Harlan Ellison, the American Jewish author of speculative fiction who died on June 27 at age 84, proved that early struggles with anti-Semitism could provide literary, as well as moral, inspiration. Ellison’s dystopian science fiction landmarks included “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,”The Deathbird,” and “Angry Candy.” Born in Cleveland, he was raised in Painesville, Illinois where, as he told an online interviewer in 2005, his schoolmates:
were the products of their parents inbred anti-Semitism. If they believed anything, they believed that Jews had horns and killed Christian babies to make their matzos… Jehovah’s witnesses were big around there and I remember very clearly one day when I was walking home from school and this little girl started following me. And she started saying, ‘You’re gonna go to hell because you don’t believe in Jesus Christ. You’re gonna go to hell, and when you’re in hell, you’re gonna want water, and I won’t give it to you!’ And I started crying and I ran on home. Years later, I had to laugh: What a terribly loving, ‘Christian’ attitude that was on her part… I knew I was a Jew because they would not let me forget I was a Jew.
Ellison eventually learned to brawl to defend himself, despite his diminutive size. He developed a belligerent persona which was described euphemistically by one friend, Robert Silverberg, a fellow science-fiction writer: “Harlan is quite a show, though not one I always wish I were attending.” In the documentary film “Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth (2008), the English Jewish author Neil Gaiman describes Ellison as a “cranky old Jew who doesn’t just enjoy his cranky old Jewdom. He revels in it.” Ellison once explained to Stephen King that among possible epithets to describe himself, he preferred “troublemaker, malcontent, desperado. I see myself as a combination of Zorro and Jiminy Cricket.”
Armed with these identities, in adulthood Ellison gravitated toward like-minded writers such as Yonkers-born Avram Davidson (1923–1993) who would not even touch Ellison’s Olympia typewriter on the grounds that its manufacturer was German. Neither Ellison nor Davidson believed that Nazism could be safely relegated to past history. In Ellison’s story “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” a concentration camp survivor sees ghosts of executed Nazi war criminals walking around unscathed. Ellen Weil and Gary K. Wolfe, authors of a critical study of Ellison’s work, also point to the stories “Twilight in the Cupboard” and “The Silence” as highlighting “themes of Jewish assimilation and the Holocaust,” with the former particularly inspired by Arthur Morse’s Holocaust history, “While Six Million Died.”
Wary about the potential revival of Nazism due to human laziness, stupidity, and evil, Ellison often wrote about the theme, especially in a “Star Trek” TV episode from 1967, “City on the Edge of Forever.” As he recounted in a full length book about the rewritings his script endured, Ellison imagined that Captain Kirk, played by William Shatner, would visit America in the 1930s and fall in love with a women who established a pacifist movement, delaying America’s entry into World War II until after Hitler’s Germany had developed atomic weaponry, allowing the Nazis to win to war. Leonard Nimoy, as Spock, reminds Kirk of the historical implications with retrospective irony, given Shatner and Nimoy’s Judaism.
As a young author, Ellison also maintained historical equilibrium in the allegorical story “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman,” (1965) a plea for civil disobedience to combat repressive governments. Ellison was also a man of action; he participated alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., in the Selma to Montgomery protest marches of 1965 to advocate voting rights for African-Americans and combat segregation. Embracing anger as an artistic instrument, Ellison empathized with spirits such as the tormented comedian Lenny Bruce. In Ellison’s autobiographical story “Final Shtick”, also influenced by Bruce’s self-destructive furies, a Jewish comedian who has hidden his religious origins recalls the anti-Semitism of his childhood when he revisits his hometown. Marty Field (born Morrie Feldman) is given the opportunity to address the subject of their hatred of Jews when he meets the townspeople, but instead runs away weeping.
Despite these somber visions, Ellison was also able to express Yiddishkeit with humor in the story “I’m Looking For Kadak” originally written for inclusion in “Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction (1998).” A futuristic character named Evsise is an unusual Jew, being a blue, eleven-armed inhabitant of the planet Zsouchmuhn. It turns out that finding a tenth man for a minyan on an asteroid can be even more problematic than similar terrestrial quests. In Ellison’s recording of “I’m Looking For Kadak,” he sounds akin to Mel Brooks’ 2000 Year Old Man. Carrying the joking to unlikely extents, when Ellison’s mother Serita Rosenthal died in 1976, in guise of a eulogy at her funeral, he recounted her favorite joke, a lengthy one. It featured two impoverished Jews in Buffalo, New York, one of whom tries to sell the other a two-ton circus elephant for $2500. After much hondling, the price for this utterly impractical item is knocked down to $500, whereupon the buyer, unable to resist a bargain, exclaims, “Now you’re talking business!”
Ellison could also be captious on the subject of Judaism. Last year he told another online interviewer that he identified as a “stiff-necked Jewish atheist… I say, in defiance of Albert Einstein, yes, the universe does shoot craps — God does shoot craps with the universe. One day you’ll win 200 million in the lottery and the next day you’ll get colon cancer.”
Despite such vagaries of fate, Ellison is sure to be remembered for his feistiness, launching lawsuits and winning settlements when he felt Hollywood studios had lifted his work without remunerating him, as well as confronting bullies. One such was Frank Sinatra, who in 1966, as described in an article for Esquire Magazine by Gay Talese, chose to taunt Ellison in a West Coast poolroom. When a bourbon-soaked Sinatra repeatedly goaded Ellison because the latter was wearing boots, Ellison finally retorted: “Look, is there any reason why you’re talking to me?” To which Ol’ Blue Eyes snarled: “I don’t like the way you’re dressed.” Toughened by the horrors of Painesville, Ellison undauntedly replied: “Hate to shake you up, but I dress to suit myself.” This particular confrontation wound down without violence, through no quailing by Ellison. On the contrary, he would regularly issue philippics against those who sinned, or who might sin, against him, such as internet pirates posting his work online without paying fees. To these nogoodniks, he offered the cheery message: “If you put your hand in my pocket, you’ll drag back six inches of bloody stump.” In 2016, he told The Pasadena Weekly that he cultivated the image of “being a tough old bagel that’s hard to chew.” As ferocious as his demeanour could be, he was also a kind mentor to younger writers, notably the late African-American science fiction author Octavia Butler. Ellison was a sometimes unpalatable bagel, then, but one capable of singular literary achievement, panache, and generosity.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.