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Samuel R. Delany’s Life of Contradictions

The science fiction writer's newly published diaries show a man grappling with confusion, bigotry, and the weight of his own talent.

Michael Loccisano / Getty Images

Samuel R. Delany, the acclaimed science fiction writer, was dyslexic as a kid. He wrote, but his markings were completely incomprehensible. Because he was obviously intelligent and dyslexia was virtually unknown at the time, his parents, teachers, and doctors thought he was just lazy. They told him to write his way through the problem. So he began filling notebooks. He would work from two directions: front to back, he would write stories, poems, and homework; back to front, sexual fantasies. “The entries in the back and the front of the book, over a period of four to six weeks, would move closer and closer together,” he recalls in one of his memoirs, The Motion of Light on Water. “Writing itself would seem to be […] marginal to a vast, empty, unarticulated center called reality that was displaced more and more by it.” Now, with the publication of six volumes of his private journals, readers can see how Delany’s writing produces a double vision of his life. Where, among all these renderings, can he find something solid?

This question haunts his writing—strange, beautiful, and complex science fiction that won him acclaim from the very beginning of his career. His novels appeal to readers both in and outside the genre—perhaps surprising, given his penchant for experimentation, graphic (for the time) portrayals of homosexuality, and deliberate allusiveness of language. Delany contributed to the elevation of science fiction, helping to father a more literary genre known as the New Wave. In 2013 the professional association of science fiction writers honored him with the title “Grand Master.”

Wesleyan University Press, 720 pp., $40

Delany’s quintessential novel is The Einstein Intersection, in which an alien tries out various human myths to make sense of himself. The project of sense-making is also at issue in Delany’s various memoirs, and now in the publication of his private journals—including some of the notebooks Delany used to conquer dyslexia. 

The first volume, In Search of Silence, begins in 1957, when the author was just fifteen, a student at the academically exclusive (and very white) Bronx High School of Science. It ends in 1969, when he was already a successful novelist, about to leave for San Francisco to spend arduous years crafting the novel Dhalgren, his masterpiece. Traversing Delany’s youth, we see a precocious mind grappling with his own talent. Remarkably absent are extended reflections on the difficult circumstances of his outer life: At the time, Delany was navigating through the racism and homophobia of his era, and struggling with poverty, an early marriage, and his own disability. In light of this, the diaries’ portrayal of his serenely intellectual inner life is startling.

Delany’s youth was full of contradictions. A black kid from Harlem, he attended all-white schools, like Bronx Science and the tony Dalton School. He wed his high school sweetheart, the poet Marilyn Hacker, when he was just 19, and they remained together for years—even though Delany had known, since he was ten, that he was gay. (Hacker has identified as a lesbian since the couple’s divorce in 1980.) Long days of writing were punctuated by trips to Times Square movie theaters for quick, anonymous sexual encounters with other men. Despite towering literary and intellectual aspirations, he found himself penning pot-boilers as fast as he could to survive in the city. At one point early in the journals, a long entry about the nature of authority reveals itself to be the work of Delany as a schoolboy, planning to run away from his home that very night. The record continues as he takes a bus across the city and waits in a shabby hallway for a friend to wake up and let him in. In another passage, he notes that he’s writing in a gas station lavatory. He lived with uncertainty, a sense of not belonging, and he confronted all this discomfort with the power of his prodigious intellect. One gets the sense that writing for him is a sanctuary, a way out of the difficulties of an at times confounding life.

But Delany’s life is not only one of isolation. He’s rarely closed-off or solipsistic. Keenly alert to the sensual world, he liked to put his face close to things, to smell and feel them. In the journals, we see him pressing his cheeks against cold museum walls, wet stone steps, a bronze lamp base. “To have talent you must be able to see and feel things [around] you,” he says. And occasionally, the inward focus dramatically reverses, becoming piercing, nearly obsessive observation. In Search of Silence includes two extended experiments in what Delany calls “simultaneous journaling.” He would set himself the task of recording everything that happened as it occurred for a set period of time. He was so pleased with one of these experiments, the record of a trip to the Newport Folk Festival, that he wanted to publish it. We see the writer interacting with those around him, noting their reactions to what he has put down. Writing becomes a social act, not an escapist one.

