The idea for a posthumous collection of his letters entitled Grumbles from the Grave was Robert A. Heinlein’s own; with characteristically self-deprecating wit he remarked to his agent in September, 1973, that this book was meant to be “a little bonus to Ginny [Virginia Heinlein] for all the years she has put up with my cantankerous ways. If published about a year after my death it should bring her some return.” Grumbles from the Grave is as much a gift to readers, fans, and scholars of Heinlein as it is a present to his wife, who successfully selected, presented, and annotated his letters and provided bridging information wherever necessary.
In terms of theme, Grumbles from the Grave essentially falls into five parts, which alternately chronicle Heinlein’s emerging career or relate to more private or general matters. The letters, which occasionally include replies by other people, are enveloped by perceptive editorial chapters at the beginning and end of the book. With the inclusion of a beautiful array of illustrations, which range from pictures of his book covers to the person of Heinlein himself and people and things important to him,Grumbles from the Grave definitely manages to offer the reader a valuable, immensely entertaining, intimate view of the life and work of an author whose fiction has captured the imagination of millions of readers.
It was a wise choice by the editor to open the correspondence with a selection of letters concerning Heinlein’s rise as a writer; thereby allowing the reader to warm to his or her subject by following the author’s struggle to harmonize his goal to write as powerfully as he could with the commercial confines and moral taboos of a tight market. Thus, the first third of Grumbles from the Grave covers the period from 1939 to the early 1960’s, when Heinlein’s series of “juveniles,” or books targeted at young boys, ended with his award-winning Starship Troopers (1959) andPodkayne of Mars (1963). Quite touchingly, the first letter printed is the note Heinlein tacked to his first story and sent to John W. Campbell, Jr., editor of Astounding, the best of the science-fiction pulp magazines.
One of the great values of Grumblesfrom the Grave is its clear presentation of the often subtle changes in Heinlein’s attitude toward his writing as his art developed. In the beginning, his letters to Campbell have an almost unbelievably disillusioned tone; here the author speaks of his “commercial writing” and seems to have no qualms about performing “hack work”—that is, work on ideas presented to him by Campbell, whose praise runs as follows: “I think you’re one of the writers who can work up someone else’s ideas into a logical story with enthusiasm.” Yet soon Heinlein’s own imagination propelled him toward the front of the field of pulp writers: He declares that although he “write[s] for money,” he is determined not to stagnate. The reader detects an early sense of astonishment at his success and perhaps the need to tell himself that he must not take his triumphs too seriously in case they may end abruptly. In that event, he tells Campbell, he will not stay and suffer. “I know this can’t go on forever but, so help me, having reached top, in one sense, I’ll retire gracefully rather than slide downhill.” To a reader familiar with the “Golden Age” of the science-fiction pulps, this statement reads like a very wise warning.
The immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor found Heinlein giving up his self-chosen isolation as a writer. Prior to this attack, he had deliberately relied on one-month-old news from the battlefields to keep himself from getting mentally involved; now he presented himself for active duty in the United States Navy. Because of an earlier bout with tuberculosis, however, he was turned down. After a five-year hiatus during which Heinlein worked for a Navy lab in Pennsylvania and met his future second wife, Ginny Gerstenfeld, Grumbles from the Grave picks up again. Now, an increasingly self-confident writer began...
(The entire section is 1679 words.)