Fanzines reviewed: À BAS (#09) – Part Two.
In last week’s column I rather coyly stated that Harry Warner Jr. had contributed an absolutely wonderful column to Boyd Raeburn’s À BAS # 9 (Nov 1956) but that I had run out of room and so would delay my review of it till this column.
Titled “I Walked Beside Thee,” it is Harry Warner Jr.’s account of the one and only time Harry met Claude Degler. An astonishing encounter. One of the best of fans confronted by
the worst fan. Actually it went surprisingly well.
First, some information about Claude. I wrote about him before in my October 5th, 2013 column, but I figure a brief summary is in order to help you make sense of Warner’s comments.
Claude Degler is the ultimate example of a mentally disturbed individual who, taking advantage of fandom’s traditional tolerance of unorthodox ideas, promotes a personal agenda so bizarre that prominent fans eventually unite to ostracize him in order to prevent fandom’s reputation among mundanes from getting any worse than it already is. He is THE classic fugghead.
As a teenager, Degler spent the years 1936/1937 in the Indiana Hospital for the Insane, and was released against the advice of his doctors. Somehow he got involved with local fandom (the Indiana Fantasy Association) and helped Leonard Marlowe produce a fanzine titled INFINITE. In 1939 he hit upon ‘The Cosmic Concept’ – that it was up to him to organize fandom into the ‘Cosmic Circle’ of ‘Cosmen’ who would selectively breed a race of super mutants who would eventually rule the Solar System – and he spent the rest of his fannish career proselytizing other fans. To that end, he began traveling across the States asking to stay with various fans whose addresses he’d picked up from the letter columns in the pro magazines. Virtually every fan he stayed with, whether willing or not, wound up being appointed head of the local state-wide SF society he created on the spot, all of these ‘organizations’ federated under his umbrella organization the ‘Planet Fantasy Federation’.
At first his crusade had little impact on fandom, if only because most of the fans he was dealing with were not actively involved in fandom at large but simply had written a letter of comment to a prozine. Still, some took notice when he appeared at the 1941 World Convention in Denver and gave a speech he claimed had been written by Martians. And mundanes took notice when he had an illicit affair with a minor (evidently trying to get his breeding program underway) in his home town of Newcastle, Indiana, sometime in 1942. In 1943 he received a 4F classification from the military, which meant that – despite the voracious manpower demands of WWII – they did not want him serving in the armed forces, a clear sign that something was amiss.
Circa 1942 and into 1943, Degler settled down in Los Angeles and churned out weekly newssheets, courtesy of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society and its print room facilities, promoting his Cosmic Crusade. At first many in fandom found his efforts amusing, but it gradually dawned on fans that his relentless self-promotion was very bad public relations for fandom, for it left the impression that fans were not just juvenile idiots, but actual lunatics.
Prominent fan T Bruce Yerke did some investigation into Degler’s background and produced a report proving that the ‘200 member’ Cosmic Circle Planet Fantasy Federation was largely a figment of Degler’s imagination, and that Degler had once been judged insane and probably still was. He demanded Degler ‘reform’ and argued fandom should shun him if he refused to halt his activities. Yerke’s report was co-signed by numerous prominent fans.
The final nail in the reputation of self-proclaimed ‘Superfan’ Degler was the reaction of Prozine AMAZING STORIES editor Ray Palmer when he read an issue of the COSMIC CIRCLE COMMENTATOR, one of Degler’s publications. Concluding that organized Fandom had drifted into the realm of Nazi-like extremism, he threatened to ban said fans from the magazine’s letter column and cease all relations with Science Fiction conventions, no more freebies for fund-raising auctions, etc. Terrified that the other pulp SF zines would follow Palmer’s lead, prominent fans contacted him and explained that Degler was a one-man crusade with no followers, that his vast Cosmic Circle group did not in fact exist, and that Degler certainly and absolutely did not reflect the thinking of fandom at large.
And so Claude Degler was set adrift from fandom. In the late 1940s he tried to re-enter fandom with threats to publish zines with titles like WEIRD UNSOLVED MYSTERIES and MONSTER STORIES, but was ignored. In 1950 he tried to join FAPA, but Secretary Treasurer Harry Warner JR. “decided two disasters were enough” (the first disaster being the resignation of two prominent fans) and chose to reject his application. The same year, Degler showed up at the Norwescon in Portland and presented a motion to the convention that it should officially denounce communism. The motion was defeated. Many assumed his intention was simply to annoy some of the left-leaning Big Name Fans who had driven him from fandom, and in that he succeeded.
