When he was interviewed on British television in 1976, this is how Harlan Ellison was introduced by journalist Mavis Nicholson, after she said, “I will explain to viewers what your publicists have told me about you”:
You were born in Cleveland, Ohio. You’ve been a lumberjack, a fisherman, a crop picker, a hired gunman, a truck driver, a cook, a salesman, an actor, editor, writer of novels, short stories, and screenplays. And apparently you’re also a generalized, all-around gadfly to the establishment. What’s more, say your publicists, you’re five-foot-five-inches, blue-eyed, dark, and have an explosive personality, a devastating wit, and a sort of almost frightening articulacy.
As this litany is recited — putting Ellison in a rare state of patient silence — the man watches with a variety of reactions flickering across his face: amusement, skepticism, quiet assent. By the end, there’s the familiar stoking furnace of animosity behind his eyes. After a comic aside (“I wonder how they omitted mentioning that I was responsible for World War II”), Ellison provides his own biography. “I see myself as a writer,” he says. “I’m a professional liar.”
In Nicholson’s introduction, the word that must have rankled the most was “gadfly.” A few years later, in the opening essay of his collection Shatterday, Ellison writes: “Gadfly is what they call you when you are no longer dangerous, when the right magazines publish your work and you don’t have to seek out obscure publications as home for the really mean stuff, when they ask you to come and discuss matters of import with the ‘celebrities’ on the Johnny Carson Show.”
The notion of Ellison sapped of all his danger is ludicrous. A fiery soul with a voluminous vocabulary, Ellison was unyielding in combat, quick to be triggered and drawing evident satisfaction from the authority of purpose he brought to any intellectual tangle. By at least one accounting, Ellison had over 1700 short stories to his name, along with a towering assortment of other writing, including novels and novellas, screenplays, comic book stories, and essays of all sorts. He was equally prolific in conversation, his turbine brain dispensing perfectly articulated assertions, counterarguments, iron-clad justifications, and insults that were simultaneously devastating and infused with a challenging camaraderie. In a 2008 interview for The Onion AV Club, conducted by Tasha Robinson, Ellison’s verbal largesse necessitated two installments. His answer to the first, very simple question (asking his impression of a recent documentary about him) ran to nearly 1500 words all on its own.
And Ellison knew how to wield words like few others. Spinning fictions mostly from fantastical imaginings, he rapped out sentences that were master classes in shaping language for maximum impact. And his words had edges, like rusty razors. He wrote to confront, not to soothe. He took it as a noble calling. In the same Shatterday essay I cribbed from above, Ellison addresses this tendency directly, sharing his preferred rejoinder any time someone lobbed the aghast accusation “You only said that to shock!” Ellison writes:
My response is always the same:
“You bet your ass, slushface. Of course I said it to shock you (or wrote it to shock you). I don’t know how you perceive my mission as a writer, but for me it is not a responsibility to reaffirm your concretized myths and provincial prejudices. It is not my job to lull you with a false sense of rightness of the universe. This wonderful and terrible occupation of recreating the world in a different way, each time fresh and strange, is an act of revolutionary guerilla warfare, I stir up the soup. I inconvenience you. I make your nose run and your eyes water. I spend my life and miles of visceral material in a glorious and painful series of midnight raids against complacency. It is my lot to wake with anger every morning, to lie down at night even angrier. All in pursuit of one truth that lies at the core of every jot of fiction ever written: we are all in the same skin…but for the time it takes to read these stories I merely have the mouth. You see before you a child who never grew up, who does not know it’s socially unacceptable to ask, ‘Who farted?”
Embedded in that manifesto of proud demolition of cultural niceties is a underappreciated truth about Ellison. Despite the perpetually blooming cantankerous bearing that defined his place in the solar system, Ellison was deep down a humanist. Granted, he had a high, exacting standard for which humans were deserving of his precious attention, and he rendered judgment with a comet’s speed. He had no truck for stupidity — surely believing it to be the ultimate betrayal of the limitless possibilities of a mind equipped to expand through vigorous education. (Likely the most enduring quote in the well-stocked Ellison canon will be: “You are not entitled to your opinion, you are entitled to your informed opinion. If you are not informed on the subject, then your opinion counts for nothing.”) Yet his fiction is made sturdier by his evident sympathy, even when he is obligated to play the role of cold overlord and send his characters somersaulting into dismay.
It’s simply that Ellison’s version of humanism doesn’t regress into dewy-eyed, blandly accepting wonderment. Ellison instead meets humanity on its own messy terms, accepting and admiring the infinite complexities. In the documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth, expounding on his dismissal of those who claim to “have a relationship with God,” Ellison notes that his brand of atheism is partially fueled by a rejection of the way a belief in a higher power diminishes the uncommon marvel of the individual, undermining personal accountability and foolishly rejecting our capability for self-invention. He says:
I think it is presumptuous, and I think it is silly. Because it makes you believe that you are less that what you can be. As long as you can blame everything on some unseen deity, you don’t ever have to be responsible for your own behavior. And I think that is the ultimate mark of humanity. We were given, in our toolbox, tools to build ethics, courage, kindness, friendship, ratiocination — the ability to think, to work problems out logically — dreams, imagination, things that make us want to go to the stars …. We want to make ourselves better.
Ellison’s scraps and diatribes were endlessly entertaining, but I’ll ultimately remember him more for his enthusiasms, be it collecting with car the stories of those he admired or the clear satisfaction he took with swinging at philosophical questions large and small with the lead pipe of reason. He made the most of his time on this plane, living with an uncommon zest. Ellison hurled his mind at the universe and gave the rest of us the gift of witnessing the resulting nova.