Aug 12 2010 11:19am
Patterson Heinlein biography: Not to be trusted on details

Unlike John Scalzi, I didn’t find all that much new about Heinlein in the Patterson biography. I’d already read Asimov’s autobiographies (three of them) and Pohl’s biography, and Grumbles From the Grave (Heinlein’s selected letters) and I knew he’d been a struggling writer. I even knew about Leslyn’s alcoholism and the end of that marriage. I was familiar with the broad outlines of his life and career from Expanded Universe, and I’ve even read alternate history stories where he was cured of TB and became military dictator of the U.S. So what I was looking for here was more than the facts—a little insight into the development of his personality, into why he made the choices he did, wrote the stories he did.

I already mentioned that this is a very old fashioned kind of biography, so I didn’t get any of that.

Patterson’s biography is also riddled with tiny insignificant errors of the kind that make me lose trust. When Patterson calls Edward VIII a “boy king” (he was 42) and says Churchill made the “owed so much” speech at the time when he actually made the “fight them on the beaches” speech, it doesn’t actually matter—these are tiny peripheral details to the story of Heinlein. Yet, if we’re to see Heinlein as representative of his era, a “Forrest Gump” as Mitch puts it, getting the era right does matter. If I can’t trust Patterson on details that I know backwards and forwards and inside out, how can I trust him on matters that are new to me?

Patterson mentions Heinlein’s time in bohemian New York in the summer of 1930, and says he “would naturally have met Edna St. Vincent Millay”. Well, no he wouldn’t, not that summer, she was home upstate with her husband Eugen, working on the sonnets that would become Fatal Interview. She hadn’t spent much time in Greenwich Village being a bohemian for several years before that. I know this because I recently read an excellent biography of Millay, Nancy Milford’s Savage Beauty. I recommend it to people who are interested in American writers of the first half of the twentieth century.

None of this really matters, as long as Patterson has got the main details right. Nobody is reading it as an introduction to the historical period — although I read biographies as introductions to historical periods all the time. But Heinlein himself had a great belief in getting the facts right. He and Ginny once spent all weekend working out ballistic orbits, by hand, for Space Cadet, a book for boys who wouldn’t have known the difference if they’d fudged it. But he got it right, every little bit of it, because getting the details right matters, it helps the reader suspend their disbelief if the things they know are right. When I see things I know are wrong, how can I suspend my disbelief? Heinlein deserves better than this.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

1. CarlosSkullsplitter
I am especially rather nervous about the parts regarding Heinlein's relationship with the later Admiral King. It's an area I've touched on in my own research, although peripherally. (I've only been able to read the excerpts available on Google Books and Amazon.) Is Patterson getting the details of the institutional culture of the US Navy of the period correct? I worry about this because of the sort of error you mention, I've already spotted a few.

I have a feeling this biography will become a useful sourcebook for later researchers rather than being important in its own right. Which is a shame.
James Goetsch
2. Jedikalos
This is very upsetting to hear (I was truly looking forward to this book, but now I am wondering whether it is worth my time). What company is publishing this? Don't they have any editors? Fact-checkers? How extraordinarily disappointing (given that it says it is an authorized biography). Oh well.
3. Theophylact
You shouldn't have to suspend disbelief when you're reading nonfiction.
Robert James
4. DocJames
I've read the book. While Mr. Patterson may have a few minor details wrong (and I am not sure about this, as I have heard Edward referred to as a "boy king" elsewhere), I wonder that Jo Walton seems to have completely missed the massive documentation on every single assertion about Heinlein's life. It is not just doing a disservice to this much-needed biography; it is misinforming readers as to the nature of biography itself. Almost every book contains some errors; this book contains NO errors concerning Heinlein, except those already in the primary documents, of which Patterson catches several. Turning readers away from a book because it is a bad book is salutary; to produce a false impression based on a failure to recognize the factual grounding a book is based upon is criminal.
Robert James
5. DocJames
As to the naval issues, it can most definitely be trusted. Much of it is from a massive letter written by Heinlein for the biographer of King, now archived in the Naval War College (iirc). Again, this is a wonderful book, and well worth your time. The chapters on the Naval Academy and his time in the Navy are among the best in the book.
6. CarlosSkullsplitter
DocJames, "NO errors" is rather a strong statement.

Personally, I'd love to know more about "Myxococcus catarrhalis," which is a microorganism that Heinlein was diagnosed with that only exists within the pages of Patterson's biography. See my earlier comment to Mitch Wagner about its importance. Heinlein's medical history seems rather crucial to me in understanding the man. I think you'd agree.

I know an early reviewer caught a passage in Patterson about the mass Japanese civilian deaths on Iwo Jima. I don't know if this has been since caught and corrected, but at the time, Patterson clearly had Iwo Jima -- where all civilians save for a hundred or so military contract employees had been evacuated -- and Okinawa (or possibly Saipan) confused.

That's pretty basic. It does not fill me with confidence about Patterson's grasp of military history.

I know when I've researched historical matters -- including the US Navy of the interwar period -- I've tried very hard to get details right, and I would never say that I committed "NO errors." There might be simple, stupid things I've missed.

And my stuff gets shipped around various professional historians interested in that area, anonymous peer reviewers pulled from that same group, a series editor interested in the topic, a production editor, a proofreader, et cetera and so on, all of whom have a chance of spotting a serious error before it gets printed for the world to see -- and even then, you would not believe what I've personally caught at very late stages of the game.

There's one that still gives me sweats. Maybe in a few years I'll laugh about it. There might be others, and if so I'll find about them the hard way. But it won't be because I haven't made an effort.