Delany offers the best explanation of his practice when he writes about “the insane double level on which I function, experiencing & recording, commenting and committing and never able to fulfill my purpose in either one.” In other words, he lived on two registers, participating in the world and also observing it, living simultaneously as a kid in NYC and, as he immodestly observes, “a writer of genius, whether I like it or not.”

Artists by necessity possess a double vision of things as they are and as they could be. Writers are aware of life as a palimpsest overwritten by fantasy and desire. Imagine this tension heightened in a writer whose conflicted life mirrors the complexity of his artistic vision, and you will begin to understand Samuel Delany. “Edited forms of the constant commentary that I make upon my life constitute my art,” wrote the teenager. His disability, race, and sexuality presented challenges for him, but they were also the conditions for developing his consciousness as a writer.

The same years covered by In Search of Silence are discussed in Delany’s memoir, The Motion of Light on Water. In matters of detail, the autobiographer was scrupulous. But there are striking differences of emphasis. The notebooks and the memoir present a parallax view of Delany’s life, and the measure of its angle is the figure of Marilyn Hacker, his wife.

They married in Detroit, because it was the nearest city where state laws permitted an interracial marriage. They passed their bus trip to Michigan inventing a new language and co-writing a novella—this was the nature of their partnership. Marilyn was—and is—a talented poet. In The Motion of Light on Water, Delany presents her as the leader in their literary relationship. He quotes her poems more than anything he wrote himself in those years, and writes:

Watching this thin young woman in thick glasses write her early poems, being around her while the detritus of daily life was transmuted into lines of dizzying musicality, not to mention being the poems’ first reader, was unspeakably exciting. It made my whole adolescence and early manhood an adventure—an adventure I was thrilled and pleased to be sitting at the edge of.

The reader of In Search of Silence is surprised to find Marilyn relatively absent from Delany’s journals. Certainly she does appear, both as a character in Delany’s thinking and in her own hand—she offers witty, acerbic commentary from the margins. Delany duly records her visit from W.H. Auden; and a vivid description of her miscarriage, in the first year of their marriage, marks one of the dramatic highpoints of the journals. But the impression of Delany we receive is hardly that of a figure “at the edge” of someone else’s life.

Instead, he has the casual arrogance of someone fully committed to his own adventure. He likes to invent imaginary blurbs for his imaginary future publications. Kenneth James, the editor of the journals, includes half a dozen such blurbs from different notebooks. Perhaps the later ones were written for the dustjackets of actual books, or perhaps, like the lengthy, imagined critical essay Delany pens as if from a future critic on his own juvenilia, they simply mark stages in the author’s self-conception. He was always conscious of his talent, and in the journals he frequently compares himself to other literary child prodigies like Chatterton, Rimbaud, and Radiguet. When his career took off, occasionally he felt overwhelmed by work—he once had to spend several weeks in a hospital after a nervous breakdown—but he never seemed to doubt his abilities. Instead, he exhorts himself to relish them. “I must make sure my book does not lack the language gouged from the mouth and heaped on the subject, tongue sprung and magnificent,” he writes. “Mine—my book—can hold torrents.”

The self-conscious young genius of the journals is not the subordinate young husband of the autobiography. Does this make one or the other a truer account? I don’t think so. “‘History’,” says Delany, “is what we create by the scratching, the annoyance, the irritation of writing, with its aspirations to logic and order, on memory’s uneasy and uncertain discontinuities.” Neither version of his life is wrong because neither claims to be complete. Even in his experiments with simultaneous journaling, Delany discovered the inability of writing to fully capture reality: “Prose suffers from the illusion that it parallels, or is capable of paralleling, all of thought.” In his thinking about the representative power of language, his dyslexia speaks to the dilemma:

Since I am “orally regressed” [dyslexic] I think pictorially. In my verbal recount of an image, no matter how complete I make it, I am always aware of having left out some detail. A square inch of white porcelain has details enough to occupy the alert mind for hours. A human action is inconceivable!

Delany’s journals and his autobiography are both inevitably inadequate to the task of reproducing a life. Like the double-sided notebooks of his youth, displacing reality from its margins, they are two halves of an empty picture frame, outlining an absence. “These journals,” he observes, “are not to remember the things I record, but for all the things that pass unwritten, and forgotten.” They leave us not with satisfying answers as to who Delany was, but with greater appreciation for the depth of the question.