Obituary: Philip Klass/Major science fiction writer in 1940s, 1950s

May 9, 1920 - Feb. 7, 2010

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

During the "golden age" of American science fiction, the short stories of William Tenn were read as avidly as the works of Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury.

The first Tenn story appeared in 1946, the dawning of sci-fi's literary sophistication. More than 200 followed, as well as two novels, most appearing in Galaxy magazine, but Tenn was a pen name.

The author's real name was Philip Klass, longtime English professor at Penn State University in State College who retired in 1989 after 23 years and moved to Mt. Lebanon.

Mr. Klass died Sunday at his home of congestive heart failure following a long illness, said his widow, Fruma. He was 89.

"He became a kind of father figure to the science-fiction community here," Mrs. Klass said. The couple moved here after his retirement because Mrs. Klass was employed by a Pittsburgh-area company.

Mr. Klass was active in promoting writing and internship programs at Penn State, said university spokesman Jeff Reston. Mr. Klass was given the Lindback All-University Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1976.

"He was hired on a one-year appointment and stayed for 23 years," said his widow. She said he was one of only three professors at Penn State without a college degree.

As a writer, "his forte was the carefully observed satirical short story," said Philip Smith, University of Pittsburgh English professor who has taught courses in science fiction for more than 30 years.

"Klass was the last of the greats, those writers like Dick and Bradbury who were responsible for legitimating science fiction from the 1940s to the 1950s," Mr. Smith said.

"As a kid, I found his short-story collections and thought they were the work of a really interesting writer. Klass, like Dick, used the science-fiction format to discuss contemporary social structures," he added. "Klass was interested in science fiction as social commentary, rather than science itself."

Mr. Klass' output as a writer slowed in the mid-1960s after he started his academic career, remembered David Hartwell, senior editor at Tor Books, a publisher of science-fiction titles.

"Oh, he would threaten every year to come up with a story or a novel, but never did," said Mr. Hartwell. "His entire writing career just stopped after he threw himself into his teaching."

Before heading to State College, Mr. Klass was well-known and socially connected in the New York community of writers and editors. "That was the center of his life," Mr. Hartwell said, adding that the writer was known for his sense of humor and his love of argument.

"His generation of writers would start to argue at the drop of a hat and go on for hours."

Mr. Klass was born in London and grew up in New York. He was a World War II veteran. He launched his writing career in 1946 with a story called "Alexander the Bait" that appeared in Astounding magazine, said Mrs. Klass.

"That was one of the major science-fiction magazines of its day," she said, adding that Mr. Klass had been using a variety of pen names on his submissions and settled on William Tenn after his first story was accepted.

Although he wrote the bulk of his stories in the 1950s, Mr. Klass was a favorite of genre fans in such collections as "Of All Possible Worlds," Mr. Hartwell said. He was also the editor of a popular anthology, "Children of Wonder." That book, released in 1950, contained science-fiction stories about children.

British novelist and critic Kingsley Amis was a supporter of American science fiction as it emerged after World War II. In his survey of the field, "New Maps of Hell," he cited Mr. Klass' work in the 1940s and '50s for its importance, said Mr. Hartwell.

In 1968, Ballantine Books released seven titles by Mr. Klass -- two novels, "Of Men and Monsters" and "A Lamp for Medusa," along with five short-story collections. Starting in 2001, the New England Science Fiction Association began republishing his short stories, as well as Mr. Klass' nonfiction work, including memoirs in the book, "Dancing Naked."

In 2006, a stage version of his short story, "Winthrop Was Stubborn," was performed at the Three Rivers Arts Festival.

Mr. Klass is survived by his widow and a daughter, Adina.

Visitation will be Wednesday at 9 a.m., followed by services at 10 a.m. at William Slater II Funeral Service, 1650 Greentree Road, Scott. Burial arrangements are incomplete.


Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com .


You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here