Born On This Day: Samuel Delany

Samuel DelanySamuel Delany was born on this day in 1942. He is considered to be the first major black author of American science fiction. He is also a well-known professor and literary critic, who has produced three dozen books, including a published pornographic work. He is noted for his explorations of social and moral issues as well as language structure and mythology. His best known works include the novels “Einstein Intersection”, “Nova”, “Dhalgren”, “Babel-17”, and “Triton” as well as the short fiction anthology “Driftglass”. He has won two Hugo awards and four Nebula Awards.

Samuel Ray Delany was born in New York City’s legendary neighborhood of Harlem. He is the son of Margaret Carey Boyd Delany, a clerk with the New York Public Library and Samuel Ray Delany, a businessman who owned part of the Levy & Delany Funeral Home. His grandfather, Henry Beard Delany, was the first African-American bishop in the Episcopal Church. Samuel Delany was the nephew of Sadie and Bessie Delany, who were well known educators and civil rights activists immortalized in the book (and play) “Having Our Say”.

In his adolescence, Samuel Delaney became familiar with the works of the most renowned science fiction authors of his time, including well-known authors Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, and Robert Heinlein. But his literary influences were much broader. He read the works of Jean Genet, Albert Camus, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Bruce Nugent, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and Zora Neale Hurston.

Known to his friends as “Chip”, Delany was educated at the Dalton School and then attended the Bronx High School of Science. Unlike many of his friends, he cultivated interests in theatre and books as well as math, science, and music. By age of 13, he began a novel, and the following year composed and orchestrated a violin concerto. When Delany was in high school, the Louis August Jonas Foundation selected him to attend Camp Rising Sun, an international academic program. The Scholastic Writing Awards contest awarded Delany first place for short fiction and second place award for an essay.

Samuel Delany enrolled in City College of New York, but he dropped out after only one semester. By the time he was 20, he had published his first novel, “The Jewels of Aptor”, an even more remarkable feat considering it was his first-ever science fiction publication. Now called a young “sci-fi prodigy”, he immersed himself in the social experimentation of New York City’s East Village. Like an outcropping of an alien civilization it (and the many subcultures on display in the city thereafter) would prove the impetus for much of his later fantastic imaginings. He was also immersed in the vibrant East Village folk music scene, where he sang with several groups, but never recorded his sessions.

Delany and poet Marilyn Hacker met on their first day together Bronx High School of Science in September of 1956, and were married five years later. Despite this marriage, Delany knew he was attracted to men. In 1962, when he published his first novel “The Jewels of Aptor”, Hacker, was working at Ace Books, and was integral in getting the work published. “Babel 17” was composed in a short period of time while Delany was working on shrimp boats. In 1966, Delany traveled to Europe. He left his wife in New York City, and traveled through Greece and Turkey, which inspired some of his later writings. When he returned to the United States, Delany and his wife moved to San Francisco. Their marriage endured for fourteen years. In 1974, they had a daughter, Iva Hacker-Delany, who spent a decade working in theater in New York City and graduated from medical school. Delany and Hacker permanently separated in 1975 and divorced in 1980, but remain friends. Delany later founded Gay Fathers of the Upper West Side.

Samuel Delany is best known for his eight science-fiction novels. As his writing progressed, he began to integrate more sexual themes into his Science fiction writing. His works were informed by literary sensitivity and a deep interest in, and knowledge of mythology. And they were also very challenging. Sexual roles, racial stereotypes, morality, and even the structure of language and narration were all played with, to varying effect. But he seemed to hit the peak of shock value in the mid-1970s, a time when he was also branching out as a literary critic, with his novels “The Tides of Lust” (1973), “Dhalgren” (1975), and “Triton” (1976). Although the two preceding novels, “Einstein Intersection” (1967) and “Nova” (1968), are often judged his best works, it was these later three that sharply challenged public sensibility and the sci-fi community’s status quo. “The Tides of Lust” was unequivocally deemed pornographic. “Dhalgren” experimented wildly with viewpoint and stream of consciousness storytelling to present a gritty apocalyptic youth culture peppered with bisexuality. And “Triton”, subtitled An Ambiguous Heterotopia, explored a bewildering array of unusual social and sexual relationships and erotic forms. Delany also released “Aye, and Gomorrah and Other Stories” in 2003, and his novel “Phallos” in 2004.

Delany’s most celebrated novels include “Babel-17”, “Nova”, “Dhalgren”, “The Einstein Intersection”, and “Return to Neveryon”. Always willing to try new genres, Mr. Delany wrote music and film reviews for Fantasy and Science Fiction. He also created the short films “The Orchard and Tiresias”. Selections of his short fiction were also turned into radio plays. In addition, he began teaching for the Clarion Writer’s Workshop.

Samuel Delany’s books of criticism focus on science fiction although he also examined the queer sexuality and comparative literature. Delany has mined his life for details of his fiction. But he has also written many autobiographical pieces. Delany’s role as a gay, black, and dyslexic writer shaped his memoir “The Motion of Light in Water”. This memoir was awarded the Hugo prize. Samuel Delany’s “Times Square Red, Times Square Blue” was published 1999. In it, Delany examines how the plans to redevelop Times Square in New York City, affected the public sexual contacts of gay and straight working-class men.

Samuel Delany ‘s literary honors include Nebula Awards for his novels “Babel-17” (1966) and “The Einstein Intersection” (1967) and for the short story “Aye, and Gomorrah”. He was awarded the Nebula and the Hugo for his novelette “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones”, and he received the Hugo for his eyebrow-raising memoir “The Motion of Light in Water”. One of his novels, “Triton”, has generated college courses dedicated to its study and explication, and a number of books have been published about Delany and his fiction. He has also been awarded a Stonewall Book Award, and in 2002, he was honored by his induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. He was the subject of the award winning documentary film, “The Polymath, or, The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman”.

Although he does not possess a degree, Samuel Delaney has been a professor at several universities. In 1977, he became a senior fellow at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee’s Center for Twentieth Century Studies. He followed that with fellowships at State University of New York at Albany, and Cornell University. Later, he would teach at the State University of New York at Buffalo as the Butler Professor of English. From 1988 until the fall of 1999, he was a professor in the department of Comparative Literature of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. (He commuted there from his home in New York City), and since 2001, he has been a professor of English and Creative Writing in the English Department of the College of Liberal Arts at Temple University in Philadelphia. His locales often find their way into his work, including the novel “Nova” and the short stories “Aye, and Gomorrah” and “Dog in a Fisherman’s Net”.

Samuel Ray Delany is one of the most celebrated authors of our time, and also one of the most interesting. We join him in celebrating his 71st Birthday today, and thank for his profound contributions to our literature, our public discourse, and our community.


Stephen Maglott is a SGL/Black Historian.

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