Degler’s last known appearance was at the 1957 Oklacon, but he simply attended and made no effort to promote his ideas or attack his enemies.
The going of Claude Degler left fandom sadder but wiser, for it seemed he had proven that boundless energy and enthusiasm was not necessarily a good thing for fandom but could, in fact, be potentially dangerous to the cause. The Degler experience introduced a touch of realistic caution into the utopian dream worlds of fandom. Perhaps a worthwhile legacy.
I’ll leave the final word to a quote from Harry Warner J.: “In a left-handed way, Claude Degler is among the most influential fans in history. He was the ideal horrible example that put fandom onto its guard against all-out screwballs. His sponging resulted in complete revision of the unwritten laws of fan hospitality. His Cosmic Circle was an unintentional parody on all fan organizations, showing by exaggeration the ways in which they are ridiculous. His insistence that fans are star-begotten and misunderstood but destined leaders of mankind was so startling that we no longer hear the old half-serious cry, ‘Fans are Slans!'”
The occasion of the Degler/Warner meeting took place circa 1944. Writing in 1956 Warner stated: “Up till now I haven’t written in a generally circulated fanzine about my encounter with Claude Degler. Finally, I think enough time has passed to recall the cosmic circle days with tolerance, and even a gentle sense of regret at the realization that we once succeeded at growing so excited over a fundamentally unimportant fellow and his ideas… I have no startling revelations about Claude’s personal habits or private affairs. I simply want to tell about the night he came to Hagerstown.”
Harry Warner Jr. was known as the “Hermit of Hagerstown.” He wasn’t a hermit at all of course, being very busy with a lifelong career in newspaper reporting and editing in Hagerstown, Maryland. An active fan since the age of fourteen or so beginning in 1936, his fanzine “Horizons” appeared regularly in the Fantasy Amateur Press Association mailings from 1939 till his death in 2003. He wrote to and collected every single SF fanzine ever published (or so it seemed—you hadn’t “arrived” as a faned until Harry sent you a letter of comment) from the mid-thirties on. Why should he travel? He was in constant correspondence with literally hundreds of fans, sending locs averaging three pages in length (or such was my experience). I dare say his correspondence was at least as massive as that of H.P. Lovecraft, possibly greater. He was the most gregarious “hermit” you can imagine.
Anyway, it was 11:00 PM and a very busy evening shift at his newspaper. Harry looks up just as a young man (roughly 24 years old at the time) walks up, sticks out his hand and says “I’m Don Rogers.” Right away Harry knew he was looking at Degler, because “Don Rogers” was but one of numerous pseudonyms Claude was wont to use, especially when praising himself in his publications as if “Don” (and all the others) were entirely separate but enthusiastic observers applauding Claude for his Cosmen crusade.
As Harry put it: “It was just at the time when the Cosmic Circle was gaining notoriety. The Cosmic Circle’s excesses had not yet flashed into their full, dazzling eruption, but Degler was the big news in fandom. His personality and habits were the topic of articles in almost every contemporary fanzine. And Degler himself was publishing about half of the nation’s fanzines just then. I feared the worst.”
Harry then experienced two bombshells. First: “I did not find Degler to be a stinker, either figuratively or literally. He was travel-stained from his hitchhiking, but not as badly as several other fans who have used the same method of reaching Hagerstown. Later, when he opened his suitcase in my presence, I neither saw nor scented any of the semi-corruption which Los Angeles historians have described so vividly.”
The second bombshell was Degler’s announcement he’d booked a room at a local hotel. This was unheard of. He was notorious for being a kind of human limpet, who having shown up unannounced at someone’s house was prone to stay for weeks at a time no matter what the view of the homeowner. For some reason Degler, in coming to Hagerstown, was on his best behaviour to an extant wildly beyond what fandom expected of him.