At minimum, I'd run a proper name through Google. You know?
Robert James
7. DocJames
Read what I wrote more carefully; in regards to Heinlein, there are no errors, save those which were in the primary documents. I've seen the medical records Patterson cites; iirc, they list the words Patterson uses. That the original document may be in error, is more than likely; that Patterson may not have researched every single context outside of the Heinlein primary documents is possible, simply because every writer operates out of remembered knowledge, which may be mistaken. As for typos, yes those are there, at least in the uncorrected proofs I read.
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
DocJames: It doesn't matter whether Heinlein would have met Millay, but in fact he wouldn't have, when Patterson states that he "naturally would". This is a fact about Heinlein, if not an important one, but it's objectively wrong.

You may have seen Edward VIII referred to as a boy king: but he was born in 1894, and abdicated in 1936 -- do the math. The trouble with this kind of mistake is that it makes the world a little bit worse -- people read it and naturally know nothing about Edward VIII or 1936 and just accept it, and have a piece of misinformation in their minds forever. I'd actually have been interested to have a bit of discussion about what Heinlein thought about Edward VIII at the time -- it's clear from To Us The Living that he approved of him and completely accepted the contemporary US media view of the man. If he needed to be mentioned at all, it would have been interesting to have had some of Heinlein's view of him, instead of a throwaway and incorrect one word description.

As I said, Heinlein deserves better.
9. CarlosSkullsplitter
Confusing Iwo Jima and Okinawa is not a typo, you know.

It's important for a professional historian or biographer not simply to accept and repeat an error, but to actively investigate what the solution to an error might be. This goes back to the Renaissance and the origins of textual scholarship. It's not new or strange or postmodern; it's a basic standard of the profession. Failing to do so is a sign of poor scholarship.

But I don't see any signs that Patterson thought "Myxococcus catarrhalis" was an error at all.

And since Patterson isn't doing necessary due diligence on medical details, how can we trust his accounts of Heinlein's treatment for tuberculosis? If that "Doc" in "DocJames" is accurate, you know that patients have very poor recollections of what their medical procedures entail. Here, Heinlein's personal testimony is interesting but cannot be taken as error-free.
Robert James
10. DocJames
Well, I will try again to be clear. There may be errors regarding historical events that serve, such as the apparent Iwo Jima/Okinawa flub. I am not familiar with the citation there. But as regards Heinlein, I've spoken with the author about the medical reference, and this is what the official medical record states, not what Heinlein put in his own correspondence. The author suggests that medical terminology was still fluid at that point in history as well, so what was called one thing then may not be called that now. I know Patterson did extensive research on many, many references in the Heinlein papers, so "due diligence" was in fact done. Mistakes may have been made, for a variety of reasons, but I have read the biography after having been immersed in the primary documents for a decade now, and I still assert there are no errors regarding Heinlein himself, save those in the primary documentation itself.
11. Bill Patterson
The trouble is, of course, that we all "know so many things that are not true."

I don't know where "CarlosSkullsplitter" got his information about an error in an early text about Japanese deaths on Okinawa or Iwo Jima," but there never was, to my recollection, any such passage. There was a sentence about the Mt. Suribachi incident, and there was, later, a sentence about Truman (or more specifically the General Staff) considering the casualty reports from the Iwo Jima and Okinawa campaigns. Perhaps the source has casually conflated these two different things into an entirely imaginary historical error on my part.

So there never was anything like "confusing Okinawa and Iwo Jima." And this is not merely pettifogging, it's running off your mouth (fingers) without having the first idea what you're talking about.


Having said that, let me say that I've set up an archive accessible from my author site,, specifically to collect errors and omissions (real errors, please) and reminiscences of Heinlein and facts that were left out that people think should have been put in.

There were several million facts put together and assembled for this biography. It was a painstaking process, and I did as much ancillary research as I could afford to do. I read a good proportion of the books Heinlein talked about. I had a long interview with Adm. Gallantin about the Navy ethos and the conditions both physical and social at the Naval Academy immediately after Heinlein's stint there. Etc. None of this precludes errors; I hope any that remain in are of the "minor" status. Let's together get it right for the second edition one of these days (my hope, anyway).
12. Bill Patterson
Re Myxococcus cattarhalis; I used the term that appeared in the relevant medical report. There was a great deal more variation in medical terminology in the 1930's than there is now, because medical education was not as standardized then. I felt the need to explain about Involutional Melancholia, which had undergone a radical evolution as a diagnosis just within the last thirty years, but I didn't about that.

There are always judgment calls. This was a judgment call not about a fact, but about what did and did not require further explication.
13. Doug M.
Well, that still leaves boy king Edward and the Churchill speech -- minor points, I'd agree -- but also Edna St. Vincent Millay, and the nonexistent Myxococcus, which doesn't seem that minor at all.

It would be nice to see some discussion on these points, rather than attacking Carlos for passing along something another, different reviewer said.

An archive accessible from your author site: a casual wander around that site doesn't show it. Can you give a direct link?

Doug M.
David Dyer-Bennet
14. dd-b
I seem to have read the same previous sources as Jo mentions, plus others (I'm sure she's read others as well, and only listed the most relevant); and found this book told me quite a bit new about Heinlein. Jo may have a better memory than I do, or care about different things.

The various errors Jo and Carlos mention are worrisome (I didn't spot any of those myself). I do think I see a pattern to them: they're about outside facts, not directly about Heinlein.

It's actually the Millay error that disturbs me most -- since he's making an inference from a couple of facts, he's more-than-usually responsible for checking those facts, and one of them is wrong. At least he was careful to leave his conclusion as an inference, rather than stating it as a fact that could be repeated down the ages.

If the microorganism name is in fact correctly reproduced from the Navy paperwork (as DocJames reports), then I don't much care that Patterson failed to note that it wasn't a current name. That's a question of history of medicine more than history of Heinlein.

