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Reviewed by:
  • The Legacy of Olaf Stapledon: Critical Essays and an Unpublished Manuscript
  • John Huntington
Patrick McCarthy, Charles Elkins, and Martin Henry Greenberg, eds. The Legacy of Olaf Stapledon: Critical Essays and an Unpublished Manuscript. Westport: Greenwood, 1989. 140 pp. $37.95.

The admirers of Olaf Stapledon find his continued obscurity a puzzle. While the defenders of Shakespeare, Austen, Joyce, or Woolf develop critical angles and languages to convey what they value in these artists, the defenders of Stapledon still can only say, "Read him." Such a failure to enunciate value may be a sign of the inadequacy of our criticism, or it may be a sign of something hidden in Stapledon that enthusiasm fails to see.

The volume under review, a collection of six essays followed by a short, previously unpublished Stapledon manuscript, leaves the issue of Stapledon's unfamiliarity untouched. Stapledon's most acclaimed works, Last and First Men and Starmaker, receive comparatively little attention. Robert Shelton explicates Stapledon's philosophical works. Patrick McCarthy discusses in general terms what Stapledon shares with modernism. Two essays, Charles Elkins' challenging of Stapledon's quest for totality and Cheryl Herr's posing the dichotomy of convention and spirit as the deep structure of Stapledon's thought, begin to raise questions about Stapledon's goals, although neither develops a thorough and convincing argument.

Louis Tremaine's essay, "Ritual Experience in Odd John and Sirius," comes closest to identifying the unease that represents Stapledon's strength and prevents his recognition. Using ideas from Eliade, Van Gennep, and Turner, Tremaine reads both novels as rendering a transitional moment between a conventional social "structure" and an enlightened "communitas." He persuasively argues that the murders in the books are sacrifices in which the protagonists encounter death by substitute. The essay does justice to the transformational ideal without losing sight of the moral atrocities depicted in these works and the problems they pose for the reader. [End Page 810]

The last two selections in the volume put us in touch with aspects of Stapledon's failure. Curtis Smith describes unsympathetically Stapledon's struggle in the late 1930s to defend his pacifist position in letters to newspaper editors. The sense of intellectual impotence that Smith conveys is amplified by the final selection, Stapledon's "Letters to the Future." Like late James, late Stapledon can sound like self-parody. The advice is entirely abstract; all assertions are withdrawn as soon as made; and although repeatedly disclaiming preaching, the letters are sermons. There is one fine atheistic apothegm, which has an angry energy quite unlike anything else in these letters: "I shall not forget the joy with which my slow mind first discovered that the human race and the stars are not a poultry farm for the production of moral foie gras for a gluttonous God." In his fiction Stapledon could give life to such an experience of intellectual discovery. As philosophy, however, it remains, as he himself seems at times aware, adolescent. Stapledon's "legacy" is not all of equal value, and it should be part of his admirers' task to discriminate. This book suggests some beginning points.

John Huntington
University of Illinois at Chicago


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