Saturday 28 October 2023

The Un-American Treatment of a Leftist Science Fiction Fan

Professor Chandler Davis: author, mathematician,
activist, and science fiction fan.
Chan Davis (1929 - 2022) was well known to science fiction fans of the 1940s and 1950s. He was a fanzine editor, an early filker, a Worldcon troublemaker, and a regular contributor to Astounding Science Fiction.

But to the broader public, he’s more likely to be remembered as a mathematician … and as a political prisoner.

Fired from the University of Michigan in 1954, and imprisoned for six months in 1960 on charges of contempt of Congress brought by the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC), Davis has long warranted the sort of examination that biographer Dr. Steve Batterson provides in his new book The Prosecution of Professor Chandler Davis.

“Almost all HUAC witnesses with Communist connections were avoiding the jeopardy of contempt prosecution either by naming the names of others or declining to answer questions under the Fifth Amendment.,” explains biographer Dr. Steve Batterson. “Finding both stay out of jail options to be intolerable, Chandler refused to cooperate asserting the Freedom of Speech protection of the First Amendment. He intended to use the standing gained by an expected conviction to obtain a hearing before the Supreme Court and hopefully end HUAC’s persecution of the left. During the height of McCarthyism, it was a course of enormous risk and courage.” 

Although it starts out as a relatively straight biography of Davis, The Prosecution of Professor Chandler Davis quickly evolves into an in-depth examination of how the American legal system works … or doesn’t work. The book portrays a principled American mathematician at odds with a system that was failing to protect the civil liberties of citizens.

“Even though I’m a mathematician, I’m also sort of a Supreme Court groupie … so the legal aspects of this intrigued me,” Batterson says. “And 10 years earlier, the Hollywood 10 had gone to jail when they based their defense on the First Amendment. So why did Chandler try something that hadn’t worked. It took me a while to understand.”

The book delves deeply into the legal aspects of Davis’ case – particularly the Barenblatt V. United States case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the Communist Party was such a significant threat to American Security that it overrode the country’s commitment to free speech. These are complicated issues, but Batterson explains them clearly and thoroughly.

“It always surprised me that I would talk to mathematicians and they wouldn’t know about Chandler Davis’ story,” Batterson recalls. “It was a long time ago, and the story was just … getting lost.”

An emeritus professor of mathematics at Emory University in Georgia, Batterson had been acquainted with Davis for more than 20 years. He’d read Ellen Schrecker’s history of McCarthyism No Ivory Tower, which included a chapter on Chandler Davis, so he knew the broad strokes of the case.

“Chandler and I happened to be at the same conference in Banff [Canada] in 2010, and were on a hike together in the mountains. When I asked Chandler about the case he was very forthright with me. He wasn’t reluctant to talk about it because he knew he’d done what was right,” Batterson recalls. “The story fascinated me. He was a mathematician who went to jail … I mean that's a pretty unusual thing to happen!”

Science fiction and fandom are relegated to a sideline in the book, though it should be understood that these became less important to Davis as his career progressed. Although Chan Davis appears throughout the fanzines of the 1940s, he fell out of fandom right around the time he was facing the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Although John W. Campbell had been a friend of Davis, they had a falling out in the late 1940s over Campbell’s antisemitism.

“After he had been fired in 1954, he wrote what he later called some of his best science fiction stories,” Batterson notes (The stories in question included The Star System and Adrift on the Policy Level). “He thought that possibly he could make a living as a science fiction writer under an assumed name. But that’s not what he wanted. He was a mathematician, and he didn’t want to be forced into a career change by the government.”
Chan Davis and Natalie Zemon-Davis were
prominent academics based in Toronto.
(Image via University of Toronto)

The book starts off with a fairly straightforward biography of Davis’ early life. His childhood as the son of leftist academics who were members of the Communist Party, his education at Harvard and involvement with science fiction fandom, his military service and his marriage to Natalie Zemon-Davis. All of this is in service of the focus of the book: Davis’ brief stint at the University of Michigan, his firing, and the six-year legal saga that led to his imprisonment.

“It was incredibly courageous what Chandler did,” Batterson explains. “He was 27 or 28 years old when this all started. He had a wife and one child at the time – with another on the way. His wife was a graduate student, and it wasn’t clear at the time that she would go on to become one of the greatest historians of her generation.”

During the period after his firing, the Davis family faced economic hard times. When friends and colleagues took up a donation for them, the FBI ended up with a list of who donated; sadly it appears few in the science fiction community stood by their former compatriot.

“There’s not a lot of mention of science fiction or fandom in the FBI documents,” Batterson notes. “The FBI didn’t consider that to be disreputable.”

After he was released from serving his six-month prison sentence in 1960, the family emigrated to Canada where both Davis and his wife became professors at the University of Toronto. He rejoined fandom there, and published a handful of later stories. In 1989, he was one of the guests at the 47th Worldcon held in Boston. Both he and his wife had distinguished academic careers.

In the seven decades since Davis appeared in front of the House Committee, his position has largely been vindicated.

“These kinds of stories are always relevant. At the time, there was the censorship of left-wing political views under McCarthyism. But you find even now (in Florida for example) an attempt at censorship of left-wing political views,” Batterson notes. “Most people think that they’d take a principled stand, but when push comes to shove ... they bend just a little. Chandler Davis didn’t bend, and I find that interesting.”

Although the three previous biographies that Batterson had written were published by academic presses that specialized in mathematical works, The Prosecution of Professor Chandler Davis was published by the progressive publisher Monthly Review Press, and will consequently be more widely available.

Over the past decade, science fiction fandom has begun to grapple with the histories of its problematic icons. Excellent biographies of Asimov, of Heinlein, of Campbell (among others) have highlighted that they had feet of clay. It is refreshing to be reminded that there were those within the science fiction community who were willing to stand against the prevailing winds of the day, and gratifying to have this excellent volume about Dr. Chandler Davis’ life.