In principle every single fact should be checked; but I don't believe any biographer actually achieves that. Lots of well-regarded academics make mistakes not unlike these; the important question is how often. We do have a disturbingly large number from just two people's noticing things.

The book is extensively footnoted (over 100 pages of notes), with sometimes the smallest details in a sentence linked to the letter (or IM from Virginia) that the author got them from. Uncertainties in some information are discussed, and we get some insight into the amount of research that was done on some of these things. This is not the work of somebody cavalier about the facts -- at least when they relate directly to his core subject, Robert Heinlein.
15. CarlosSkullsplitter
Again, putting a two-word phrase into a search engine is not terribly difficult. It would have told Patterson he had a problem. That's what told me Patterson had a problem.

Inquiring about the history of a specific name of a microorganism is slightly more complex; you might have to call up a university and explore their phone tree a bit, or make a few emails. Since I do this sort of thing for a living (but presumably Patterson does as well), it didn't take me long to find out what the medical terminology of the period was, and the organism's likely modern name, about fifteen minutes on Google and its various services. There aren't that many "catarrhalis" species from that period.

Since the biography mentions that the infection was diagnosed immediately by Army doctors as gonorrhea, I looked up if this was a common diagnostic mistake via Google Scholar and MedLine. It turned out it was not a common mistake at all, that while the organisms looked similar, urinary tract infections by M. catarrhalis were extremely unusual. This took about thirty minutes.

So. This was interesting! If the earlier diagnosis was correct, it would have been one of the first cases of its type ever recorded. Is this not an interesting new biographical fact? Heinlein, rare blood type, medical history, etc.

If the earlier diagnosis was in fact vastly improbable, and the Army diagnosis was likely correct, again, interesting! I don't want to be prurient here.

There are permutations. For instance, it strikes me as plausible that a promising young naval officer with gonorrhea might be diagnosed with a similar-looking organism in order not to have a stain on his record. I can think of stranger things the Navy has done for its people.

But, you know, "medical terminology was still fluid" and "'due diligence' was in fact done."

Helpful hint: if a guy in Brooklyn can do a better job researching a crux in less than an hour, then maybe due diligence was not actually done.
David Dyer-Bennet
16. dd-b
Bill Patterson's comment was posted while I was writing my long one; I see we are no longer reliant just on DocJames for the information that the microorganism name was reproduced correctly from the Navy paperwork.

In fact, Patterson seems to suggest that he may have known it was not a current name, and didn't think it was important enough to discuss. That's a judgment call I'm satisfied with.
17. Doug M.
Apparently Carlos is referring to page 342 of the ARC:

"Much of the islands civilian population [the Japanese soldiers] herded onto the heights of Mount Suribachi, where they were encircled. The Japanese forced civilians up – and over – the precipice as they defended the mountain to the last cartridge."

Mount Suribachi is on Iwo Jima. Slaughters of civilians of the sort described did indeed take place on Saipan and on Okinawa. But not on Iwo, because there were almost no civilians at all there.

So, no offense, but Carlos is right -- that's a clear error.

If it was corrected after the ARC, then great; that's one thing ARCs are for.

Doug M.
18. James Davis Nicoll
Could someone jog my memory about the "the Mt. Suribachi incident"?

What the ARC, which may have been changed before the final edition, says is:

[page 342]

“Much of the islands civilian population [the Japanese soldiers] herded onto the heights of Mount Siribachi, where they were encircled. The Japanese forced civilians up – and over – the precipice as they defended the mountain to the last cartridge.”

I am not a historian but it was my impression that the majority of the local civilian population, 1,100 or so, were evacuated in July 1944, leaving behind somewhere between 120-160 civilians as part of the defensive effort, so the majority of the population should not have been on the island when the battle occurred. Was this not the case?

For some reason, I can't find a source online that discusses Japanese civilians deaths at the hands of the Japanese soldiers on Mt. Siribachi.
19. Bill Patterson
I don't have the advance copy in front of me, but I don't think that passage was changed.

The accounts I read appear only to have dealt with the civilian population actually on the island at the time.
20. Noel Maurer
To be fair, you don't always know what you don't know. I don't know enough about Heinlein's life to be able to tell you if it was reasonable for Paterson to check the more about the actual pathogen. I can say that I run into things all the time that don't seem to be worth checking into more --- and sometimes that's come back to haunt me.

Recent example: Morgenthau's actual opinion about the Silver Purchase Act of 1934. You were there, I think, when that one was pointed out! It wasn't that I was factually wrong; it was that I didn't know what I didn't know, and didn't think to check the context.

Unlike the stuff we do, biographies don't usually get presented at angry contentious conferences, and I'd be surprised if there were any readers who knew anything at all about Heinlein's life. So a lot of the quality-control process that we take for granted probably doesn't happen.

I should add that "I have a feeling this biography will become a useful sourcebook for later researchers rather than being important in its own right" isn't really an insult. Sourcebooks add a lot of value, I think, having relied on many in the course of my own profession.
21. Bill Patterson
At this point, I'm a little reluctant to appear to be engaging in a point-by-point argument here, so I'll hit a couple of points briefly and then leave it alone.

"Boy King" is an expression used of Edw. around the time of his coronation and is found in newspaper reports and even in some histories of the period. I say, take it up with them; it's a little late to be taking it up with me.

The "never have so much been owed..." speech does appear to have been a genuine slip-up; in my mind I had associated that with the evacuation from Dunkirk, but actually Churchill said that about the RAF in the battle of Britain in a speech before the Commons given in August 20, 1940 -- a bit more than two months after the Commons speech with the "we shall fight them on the beaches" lines (June 4, 1940)

I believe the link to the Archive is on the very first line of the page. It's Forum -- perhaps not as obvious as it should be. Suggestions about format gladly received.
22. James Davis Nicoll
To be fair, you don't always know what you don't know.

