buffalo to begin teaching at Temple University in Philadelphia, where he had taken a position as Professor of English and Creative Writing.
In 2001, in cooperation with Wesleyan University Press, Vintage Books released a new trade paperback edition of Dhalgren, which soon went into four printings. (The third printing and following has many minor corrections, making it the most accurate edition to date.) One of Delany’s response to 9/11, his story “Echos,” appeared in 110 Stories: New York Writes after September 11th (2002: New York University Press), edited by Ulrich Baer. (Two others wait for a further Delany essay collection.) This was followed the next year with the Vintage Books editions of Babel-17 and Empire Star (in one volume), and Nova. In April of 2002 he was briefly in France for the Utopiales Festival in Nantes. In July of the same year, while Delany himself was at a family reunion in Los Angeles, during a banquet in Lawrence, Kansas, he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. In April 2003 Vintage Books published a complete collection of all Delany’s significant science fiction and fantasy stories (omitting only those in Return to Nevèrÿon) under the title Aye, and Gomorrah, and Other Stories. Between the summers of 2001 and 2005, he taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa in Boulder, Colorado, and also — 2003 — at the Clarion SF Writers’ Workshop in Seattle, where had had taught many times before. Several other articles and interviews, including a detailed textual exegesis of the second chapter of the Book of Genesis (“Eden, Eden, Eden,” in Chain #11: Public Forms, edited by Jena Osman and Juliana Spahr, Philadelphia, 2004) and a comparison of possible sources for elements in the work of Joanna Russ in the films of D. W. Griffith (“Joanna Russ and D. W. Griffith,” PMLA, Summer, 2004), as well as lengthy interviews in Lou Anders’ Argosy, Lisa Moore’s Lambda Book Report, and the first issue of Steve Erickson’s Black Clock.
Delany’s most recent fiction is a short historical novel, Phallos, which details the life, loves, and adventures of a young gay man, Neoptolomus, from the island of Syracuse, during the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian in the second century A.D. Recently released from the army and on a commercial mission sponsored by a wealthy Roman patron to the Nile-side city of Hermopolis in Egypt, inadvertently Neoptolomus becomes involved in the assassination of the emperor’s young lover, Antinous, as well as the theft of a jewel-encrusted phallus from an idol representing a nameless god in a temple on the city’s outskirts. An exciting chase follows to regain the purloined object, with, as well, the goals of life, love, material wealth, and secret wisdom, which takes our hero from Rome to Athens to Byzantium, and back to the Pillars of Hercules. The tale is both a self-contained adventure, and a historical coda for Delany’s “prehistoric” Return to Nevèrÿon series.
As well, in 2004, Wesleyan University Press brought out a new edition of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand and in December of 2005, they will issue a new Delany collection, About Writing.
Delany’s work has been the subject of a number of books: Douglas Barbour’s Worlds Out of Words: The Science Fiction Novels of Samuel R. Delany (1979: Brans Head Books, London), Michael W. Peplow and Robert S. Bravard’s Samuel R. Delany, A Primary and Secondary Bibliography, 1962–1979 (1980: Twayne, Boston), Jane Weedman’s Delany: A Starmont Guide (1982: Starmont House), George E. Slusser’s The Delany Intersection (1983: The Borgo Press), Seth McEvoy’s Samuel R. Delany (1984: Unger), and Damien Broderick’s Reading By Starlight (1995: Routledge, New York. Although not packaged as a single-author study, the first half of Broderick’s book is an overview of “modern science fiction” largely contoured by Delany’s theories and demonstrating their influence; the second half concentrates on Delany’s fiction directly). 1984 also saw a special “Science Fiction Issue” of The Black American Literature Forum (edited by Joe Weixlmann, Terra Haute), with critical and bibliographical articles on Delany by Sandra Y. Govan (“The Insistent Presence of Black Folk in the Novels of Samuel R., Delany”), Robert Eliot Fox, and an astute overview of Dhalgren by Mary Kay Bray, “Double Consciousness in Delany’s Dhalgren.” (The issue contains as well articles on Octavia Butler and Stephen Barnes.) Ash of Stars: On the Writing of Samuel R. Delany, edited by James Sallis (1996: University Press of Mississippi), contains informative essays by Mary Kay Bray, Ray Davis, Marc Gawron, Kenneth James, and Kathleen Spencer, among others. Sallis also edited a section of the Fall 1996 edition of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 3, devoted to Delany’s work. (The other half of the issue focuses Edmund White.) The late Mary Kay Bray’s essay, “To See What Condition Our Condition Is In,” on Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, and David Samuelson’s attempt to survey Delany’s critical ideas, “Necessary Constraints: Delany on Science Fiction,” are repeated between both the journal and the Sallis Ash of Stars collection. The other contributions are different. May, 2004, saw a single-author study of Delany’s work from Wesleyan University Press, by Jeffrey Tucker of the University of Rochester, A Sense of Wonder: Samuel R. Delany, Race, Identity, and Difference.
Books containing substantial chapters on Delany’s work include Thomas M. Moylan’s Demand the Impossible (1986), Robert E. Fox’s The Conscientious Sorcerers: The Post-Modern Fiction of LeRoi Jones / Ameri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R Delany (1987: Greenwood Press), Earl Jackson, Jr.’s Strategies of Deviance (1995: Indiana University Press, Bloomington), and Carl Freedman’s Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000: Wesleyan, Hanover). As well, Ross Posnock’s Color and Culture: Black Writers and the Making of the Modern Intellectual (1998: Harvard University Press, Cambridge) closes with a chapter-long reading of “Atlantis: Model 1924.” Other books that discuss Delany’s work at some length include Hazel Carby’s Race Men (1999: Harvard University Press, Cambridge), Paul Robinson’s Gay Lives: Homosexual Autobiography from John Addington Symonds to Paul Monette (1999: University of Chicago Press); and Reed Woodhouse’s Unlimited Embrace: A Canon of Gay Fiction, 1945–1995 (1998: University of Massachusetts Press) contains a lucid discussion of The Mad Man. Walter Benn Michaels’s The Shape of the Signifier (2004: Princeton University Press, Princeton) contains an interesting discussion of Delany’s Nevèrÿon tale “The Game of Time and Pain.” Madhu Dubey’s Signs and Cities (2004: U. of Chicago Press, Chicago) not only takes its title from Delany’s Neverÿona, or: The Tale of Signs and Cities, but contains some highly interesting remarks about a number of his works, most extensively — as does Steven Shaviro’s Connected (2003: University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis) — Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand.
Copyright 2005 Samuel R. Delany.