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Schwartzberg: A tribute to Harlan Ellison

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Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock travel back in time in a Star Trek episode written by Harlan Ellison.

If people know of Harlan Ellison, the prolific and talented American writer who died in June 27 at age 84, at all, it’s likely because of his teleplay for the 1967 Star Trek episode The City on the Edge of Forever, considered by many to be that show’s best.

Its storyline has Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk travelling back in time to Depression-era America to stop their accidentally drug-crazed colleague, Dr. McCoy, from changing history. That means preventing pacifist leader Edith Keeler, whom Kirk has fallen in love with, from delaying the U.S. entry into the Second World War, thereby handing the Nazis a victory. But even though Ellison didn’t directly tackle the subject there, Jewish issues and concerns were never far from his typewriter.

He came by those honestly, having suffered virulent anti-Semitism growing up as one of the few Jews in small town Painesville, Ohio. “I survived their tender mercies with nothing more debilitating to show for it than a lifelong, blood-drenched obsession for revenge,” he wrote dramatically in his 1989 collection, Harlan Ellison’s Watching. (He took great delight in relating that his chief tormenter, one Jack Wheeldon, died young.)

That anger galvanized him to fight for justice his entire life, whether it was marching for civil rights in the ‘60s alongside Martin Luther King, at a time when relatively few white celebrities bothered to do so or, a decade or so later, boycotting states that did not ratify the still not passed Equal Rights Amendment, which would have enshrined equal rights for both sexes into law.

“I go to bed angry and I get up angrier every morning,” he said. That explains, too, why he fought so long and hard against Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry for allowing revisions to be made to his Star Trek script, which he hated, and, worse, in his view, misrepresenting what Ellison wrote in the first place. (He won a Writers Guild of America award for that original script.)

The City on the Edge of Forever is just one of Ellison’s myriad credits, which include an extraordinary 1,700 works: short stories, novellas, screenplays, comic book scripts, teleplays, essays, and criticism.

He also wrote three novels, Web of the City, The Sound of the Scythe and Spider Kiss. His seminal science fiction stories  – such as I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream; ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman; The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World; The Deathbird; and Jeffty Is Five, all award winners – had an enormous influence on the genre, as did the groundbreaking science fiction anthologies he edited, Dangerous Visions in 1967, and Again, Dangerous Visions in 1972.

But he didn’t just write science fiction. The Whimper of Whipped Dogs, Ellison’s take on the 1964 Kitty Genovese murder, wherein many purportedly heard the victim as she was being stabbed to death and did nothing, was similarly influential in the mystery field, and his 1961 collection Gentleman Junkie and Other Stories of the Hung-Up Generation showed that he could handle themes like racism and anti-Semitism with equal alacrity. That collection was acclaimed by Dorothy Parker, who wrote that Ellison was “a good, honest, clean writer, putting down what he has seen and known, and no sensationalism about it.”

She went on to state that his story Daniel White for the Greater Good, was the finest one she had ever read on the subject of racism against African Americans. (Another powerful story in that collection, Final Shtick dealt with a self-hating  Jewish standup comic, in the Lenny Bruce vein, who goes back to his anti-Semitic hometown for an award but is forced to confront his demons in the process.)

Other Jewish short stories Ellison wrote include the autobiographical One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty, A Prayer for No One’s Enemy, loosely based on the tragic story of Daniel Burros, a Jew who joined the American Nazi party and committed suicide when his heritage was revealed, and I’m Looking for Kadak, where blue, 11-armed inhabitants of the planet Zsouchmuhn seek a 10th Jew for a minyan so they can say Kaddish. (Ellison helpfully provided a Yiddish glossary for those who didn’t know the words he sprinkled liberally throughout.)

I’d insist, though, that it’s in his essays that Ellison shone best. That’s where you really get to know the man. Whether writing about his lifelong love of comic books (“Did Your Mother Throw Yours Out?”) or making the case for the ideals of the ‘60s (“The Song the Sixties Sang”), Ellison proved himself to be fearless, pugnacious and always in your face, but in a good way.

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“Ahbhu” and “Serita Rosenthal Ellison: A Eulogy,” the former about the life and death of his unique dog, the latter portraying his complex relationship with his mother (and what happened when he determined that he would give a eulogy at her funeral, to the chagrin of most of his extended family who feared what he would say) prove that Ellison was more than just an angry man (his friend and fellow Jewish writer Neil Gaiman referred to him as a “cranky old Jew” in Erik Nelson’s  provocative 2008 documentary on Ellison, Dreams with Sharp Teeth), even if they also provide a reminder that he didn’t exactly fit into “respectable” circles, within or outside of the Jewish community.