ObSF: The error committed by the antagonist in A Rebel in Time, who because of a curious oversight in the American Civil War text he was using as his sole source of information had no idea why he might want to stay away from Harper's Ferry on October 16, 1859.
Robert James
23. DocJames
CarlosSkullsplitter, what you have there is the basis for an interesting article for the Heinlein Journal.

As for the issues of veracity and due diligence, when one looks at the official medical record, one does not often go and research things any further, because the presumption is that the official records are correct, unless one has reason to doubt that record. As I recall, the biography talks fairly thoroughly about the medical issues; you seem to be fairly knowledgeable about these issues, hence the suggestion to write the article. My own doctorate is a phud, not a mud.

My sense at reading the biography, which I have done periodically since the earliest stages, is that the author extensively researched every thread that needed explication. The documentation from the Heinlein archives is thorough and exhaustive; there is, with one minor exception, not a single assertion about Heinlein's life that is not grounded and cited. The one minor exception was omitted by accident, but the reference exists.

This is called scholarship.

That there may have been threads you would like to see more about is called an invitation to more scholarship, and this is how "publish or perish" functions in academia. The biography was cut down to about 25% of its original size, even with the second volume coming out, iirc. There are things that simply could not be included, especially discussion of most of the literary works from the angle of criticism.

I am intrigued by the medical issue, because I didn't consider it to be an issue; except when Heinlein himself challenged it -- which the biography lays out in fair detail.

The author, and the editor, have succeeded in producing a biography that meets the academic standards in which I was trained; when it didn't, I yelled and cajoled until it did.

That said, as I have said before, there are always going to be errors in books; I caught quite a few in the revision process for the author, as is always the case in writing a complicated book like this, and I also saw him correct quite a few. The Churchill slipped through. The "boy king" was never a mistake, as it was a common description of the period; the entire Greenwich Village scene was written in the subjunctive tense as flavoring, and was never intended as a statement of fact, which seems to have been completely missed; the Iwo Jima/Okinawa description requires further research for me to comment upon, other than to point out that the author has suggested there was a primary document to indicate civilians were murdered on Iwo Jima.

Mistakes happen, usually when you don't realize you're making a mistake. But the Heinlein materials, as I have repeatedly stated, and 100 pages of notes prove, are utterly reliable, so long as one realizes that error may be in them to begin with (and the author caught several, as you can see from the endnotes).
Vicki Rosenzweig
24. vicki

Based on this, I have gone to my library's web site and requested the Millay biography.


I am not at all sure what you mean by "the Heinlein materials are utterly long as one realizes that error may be in them to begin with." I assume this isn't the oxymoron of "they're reliable except when they're not."
25. James Davis Nicoll
the Iwo Jima/Okinawa description requires further research for me to comment upon, other than to point out that the author has suggested there was a primary document to indicate civilians were murdered on Iwo Jima.

I would rejoice in the opportunity to know the name of this primary document, as the secondary documents available online seem to the casual eye to indicate that there were no civilian mass killings on Iwo Jima; no doubt the people running the sites in question would be grateful to have this inexplicable oversight of a terrible crime corrected for them.
Robert James
26. DocJames
Vicky, what I mean is that the book is based heavily on primary documents, but if there is an error in the primary document (for example, there are a few misdatings that can be corrected from the internal chronology, and from other sources), then there are errors. If Heinlein was mistaken about something, then that mistake is reported in the biography as displaying how Heinlein thought about something. Because there are events that are reported based on one source, and the endnotes often make it clear that there is just that one oyster, we have no choice but to accept what that primary document says. When there are other sources, then the biography uses those other sources as confirmation, and/or rebuttal. The point that I was trying to make, in direct opposition to Walton's claim, is that the biography is utterly reliable in reporting on Heinlein's life, because it is based so firmly on primary evidence.

And most of what people are claiming as errors, and pointing their fingers at the whole being unreliable, are in fact not errors. He has admitted being wrong on the Churchill speech, but the other issues are either A) not an issue, or B) open to further exploration, which is what is occurring now.

But the suggestion was made that the book could not be trusted in its entirety, and I have been suggesting all day that the author's attention was heavily focused on what Heinlein thought and felt, and to a lesser degree, on the world events. Knowing as much as I do about Heinlein, and knowing the biography as well as I do as an early reader and researcher, I can tell you that there are no errors in the Heinlein materials, because of the intense reliance on those materials. There may be errors in the surrounding materials, like the Churchill reference, but there are also accusations being made here which are, in fact, false. King Edward was known as the "boy king"; the passages on Greenwich Village were in the subjunctive tense, as a means of suggesting the flavor of the place and time. The biography, in other words, is reliable, and can be trusted, utterly in the case of Heinlein, and to a high degree in the materials based on other matters. Mistakes happen; I can't recall a biography I've read in the last decade that didn't have at least one I picked up on. This is a very important book, and highly readable and informative. There has never been a two-volume biography of any SF author, excepting H.G. Wells, to the best of my knowledge. This is, to be succinct, ground-breaking.
Robert James
27. DocJames
I've been reading about the Iwo Jima/Okinawa issue, and it does appear to me that this is another minor conflation of places, along the lines of the Churchill flub. The civilians were evacuated in July 1944, and there were no civilian deaths on Iwo Jima as a result.

But in both cases, these are, in my opinion, minor and unrelated to the veracity of the life story of Heinlein. Churchill's stubborn refusal to surrender is the same; the Japanese willingness to die is the same.

I've informed the author, and he is trying to track down his source; he says that he only did research on Iwo Jima, and not Okinawa.