“We talked for an hour or so. ‘We’ means about 80 percent Degler, 20 percent me, because Claude was very intent on converting me to the Cosmic Circle philosophy. I heard again the things that he had repeated so frequently in his fanzines: his belief that fans were a sub-species of humanity which deserved a better fate than impartial mixing with the coarser remainder of homo sapiens; his projected fan resort on some land which his family allegedly owned in the Ozarks; the present condition of the intricate web of feuds and sub-feuds between various persons in fandom and prominent figures in the Cosmic Circle. Most of these CC figures were other aliases for Degler; it seems at this late date to be fairly certain that only Degler and the girl known as Helen Bradleigh really existed.”
It was now past midnight. His shift over, and feeling rather tired, Harry nevertheless offered to walk Degler to his hotel. Turned out to be “The Mayflower,” which was 4 miles distant. Harry sighed. It was going to be a long walk. (I surmise from this Harry didn’t drive.)
“We set out at a brisk pace. When he got under the Stars, Claude expanded and began to confide in me the things that he hoped for the Cosmic Circle which he thought were a bit too daring to go into his fanzines. I don’t remember any longer what they were, but they were astonishing, something like the almost-forgotten fragments of memories that remain of a night’s dreams as you awake in the morning.”
They carried on like this for three miles. Then, seemingly confused, Degler commented it hadn’t taken this long to walk from his hotel to Harry’s office. Turns out he was staying at “The Maryland” hotel which was only half a block from the newspaper building.
Harry was gobsmacked, and infuriated. He shouted “I know a short cut to my home. Good night!” and took off running across a farmer’s field. He must have been spry, because Degler didn’t even bother chasing after him. I assume Degler simply turned around and retraced his steps and, I suspect, carried on talking just as volubly even though he was now alone.
“The morning was anti-climax… I remember we went into a restaurant for a cup of coffee… The odd things he said and did might have been ignored, if I hadn’t read so much about the person with whom I was conversing… Claude stared in fascination at the walls. They were painted with landscapes that were probably intended to represent the Hawaiian Islands; Claude instantly decided this was the purest fantasy in art… In his hotel room, where he wanted to show me some of his collection, I probably saw representative samples of many collections, if reports about Claude’s varied means of building his collection are true.”
“He left before noon, in order to get an early start to the next point on his cosmic circling of the nation. I was surprised repeatedly, in the months that followed, to find by Claude’s fanzines that I had accepted one important post after another in the administration and execution of the Cosmic Circle program. Since I never formally resigned any of those offices, I am probably still one of its key figures.”
“I never received another visit from Claude. Nor was there any further correspondence between us. I stayed on the mailing list for his fan publications, up till the time that silence suddenly swallowed him up. Years ago, when I was Secretary-treasurer of the FAPA, I received a postal card from him. He had dropped out of fandom for a while, he explained, but he wanted me to put him back onto the waiting list of the FAPA. I didn’t put him there, an illegal act of on the part of a FAPA officer which has gone unpunished and unappreciated to this very day.”
In summing up, Harry Warner Jr. confessed he was still undecided about the true nature of Claude Degler. Much to his surprise he found himself wondering if “Claude Degler was just a poor man’s Socrates, a gadfly who wasn’t nearly as crazy as he seemed, a gentleman who simply liked to see the frantic way fandom goes into a conniption fit when someone needles it vigorously.”
More than half a century later, the jury is still out.
Note: the photograph of Claude Degler is from Harry Warner’s wonderful history of 1940s fandom “All Our Yesterdays,” and the photo of Harry himself is from his fascinating history of 1950s fandom “A Wealth of Fable.” Both books highly recommended.
I am pleased to state that in the course of his correspondence with me Harry was so pleased with my Canfancyclopedia project (which is part of my Canadian SF Fanzines Archive web site you can link to below) that he wrote I could make use of any of his writings, be they books, columns, fanzines or letters, to serve the cause of fannish history. Obviously I am still taking full advantage of his generous offer. He was truly a wonderful man. I envy Claude for having met Him. And envy Harry for having met Claude.
Next week: À Bas #10 & 11 reviewed.
BY THE WAY:
You can find a fantastic collection of zines at: Efanzines
You can find yet more zines at: Fanac Fan History Project
You can find a quite good selection of Canadian zines at: Canadian SF Fanzine Archive
And check out my brand new website devoted to my OBIR Magazine, which is entirely devoted to reviews of Canadian Speculative Fiction. Found at OBIR Magazine