Samuel R. Delany
Samuel R. Delany was born April 1, 1942, in New York City. His many works range from autobiography and essays to literary and cultural criticism—some dozen volumes’ worth—to fiction and science fiction, this last his most widely recognized genre. After eleven years as a professor of comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, for fourteen years Delany has been a professor of English and creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia.
With a younger sister, Delany grew up in Harlem—at the time, the city’s black ghetto. His father, Samuel Sr., owned and operated the Levy & Delany Funeral Home. Delanyʼs mother, Margaret Delany, was a clerk in the New York Public Library system. The family lived in the two floors over Samuel Sr.’s Seventh Avenue business.
Delanyʼs grandfather, Henry Beard Delany, was born a slave in Georgia in 1857, and became the first black suffrage Episcopal bishop of the Archdiocese of North and South Carolina as well as vice-chancellor of a black Episcopal college, St. Augustineʼs, in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Through kindergarten, Delany attended the Horace Mann–Lincoln School and, at age five, began at the Dalton School in New York. When he was eleven, on his first day at a new summer camp, young Samuel renamed himself Chip. It stuck—and his friends still call him that.
For the ninth grade, he went on to the Bronx High School of Science. On his first day, Delany met and became friends with the young poet Marilyn Hacker. A year younger than Delany but a year ahead of him in school, Hacker was accepted at New York University at age fifteen. Three years later, Delany, now nineteen, and Hacker, eighteen, were married in Detroit and, on returning to New York, took up residence in a tenement on a dead-end street in the recently renamed East Village.
Delany finished and sold his first published novel, The Jewels of Aptor, when he was still nineteen. It appeared in November 1962, seven months after his twentieth birthday. Before his twenty-second, he’d completed and sold four more novels, including a trilogy that was originally released one at a time, but today is usually published in one large volume: The Fall of the Towers.
Though the reviews were all good, there were not many. No one paid much attention to the new young writer until the shortest of those four books, The Ballad of Beta-2, was nominated for the first Nebula Award in the novella category—given by the then-new organization the Science Fiction Writers of America. The book did not win, and Delany was unaware the book had been nominated till years later. However, that he made any showing at all, considering his age and his unknown status, is remarkable.
On April 15, 1966, Delany returned to New York from six months in Europe, a trip that was to influence all his work over the coming years. In the meantime, another short novel, Empire Star, had appeared, followed by Babel-17.
In March of ’67, this last title won the year’s Nebula, in a tie with Daniel Keyesʼs Flowers for Algernon. A year later, Delany won two more Nebulas, the first for his novel The Einstein Intersection, and the second for his short story “Aye, and Gomorrah.” This period climaxed two years later with the publication of his novel Nova, finished a month after his twenty-fifth birthday, and the publication of his short story collection Driftglass. Today Nova remains among Delany’s most popular books. Now, however, came five years with no novels.
Delany had identified as gay since his tenth year, and his marriage with Hacker was an open one for both of them. In this time they lived together and apart, now in San Francisco for two years, now in New York, now in London, where, in 1974, their daughter was born.
That same year Dhalgren, Delany’s most controversial work, made its appearance. At eight hundred seventy-nine pages in its initial Bantam Books edition, it drew much praise, much scorn—and open anger. Over the next dozen years, however, it sold more than a million copies and, today, has settled comfortably into the slot reserved for “classics of the genre.” As Delanyʼs most popular book, it has been turned into both a play on the East Coast and an opera on the West.
A year after Dhalgren, Delanyʼs highly acclaimed Trouble on Triton was published. From 1979 to 1987, Delany wrote a connected set of eleven fantasy tales: two novels, three novellas, and six short stories. They include The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals (1987)—the first novel about AIDS released by a major American publisher—and the Return to Nevèrÿon series. In 1984 Delany’s last purely SF novel for twenty-five years would appear, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand—a book in which he predicted the Internet a decade before the fact.
Since then, Delany has written highly praised works, both fictitious and autobiographical. His 1988 publication, The Motion of Light in Water, is a staple of gender studies and African American studies classes and received a Hugo Award for nonfiction. In 1995, he published three long stories, about black life in the Jazz Age, the fifties in New York, and the sixties in Europe, collected in Atlantis: Three Tales and, partly, in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. This was followed by collections of interviews and nonfiction essays, including Silent Interviews (1994), Longer Views (1996), and Shorter Views (1999), all published by Wesleyan University Press.
Among his highly acclaimed academic releases are Times Square Red, Times Square Blue—the first part of which began as the Distinguished Faculty Lecture at the University of Massachusetts in March 1998, and the second of which is an expansion of an article written for Out magazine—and About Writing. Other novels, long and short, from this time include The Mad Man, Hogg (“the most shocking novel of the 20th century,” wrote Larry McCaffery), and Phallos. His novel about a black gay poet living in the East Village over the turn of the most recent century, Dark Reflections, won the 2008 Stonewall Book Award. His most recent novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (2012), is over eight hundred pages—an amalgam of gay erotic writing, rural realism, and science fiction. Discussions over it seem to be progressing in a manner similar to that of the controversy almost forty years ago over Dhalgren.
Altogether, Delany has won four Nebula Awards and two Hugo Awards, as well as the Bill Whitehead Award for a lifetime contribution to gay and lesbian writing. In 2002, Delany was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. He received the Pilgrim Award for SF scholarship in 1985 and the J. Lloyd Eaton Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. That same year he was among the judges for the National Book Award in Fiction. In 2007 he was the subject of Fred Barney Taylorʼs documentary The Polymath, or, The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman, which includes an experimental color film, The Orchid, which Delany himself wrote, directed, and edited in 1972.