There is a reason he has a page dedicated to typos and mistakes on his website, as well as at the Heinlein Nexus forum.

Truth is more important than ego....mistakes should always be admitted, but only after they are checked to see if they are, in fact, mistakes.

But if two clear errors are all we find in a biography that was over two million words in its original submitted form, I think that is an outstanding achievement.
Robert James
28. DocJames
Bluejo, here is a quote from a contemporary newspaper describing the abdication of Edward VIII: "'Edward, the beautiful boy king with his gaiety and honesty, his American accent and nervous twitching, his flair and glamour, was part of history'."

Abbott and Costello, and Laurel and Hardy, were referred to as "the boys" right up until their deaths.

I hope this puts this particular comment to rest; if he was described as such in the newspapers on his abdication, an author is entitled to describe him as such in a biography.

Or are we not allowed to call Babe Ruth the Sultan of Swat since his records have been broken?
29. Bill Patterson
OK -- I've been going over sources and doing research for the last six hours, and here's what I've found about what I've been calling the "Mt. Suribachi incident."

1. It didn't happen on Iwo, which means not Mt. Suribachi.

2. It didn't happen on Okinawa. None of the civilian suicides in Okinawa are ringing bells at all. Understandable as I know I didn't research the Okinawa campaign at the time this was written.

3. I'm having the same problem James Nicoll reported re tracking down the incident and reconstructing my original sources. It's hard to find information about Japanese civilian casualties without reliable keywords to work with.

So, yes, it does appear to be an error -- and an embarrassing one. I think I know how it happened, from the fact that there is no source noted in my original draft.

The text in question was written six years ago. I used my chronology of notes (35 mb by now) as the basis for whatever I was writing, but that essentially covers only stuff that was going on in Heinlein's life and a scattering of other contextual information. In the middle of composition it often happened that I needed to look up additional contextual data using online sources. Somehow I conflated information from different sources together.

I have a vague recollection that I picked up that particular incident from a USMC history of some kind -- but it's six years ago and the page I thought I noted in the original draft is now something else, confusingly having to do with a national park.

I think the best "fix" is simply to omit the Mt. Suribachi part of the discussion there -- the rest of the passage on how the Japanese defense hardened is correct and necessary for the overall thrust of the rest of the chapter.

I want to thank you for catching that. It's an embarrassing mistake, to be sure, but in some weird way I'm glad it was a kind of mistake it was, if it had to be a mistake.
Melita Kennedy
30. melita

I wish you had stated clearly in your first post (@4) that you had an editorial involvement with the book. By originally stating that "I've read the book," I assumed that you had read the final version, or perhaps an ARC, only. I didn't pick on the fact you had read uncorrected proofs (@7) or I again assumed it was an ARC.

Finding out in your post @23 that you had been involved for quite a while with the manuscript was a surprise and made me re-read your posts. It definitely affected my interpretation of your earlier comments.
31. Alan Bellingham
DocJames @ 26: "There has never been a two-volume biography of any SF author, excepting H.G. Wells, to the best of my knowledge"

The best of your knowledge is somewhat lacking, I fear. A quick check reveals "Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan" by Irwin Porges (ISBN-10: 0345251318)
32. ohagyo
The ultimate outcome seems to be: The Churchill speech mixup and the Iwo Jima detail are factual errors but are not particularly relevant to the book as a whole or to any particular detail concerning Heinlein's life; the "boy king" reference was not an error; the subjunctive reference to "would naturally have met" Millay was not correct but wasn't really a factual assertion either; and "myxococcus catarrhalis" is correct from the medical record but is outdated medical terminology, and may be a clue to a fruitful line of evidence for more tightly focused investigations into Heinlein's medical history. After all the mudslinging, it's not surprising to me that neither side came out pristine and some of the conflict was over nothing much.

What comes across here to this outsider is a negativity on the part of Jo Walton and CarlosSkullsplitter that seems disproportionate to the claimed errors, followed by too-hasty and defensive reactions from Bill Patterson and DocJames. Ms. Walton and CarlosSkullsplitter seized any possible ambiguity or omission – or actual error – to conclude there is pervasive negligent error, while Mr. Patterson and DocJames initially dismissed every complaint as mistaken or too trivial for concern. What I perceived in the exchange (whether I am "factually correct" or not) seemed based more on emotional reactions and entrenchment and less on genuine academic discourse.

Mr. Patterson, thank you from the bottom of my heart for devoting so much time and effort into creating this biography of an author I have loved since I started reading his juveniles at age 8. Thank you for pulling back from your initial reactions and admitting error where warranted. The clearest evidence of academic integrity is admitting error. As a reader of non-fiction I already know that no author is infallible, and it's a comfort to know that I could question something in your book and receive a straight answer. That is where true trust in an author arises, I think: not from needing the author to be sans peur et sans reproche, but from knowing that if I question something, I will get a rational and thoughtful response.

Ms. Walton, for all the interpolated protestations that the errors are "insignificant," the post's title, tone, and conclusion state most forcefully the opposite. The actual criticisms, shorn of emotional freight, are unquestionably worthy of being addressed, and I am glad you raised them. Whatever the motivation for your dislike of either Mr. Patterson or his work, for the sake of readers at like me I would hope that future criticisms will be expressed in a way that better invites a constructive response from the author. Mr. Patterson eventually made it through his natural defensive reaction and re-grounded on his academic integrity, but I think it would have been nice for us all to have had the benefit of that without the initial merry-go-round.
33. LaurelL
I'm afraid I have to disagree with the conclusion of your #32, ohaygo. I have no stance on the accuracy or lack thereof of the Patterson biography, which I have not read yet, but I hope that future reviews on, from this author or any other, will not be written in a way "that better invites a constructive response from the author." In my opinion, reviews are a tool for readers and should not be gentled or softened for fear of other opinions; a review with negative elements on this site gives me a better opinion of the reviewer, as well as Other sites sponsored or run by publishers have had little interest for me because I knew that all I could expect was glowing endorsements of their authors. A constructive response from an author in the comments of any review is, of course, an excellent bonus for interested readers, but I believe it is ancillary to the primary purpose of a review.
Janet Kegg
34. jmk
FYI--yesterday's Washington Post had a review by Michael Dirda of the biography.
Lynn Calvin
35. romsfuulynn
@ohagyo wrote "What comes across here to this outsider" but really there are no outsiders in Heinlein fandom.

