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Remembering Philip Jose Farmer
PHILIP JOSE FARMER ’50 HON ’98, pictured in his home in 1998, is surrounded by some of his characters in a painting by James Warhola for the cover of A Book of Philip Jose Farmer. Photo by Duane Zehr.
A condensed version of this essay appears in the Summer 2009 issue of Bradley Hilltopics.
Bradley lost one of its more celebrated alumni in February, when PHILIP JOSE FARMER ’50 HON ’98, the award-winning science fiction author, as well as prominent Peorian, passed away. Farmer (1918-2009) was involved with the University throughout his life, starting as a student in 1940, and he would eventually receive the honor of being named a Centurion in the ’90s, thanks to the support of a number of people, including some English professors, administrators, and the interest of then president John Brazil, a Jack London scholar who may have enjoyed Farmer’s depictions of London in his famous Riverworld tales.
One thing is certain: Farmer gained a wide knowledge of literature from his studies at Bradley in the 1940s. For most of that decade, he was obliged to be a part-time student, while working to support a family. Nevertheless, he did serve briefly as the Bradley Braves mascot. (Early in his life, Farmer believed that he had Native American genes in his heritage.) Some credit for Farmer’s knowledge of James Joyce’s fiction, William Blake’s mythology, and the canon of English literature may be due to the erudite teaching of saintly Olive B. White, a Ph.D. from Radcliffe, and of Sue Maxwell, a feisty Georgian with a Yale Ph.D. and a fanatical devotion to Shakespeare. I knew both ladies in their final years at Bradley, and can attest to their fine qualities. Incidentally, both appear occasionally in Farmer’s fiction under other names.
Farmer began to break into science fiction magazines after attaining his degree in 1950, but the road to success was rocky. While he challenged taboos about social class, sex, and religion in his short fiction, he ran into numerous difficulties with publishers over novels. In those days, long before the success of Star Wars and other films, science fiction was considered a kind of magazine “ghetto” apart from the “mainstream,” with only a limited market for science fiction novels, apart from young adult readers who devoured Robert Heinlein’s books. Eventually, economic reality forced Farmer to take work as a technical writer, a profession that led him to Syracuse, Scottsdale, and Los Angeles. After his return to Peoria in 1969 due to layoffs in the aerospace industry, Farmer committed himself to full-time writing and created a career renaissance. Simultaneously, he developed a self-defined role as a resident liberal gadfly commenting on political issues. But during ensuing decades, he continued to maintain a friendly relationship with Bradley, starting with an Olive B. White lecture in the early ’70s.
It was about that time that I made Phil’s acquaintance, and his advice proved beneficial as I developed the first course in science fiction for the Bradley English department. Frequently, during the ’70s and ’80s, Phil would sometimes visit my class by invitation, receiving an enthusiastic welcome from students. I also maintained an informal relationship with Phil through the Peoria Sherlock Holmes Society, and his assistance was valuable when I wrote my 40,000-word Borgo Press monograph on his work (published early 1984). At the start of the ’90s, Phil appeared as the star of an Illinois Humanities Council panel on science fiction at Bradley, which was set up by Dr. Steven Kagle of Illinois State University and myself, and which also included the highly respected scholar Gary Wolfe of DePaul. Thus, Phil made real contributions of his time and knowledge, which were remembered when he received the nomination to become a Bradley Centurion.
Just how good a writer was Phil Farmer? Well, he wrote mostly for a genre which is still often disparaged and whose works are often undervalued or ignored by “mainstream” critics. Of course, there is a tradition in scholarship on the genre which is about a generation old, but even this academic tradition has had to battle for respectability within universities.
Since Phil wrote a number of novels of vigorous adventure, it would be easy to dismiss his work as merely commercial. But Phil produced some works of solid quality. His Venus and the Half-Shell (1975), a satire inspired by Kurt Vonnegut, and published under the name Kilgore Trout, remains an amusing and incisive work. Phil’s famous Riverworld series is vividly imagined, and raises philosophic questions, even if its answers disappointed some readers. Tarzan Alive (1972) is a sophisticated recasting of the Tarzan myth, and has been reprinted by the University of Nebraska Press. Some think highly of certain novels in the World of Tiers series, with their memorable trickster hero called Kickaha. And Fire and the Night (1962) is realistic treatment of an interracial love affair, which was well ahead of most books on this theme.
However, I will single out for special notice two lesser-known Farmer works. Jesus on Mars (1979) is an unorthodox treatment of Christian teachings, a surprisingly sympathetic treatment by an author who had often satirized Christian theology (as in the ribald short story, “J.C. on the Dude Ranch,” which everyone but fundamentalists could find hilarious). Even more significant is The Unreasoning Mask (1981), a superbly written space voyage story, which is actually a quest for meaning. This novel dramatizes Farmer’s interest in Sufi mysticism, and provides Phil’s most affirmative comment on life, at least in fiction. It is clearly Farmer’s masterpiece, and was chose as one of the 100 best science fiction novels of its era by the English critic, David Pringle. There is a chance that this speculative work will become a classic of the science fiction genre.
By the final decade of his life, Phil Farmer had become moderately well-to-do, which must have been satisfying after growing up in the laboring middle class in Peoria in the Great Depression. But knowing the way that pulp science fiction could give hope to people in tough time, Phil might prefer to be remembered as an author who created resolute characters in fiction, characters whose courage could inspire and sustain his readers in difficult days.
About the author
Edgar L. Chapman, professor emeritus of English, received his Ph.D. in English from Brown University and taught literature at Bradley University for nearly four decades before retiring in 2002. During his teaching career, he developed a number of courses, including the first on science fiction and fantasy. He is the author of several articles on modern literature, including an essay on Thomas Berger’s classic Little Big Man, and an introductory essay for the University of Nebraska Press edition of Max Brand’s The Legend of Thunder Moon, both discussing novels about life among the Cheyenne Indians inspired by the work of George Bird Grinnell. He is the author of a book-length monograph on Philip Jose Farmer, The Magic Labyrinth of Philip Jose Farmer (Borgo Press) and of numerous articles on science fiction writers (including Edgar Rice Burroughs, Stanley Weinbaum, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Leigh Brackett, and Susan Haden Elgin). Another book The Road to Castle Mount, a study of the science fiction of Robert Silverberg, was published by Greenwood Press. Chapman is the co-editor of a collection of essays entitled Classic and Iconoclastic Alternate History Science Fiction (2003).
“Most promising find of 1952”
PHILIP JOSE FARMER ’50 HON ’98 was honored years before he became a full-time science fiction writer.