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Article from The Heinlein Journal Issue No. 11 July 2002


(Permission for re-printing the article kindly given by The Heinlein Journal and Kate Gladstone, permission for photos from Institute of General Semantics)


Words, Words, Words

Robert Heinlein and Genera! Semantics

-- By Kate Gladstone--- 


Last fall, the Institute for General Semantics asked Steve Stockdale, one of its Board Trustees (and a personal friend of mine), to organize and catalogue the Institute’s archives and library. The IGS was established by Alfred Korzybski in Chicago in 1938, and its archives contain material dating back to the early 1930’s.

Stockdale had created a database of attendance records for the 200+ seminars the Institute has conducted —and, in the process, he’s discovered many interesting things—including documents naming Robert and Leslyn Heinlein as registrants for Korzybski’s seminars in Los Angeles in 1939 and in Chicago in 1940.

Knowing of my interest in Heinlein, Steve told me of the find; I then alerted the directors of the Heinlein Society and the editor of THE HEINLEIN JOURNAL.


Heinlein’s connection with Korzybski and with General Semantics has gained much notice in the SF world and among General Semantics people, but—until Steve’s cataloguing effort—the documentary record has been overlooked or neglected.

Steve looked through Korzybski’s correspondence files and the folders for those two seminars and found a few minor and inconsequential Heinlein letters—but he also he found the Heinleins’ completed application forms, including photos (reproduced here with the kind permission of the IGS).

Steve Stockdale has already publicized the find to the General Semantics community, via a passing mention in an article in the Spring 2002 issue of ETC: A REVIEW OF GENERAL SEMANTICS (Volume 59, Number One):

“Had you attended the prior seminar, in June 1939, you would’ve met Robert A. Heinlein and his wife. Heinlein, then a naval officer, later to write science fiction including STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, and his wife attended two seminars with Korzybski...” [97]

Steve assumed that Heinlein must have been serving as a naval officer at the time he applied, because his 1940 application[1] identified him as “Lieut.” Heinlein — though the 1939 application used simply “Mr.” The application forms did not indicate that he had been medically retired from the Navy since 1934.


Until our correspondence, Steve had not himself read any of Heinlein’s writings but the discovery, and our excitement over it, prompted him to spend some time looking over some Heinlein books while waiting for a film to start. He picked up STRANGER and immediately noticed “some unmistakable GS influences,” such as these:

“1) The Stranger is named SMITH, and upon his arrival on earth is said to be ‘not man’ ... [sic] AK repeatedly talked in terms of ‘man’ does not exist, ‘man’ is merely an abstraction, a word, the world is made up of individual SMITH1, SMITH2, etc.;

“2) the crew composition for the mission to Mars included a ‘semantician’;

“3) his use of ‘abstraction’ is certainly in keeping with the peculiar meaning ascribed by AK” [unpublished e-mail to the author dated June 10, 2002]


(I wonder what Steve will make METHUSELAH’S CHILDREN, in which a “licensed semantician” provides simultaneous commentary on political speeches!)



The 1939 Seminar was held in August in Los Angeles, where the Heinleins then dwelt. In June 1939, when he filled out his application, Heinlein had sold just one story and submitted half a dozen others without success—though John Campbell was interested in “Cosmic Construction Corps” and had requested substantial revisions. At that time, Heinlein described himself on his Seminar application as a “pseudoscience fiction writer and politician.” Apparently he did not drop politics entirely after losing the primary election in August 1938.

The Heinleins attended a second Seminar with Korzybski in Chicago in 1940, on their way back from a visit to New York to meet Heinlein’s new editor, John W. Campbell, Jr. They went then went back west, stopping off in Chicago to observe the Democratic National Convention (which would nominate President Roosevelt for a precedent-shattering third term). By that time, he had already become science fiction’s premier author, and he completed the Occupation part of the Application in stronger, more definite terms: “Retired naval officer. 

Free lance fiction writer, Politician.”












Heinlein’s 1939 photoapparently clipped from one of his calling cards from his 1938 Assembly District 59 campaign. Photo by permission Institute of General Semantics.


The biggest surprise on the applications comes near the bottom. Heinlein had already read Korzybski’s masterwork SCIENCE AND SANITY (1933), but, in telling how he had become interested in General Semantics, he indicated that this came through reading Stuart Chase’s THE TYRANNY OF WORDS, the first edition of which appeared in 1938. (Leslyn had only gotten part-way through the notoriously difficult SCIENCE AND SANITY, but had finished the easier TYRANNY OF WORDS, which introduces and summarizes Korzybski’s thought.) TYRANNY OF WORDS went into a second edition in 1966 and remains in print, in a Harvest Hill softcover edition from Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich

A passing remark in a 1973 interview with Heinlein conducted by J. Neil Schulman implied that Heinlein had first met S.I. Hayakawa in a Korzybski seminar around 1933—just at the time of publication of SCIENCE AND SANITY, the founding document of General Semantics. (“I knew him first of forty, yes, forty, years ago.” THE HEINLEIN INTERVIEW AND OTHER HEINLEINIANA by J. Neil Schulman, Pulplessdotcom 1999, p. 156). But if Heinlein became interested in General Semantics through TYRANNY OF WORDS, he could not have met Hayakawa in a Korzybski seminar until after TYRANNY OF WORDS had appeared.

Steve Stockdale agrees, adding that Hayakawa, too, became interested in General Semantics through that book, though he had attended seminars in 1938 and 1939. Steve suggests that, most likely, Heinlein and Hayakawa met at the 1940 seminar in Chicago. where Hayakawa was teaching at the Armour Institute. Korzybski encouraged former students to drop in on seminars, even if they were not formally registered for them. [Unpublished E-mail to the author dated 5/30/2002]. Perhaps Heinlein remembered the 1940 date in the telephone interview with Neil Schulman, and simply misspoke himself.


General Semantics concepts and references (obvious and sometimes not-so-obvious) crop up frequently in Heinlein’s works, letters, and conversations. He apparently founded much of his thinking and behavior upon this study that touches upon


psychology, language, ethics, education and much more. Anyone investigating General Semantics will find the websites and organizations - instructive and pleasing reading, in ways that will remind you very much of the way that Heinlein thought, wrote, and behaved. Here follows contact information for the three organizations that presently provide most of the public data about General Semantics:[2]—website of the Institute of General Semantics (IGS), the first organization in the field (to which Heinlein belonged and to which Steve belongs) — website of the International Society for General Semantics (ISGS) (to which both Steve and I belong)  website of the Dallas-Fort Worth Center for General Semantics (DFWCGS), which Steve has recently founded.




Robert Heinlein’s 1940 Seminar Application Photograph, taken at the Seminar in Chicago. Permission to reproduce courtesy Institute of General Semantics.



Parts of the Institute’s archives remain uncatalogued, so there exists the tantalizing possibility of further discoveries as the archives settle into their new home in Texas —perhaps even an outline or sketch for the hook on General Semantics Heinlein talked about doing in 1941 but never, apparently, wrote. In any event, these documents give us a fascinating look at some of the on of Heinlein’s General Semantics orientation and provide the basis for further discussion of his ideas.


 [1] The original article included copies of Heinlein’s handwritten applications for membership to the Society which were not reproduced here due to technical problems.


 [2] These two organizations have since merged and are under the Executive Directorship of Steve Stockdale who is the owner of the DFWCGS website


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