Mr. Patterson is doing reasonably well responding to Jo's review, although less is usually better from authors. I had initially wondered if DocJames was a sockpuppet, but if he was involved in the book his reactions to the review are a little more understandable.

To both Mr. Patterson and DocJames, given that the book isn't out until Tuesday I'd suggest you need to walk away from the computer, probably for the next couple of weeks, and then have someone disconnect your keyboard for another week before you are allowed to say anything.

Heinlein inspires passionate partisanship in a way that Asimov and Bradbury and other giants don't. Some of those people are going to care about this book.

I *cancelled my Amazon order* for this book because I'm flying out of town Tuesday, won't be home until Friday and am morally certain I'd end up buying one in a bookstore on the road.

Jo is an extremely insightful and thoughtful essayist on the genre and I can see that her issues here may sting, but these are going to be nothing compared to what is going to happened once the book is loose in the wild.

I'm also somewhat interested to watch and see what happens to this thread.
36. CarlosSkullsplitter
Bill Patterson @ 29,

Yeah, I guessed that's what must have happened. I sympathize. Believe me, I have been there.

But here's the thing: Iwo Jima is known for its lack of civilian casualties. People with an interest in the war in the Pacific will spot that immediately, as in fact they did.

That means that your manuscript, through its long journey to press, was not read closely enough by anyone with enough interest in military history to pick up on that mistake.

And that's problematic, considering the military background of your subject.

I'm getting the sense that the book was not strongly fact-checked by someone not the author. This is important, because it's very easy for authors to overlook mistakes they've made themselves. They become embedded in the flow of prose, and the eye skips right over them.

DocJames above swears that any statement about Heinlein in the book can be verified in primary sources about Heinlein. And that's fine, but that's only the first step. Source evaluation, verification, and context? I will have to read more of the book, but I don't mean to harsh when I say that so far I'm finding the descriptions of the procedures lacking.

(You don't have to worry about the lost sale. I've had this book on pre-order for a while.)

And it makes me worried about the more complicated issues in the second volume. Heinlein's trip to the Soviet Union has fascinated me for a long time, especially his immediate acceptance of his friend's extremely low estimate of the population of Moscow, which we now know was badly mistaken. That's a topic which requires a fairly thorough understanding of several different areas, even if the result can be summarized in a few sentences. (My own guess: the Soviets Virginia spoke to about their living conditions lied like rugs, since they knew they lived in cramped squalor and Americans didn't.) Will Heinlein's mistake simply be presented as his opinion, as DocJames suggests above?

I understand that the people bringing this book to fruition have a strong emotional attachment to Heinlein. I have to ask, though: was this book run past anyone without a direct investment in Heinlein? An American cultural historian of the first half of 20th century would have been ideal, I'd think. But the more eyes, the more dispassionate eyes, and the more different types of eyes, the better.
37. Coalbiter
Re DocJames #28

Bluejo, here is a quote from a contemporary newspaper describing the abdication of Edward VIII: "'Edward, the beautiful boy king with his gaiety and honesty, his American accent and nervous twitching, his flair and glamour, was part of history'."

Since you raised the issue of scholarship in #23, let's have some, shall we?

Your quote is surely taken from the Diaries of Chip Channon. If it is indeed something Channon wrote for a contemporary newspaper, then please cite the name and date of the newspaper.

I think bluejo's general point, that if a book cannot be trusted on the details the reader does know something about, how can it be trusted on matters that are new to the reader, remains valid.
Steven Halter
38. stevenhalter
On the topic of the trustworthiness of non-fiction books in general:
I don't think I've ever encountered a book that doesn't have some number of typos. For books whose subject matter I'm acquainted with, I don't think I've ever seen one that doesn't have, at least, some minor errors.
So, a few minor errors are not really a great problem and can be corrected. If the work was rife with major errors on it's subject, then that would be another problem altogether.
Greg Morrow
39. gpmorrow
If I may, the term "subjunctive tense" is used incorrectly. It has a technical meaning in grammar, and the given quotation is definitely not in the subjunctive mood (which is not a tense). Nor does the subjunctive mood express the flavor of a time and place; it is used counterfactually.
41. Jonquil
Coalbiter@37: My previous response was flagged as spam because it contained a URL. You're absolutely right; p. 99 of the 1993 paperback edition. Good catch!
42. ohagyo
@33 LaurelL: I quite agree that critique is important, and pointing out what one believes to be error is important. And I am glad that we received such thorough response to the identified issues. Personally I think it's great that the author is willing to be involved in these discussions.

My objection was to the tone of Ms. Walton's initial post, which came across to me as disproportionately eager to condemn the entire book on what seemed thin evidence of problems with some peripheral facts. It's not "fear of other opinions" that should constrain provocative rhetoric, but rather a worthy interest in eliciting a substantive response. The post came across to me more as finding rationalizations to denigrate the entire book than offering useful critique. I thought Mr. Patterson recovered well from a start that could easily have degenerated into a flame war.

@39 gpmorrow, thanks for correcting DocJames and me; you are quite right, "would have met" is not subjunctive mood but conditional tense.

@35 romsfuulynn, I meant as an outsider observing the exchange, not as an outsider to Heinlein. And I agree with you; the flaming will get much worse on release of the bio. But I have come to greatly admire the forum that and its contributors have created and for my own selfish reasons want it to stay as civil as possible.

@36 CarlosSkullsplitter, FWIW, I think your post is a good example of criticism presented in a way that invites constructive response. I hope Vol. II does/did get the vetting you describe.

@38 shalter, you said much more succinctly what I meant most to say.
43. Bill Patterson
Thanks for all your comments. I am not going to get involved in a blog controversy, but I think I can discuss errors and omissions as they are pointed out.

No matter how hard you try, there are going to be some; with any luck at all they will relate to issues that don't invalidate the passages in question, and I guess on that point I've been pretty lucky so far.

This discussion has prompted me to set up an "Errors and Omissions" sub-thread on the Nexus biography thread, which is the FORUM link on the first line of my author site, and I guess I'll have to spell it out since URLs apparently get flagged as spam:

WWW-dot-doubleyew-aitch-PATTERSON-jay-arr-dot.COM or you can reach it directly through the Heinlein Nexus, q.v.

In brief answer to a question raised above: individual passages -- typically chapters -- of the book were run by authoritative people as to their areas of special knowledge. The book as a whole was read by seven or eight individuals who have a wide spread of ancillary interests. Only one of them was completely disconnected from what might loosely be called the "Heinlein community." Two of them had an interest in Heinlein as a personal friend but had no other interaction with the Heinlein community.

Some of these things should probably have been questioned by the copyeditor, but there were, shall we say *problems* with the copyedit, and I'm not going to talk about that.
Steven Halter
44. stevenhalter
Bill Patterson:

Here's the link:
Patterson's site

(You have to use the bbCode.)
James Goetsch
45. Jedikalos
Mr. Patterson:

I appreciate the way you have responded to all the comments here(and given my earlier comment about being disappointed, etc.--your clear responses have again made me rather eager to read the book).
46. RandolphF
Oh, my.

My sense of the book from the reviews is that this is very much a biography in the Victorian style, from a man who very much loves his subject but without a formal academic background; someone who would once have been called an amateur (someone who loves) in a positive sense. Such work has both positives and negatives. I am very glad we have the work. The writing of this work was plainly a labor of love. I cannot imagine any 20th- or early 21st-century English department supporting the author, so we are very lucky to have it at all. On the other hand, if you're looking for the scrupulous precision and writing style of modern academic work, you will be--as Ms. Walton here is--disappointed in it. I would hope there is an honorary doctorate waiting for Mr. Patterson.

Victorian styles, it seems, are making a comeback in more than just clothing. Have we fallen into a Neal Stephenson novel?
47. Noel Maurer
Paterson@43: as somebody who has also been there (I mentioned one recent error above) I would strongly suggest that you have professional cultural and economic historians read the relevant parts of volume II as much as possible.

Depending on the budget, I can also suggest several people who do this for a living and are very good at it.
48. Jonquil
"that this is very much a biography in the Victorian style, from a man who very much loves his subject but without a formal academic background; "

Er. The hefty Victorian biographies of which I am aware were written by carefully-chosen friends, relatives, or acquaintances of the deceased, and were if anything overresearched. Modern biographical standards of course did not apply, but that applies more to the perceived purpose of biography, one of the Victorian purposes being to inspire and to glorify.

To illustrate, I went and grabbed the first Victorian biography of Sir Robert Peel I could find, by Baron Dalling and Bulwer, a British diplomat and politician. ("Sir Robert Peel: An Historical Sketch", 1874). By page 8, Bulwer is giving a careful and readable explanation of politics in Parliament at the time of Peel's elevation, and explaining exactly why there was room for advancement. Bulwer was at enormous pains to provide context from his own experience and to make that context clear to the reader.

The Victorian standards for "amateur" did not mean "academically unpracticed"; rather they meant "with an established reputation in some field and connection to the upper classes", the latter being essential for access to the private papers. A degree from Oxford or Cambridge would have been the minimal expectation, and would have been presumed to teach research and writing standards of the day.
49. Bill Patterson
Update on the "Mt. Suribachi incident." When I posted a discussion of the error on the "Errors and Omissions" thread on the Heinlein Nexus, which is archiving for my author site, a couple of the regulars told me I was probably thinking of the Saipan campaign, rather than Iwo.
50. RandolphF
"The hefty Victorian biographies of which I am aware were written by carefully-chosen friends, relatives, or acquaintances of the deceased, and were if anything overresearched."

This describes Patterson's book, yes? Over-researching is perhaps even a virtue in a study of a man so private as Heinlein. Your description of Baron Dalling and Bulwer's work doesn't address minute accuracy. It would be extremely difficult to determine that book's accuracy at this late date.

Modern academic standards of accuracy derive ultimately from scientific and engineering practices that were being invented in the Victorian period. Modern (which is to say post-modern) biographical understandings of character derive from psychology, also being invented in that period. This isn't a criticism of Victorian biography. It is perhaps a criticism of current practices. But I see no way a modern reader read in current biography can read a recently-written biography without applying the standards of our time and place. Even if, in the end, the modern reader decides that their standards are inappropriate to the work, there is still going to be that moment of questioning.
51. Bill Patterson
Jo, I got a library copy of _Savage Beauty_ (large print ed., so page number references probably won't match the edition you read). As I've said elsewhere, that book was not available to me when I wrote the passage that mentions EStVM, but I've been reading through it now, trying to find out what, if any, revision needed to be made to that passage in the bio. I've just gotten past that time frame and stopped with a question for you (I did skim through the remainder before stopping, but there doesn't seem to be anything relevant to my question).

First, just an observation: while it's true Edna and Eugen had been living at Steepletop for some years and not in New York, they had been off and on in New York for the last couple of years, 1928 and 1929, for, e.g., the production of her opera written by Deems Tayor. The relevant chapter points out [586] that they were in New York in March and presumably again in May 1929 on either end of a trip to France. It's true they had not been "core bohemians" for some years -- but not true that they were therefore unavailable entirely.

My question is, how did you decide that she was at Steepletop during the time RAH was in New York? I have been unable to find any mention or even reference to the relevant timeframe. The book only says that she worked on the sonnets that would become _Twice Required_ [working title of _Fatal Interview_] in the "fall and winter" without attributing the year.

Construing from the very vague dating Milford provides [the last definite date is 3/11/29 on p. 586 and the reference to _Fatal Interview_ takes place on 602, so there has been 16 pages covering apparently two years, without a single definite date], I took the year of "fall and winter" to be 1929-30 with the book to be published in March 1930, but the various Millay sites and bibliographies list year of publication of _Fatal Interview_ as 1931, which would mean "fall and winter" of 1930-31, whereas Heinlein was in Greenwich Village in May through June of 1930 -- about which there is no information at all in Milford. There is not a single letter, event or document definitely tagged to 1930 in Milford.

Consequently, I have no way of evaluating your objection.

I'm not entirely sure you will see this, so I'm copying this to my author site's "errors and omissions" thread on the Heinlein Nexus in case discussion eventuates.
52. amcombill
Jo Walton said in her original post: "I was familiar with the broad outlines of his life and career from Expanded Universe, and I’ve even read alternate history stories where he was cured of TB and became military dictator of the U.S."

Walton has strongly criticized (too strongly, I think) the Heinlein biography because some inconsequential details are not right. Too bad, then, she got the details of the Niven story wrong: in "The Return of William Proxmire", Heinlein ends up as an admiral, but he is not a military dictator.

Glass houses, throw stones, etc.
Jo Walton
53. bluejo
Amcombill: I think they wrote it so you can read it either way. "Admiral Heinlein would never allow that" could mean that he's just an admiral with an unusual degree of power, or it could mean that he's an admiral with a scarily unusual degree of power. Military dictator was shorthand for that. But OK, fine, you got me. I'm not fit to write a biography -- fortunately I know that and haven't tried.

Bill: The book came out in 1931, for sure. The reason Milford doesn't have any detail on that time is because Millay was writing and not seeing people. If Millay had gone to New York (especially if she'd been behaving the way she had in the previous decade) she'd have seen people and they'd have written about it and Milford would have quoted them. _Savage Beauty_ doesn't tell us what people did every day, or what they would have done, when they are at home and Milford doesn't know.

I don't think this is important -- it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that Millay might have gone down to New York and run into Heinlein, but it's not the inevitability you made it seem, the way that it would have been if he'd been there ten years earlier. It's just a typical example of the sloppy use of background details. I found so many that it made me very grumpy -- these were just examples. There were other things that felt wrong but where I didn't have the books to check -- and where I'd have trusted you if you hadn't already destroyed my trust.
54. Captain Button
@53 "Admiral Heinlein would never allow that"

The actual quote is:

"I don't think so, Bill. We don't have the political support. We don't have the incentive. Where would a Nobel Prize come from? We can't prove there was ever a time line different from this one. Besides, this isn't just a more interesting world, it's safer too. Admiral Heinlein doesn't let the Soviets build spacecraft."
Proxmire stopped breathing for an instant. Then, "I suppose he wouldn't."
"Nope. He's taking six of their people on the Mars expedition, though. They paid their share of the cost in fusion bombs for propulsion."

- page 283, The Return of William Proxmire by Larry Niven, Requiem: New Collected Works by Robert A. Heinlein and Tributes to the Grand Master, (Feb 1992, Robert A. Heinlein, publ. Tor, 0-312-85168-5) (Thanks to the ISFDB for saving me some typing.)

(The book doesn't list separate copyrights that I can find, just Copyright (c) 1992 by Yoji Kondo. That part seems odd to me.)

I suppose you can still talk of "political support" in a military dictatorship. And running a military dictatorship from a ship en route to Mars is doable, I'd suppose.
55. dichroic
Bit of a difference, I think, between making a mistake about the wording of a story in an internet column (and acknowledging it), and making a mistake about history in a biography.

(Also, *are* there any instances where an American admiral got to say what the Soviets could or couldn't do? I wouldn't have expected so from what information I know of an admiral's scope of command, but I'm also not that good on military history.)
56. Captain Button
(Also, *are* there any instances where an American admiral got to say what the Soviets could or couldn't do? I wouldn't have expected so from what information I know of an admiral's scope of command, but I'm also not that good on military history.)

It has been known in history for people in casual conversation (as in the quote above) to speak casually, rather than in a totally correct manner.
57. angharad
I think that the "boy-king"reference is a quotation of a sardonic remark intended to convey that the problem was prolonged adolescence. it might have been Baldwin
58. Anghaard
I've been reminded that, in published letters, we now know that he referred to himself as "a boy"
"A boy is holding a girl so very tight in his arms tonight. "
Wallis Simpson wasn't always very discreet, and it's not impossible that their circle knew about this
It's also been suggested to me that the Mitfords referred to hi m as "the boy"
Laer Carroll
59. LaerCarroll
Thanks everyone for an interesting discussion. You got me interested in this book.

I just read it. Thanks Bill Patterson.

I'm a retired aerospace engineer working to becoming a pro author. I was happy to hear that even Heinlein struggled to get his work published. I can now return to struggling with less pessimism.

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