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15 Things You Might Not Know About Stranger in a Strange Land

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james warhola

While Robert A. Heinlein had put together a healthy bibliography throughout the 1940s and ’50s, he broke new ground with the publication of his 1961 science-fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land. The apex of Heinlein’s career and a cornerstone of its genre, the sociopolitical allegory is now recognized as a landmark of American literature. Despite the novel’s prominence, there are a few facts about its conception, writing, and extensive rewriting that might have eluded you.

1. THE BOOK’S ORIGINAL TITLE WAS NOT AS BIBLICAL.

The novel takes its title from the scriptural verse Exodus 2:22 and Moses’s reflections on fleeing Egypt and producing a son with his wife Zipporah: “For he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.” Before adopting the passage as the name of his book, Heinlein considered the decidedly less religious title The Heretic. The author also tinkered with working titles including A Martian Named Smith and The Man from Mars.

2. THE AUTHOR’S WIFE CAME UP WITH THE IDEA THAT INSPIRED STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND. 

While Heinlein brought the interplanetary exploits of Valentine Michael Smith to life, his third wife, Virginia, provided the basic idea from which the novel sprang. What’s more, Ginny Heinlein—an accomplished biochemist and engineer—drew inspiration for the concept that would become Stranger in a Strange Land from the works of author Rudyard Kipling. She summarized the idea as a variation on The Jungle Book with the Mowgli character raised by Martians rather than animals.

3. THE STORY’S DEVELOPMENT TOOK 13 YEARS. 

The idea first came to the Heinlein household in 1948, but Robert Heinlein shelved the concept in favor of projects that promised quicker turnarounds. Throughout the early 1950s, Heinlein accumulated bits and pieces of the overall “boy from Mars” story before finally starting to assemble a coherent manuscript in 1955—albeit one he quickly abandoned.

The late 1950s saw Heinlein devoting his focus to projects like running ads in favor of nuclear testing and the novel Starship Troopers, with occasional returns to what would ultimately become Stranger in a Strange Land. He completed the novel by 1960 before spending a year answering his publishers’ demands for revision.

4. HEINLEIN FOUGHT TO KEEP THE MORE “CONTROVERSIAL” MATERIAL IN THE NOVEL. 

Publishing group G.P. Putnam’s Sons initially urged Heinlein to ditch some of the book’s more controversial passages, particularly content that touched on sexual or religious themes. Heinlein remained unconvinced that his story could survive without these elements. The author famously remarked in a letter to longtime friend and literary agent Lurton Blassingame, “If I cut out religion and sex, I am very much afraid that I will end with a nonalcoholic martini.” 

Heinlein continued, “This story is supposed to be a completely free-wheeling look at contemporary human culture from the nonhuman viewpoint of the Man from Mars (in the sense of the philosophical cliche)…No sacred cows of any sort…But, in addition to a double dozen of minor satirical slants, the two major things which I am attacking are the two biggest, fattest sacred cows of all, the two that every writer is supposed to give at least lip service to: the implicit assumptions of our Western culture concerning religion and concerning sex.” 

Summing up his stance, Heinlein proclaimed, “I don't see how to take out the sex and religion. If I do, there isn't any story left.” 

5. EDITORS SUCCEEDED IN GETTING HEINLEIN TO TRIM THE NOVEL’S SPRAWLING LENGTH 

The initial draft that Heinlein turned in to Putnam tipped the scales at a whopping 220,000 words and 800 pages, far too long for the publisher’s tastes. While Heinlein was ultimately permitted to keep the sexual and religious content, he did agree to cut over a quarter—approximately 60,000 words—of his text. 

6. HEINLEIN WAS DISAPPOINTED BY THE PRINTED VERSION. 

The extensive edits required by Putnam left Heinlein unhappy with Stranger in a Strange Land. The author lamented the state of the novel during a late stage of the editing process in a letter to Blassingame: “The story is now as tight as a wedge in a green stump and, short of completely recasting it and rewriting it, I can’t get it much tighter. I have rewritten and cut drastically in the middle where [Putnam] felt it was slow…As it is, it is cut too much in parts—the style is rather ‘telegraphese,’ somewhat jerky—and I could very handily use a couple of thousand words of ‘lubrication,’ words put back in to make the style more graceful and readable.” 

7. THE NOVEL CLAIMS A LOFTY SUPERLATIVE. 

Following the terrific commercial and critical success of Stranger in a Strange Land, publishers decided to brand a batch of copies with the tag, “The most famous Science Fantasy Novel of all time."

8. BUT THE AUTHOR DISAGREED WITH THIS GENRE LABEL.

Heinlein insisted that his story was “not science fiction by any stretch of the imagination,” indicating that this genre designation was mutually exclusive with what he felt was a more accurate description of the nature of the book: a sociopolitical satire of sex and religion in contemporary culture.

9. STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND WAS THE FIRST OF ITS KIND TO EARN A COVETED HONOR. 

The novel was published during the 30th year of the New York Times Best Sellers list’s circulation. Despite Heinlein’s misgivings about the genre label, Stranger in a Strange Land became the very first science-fiction book to make the hallowed list. 

10. THE BOOK GAVE THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE A NEW WORD.

Although not exactly a mainstay of everyday speech, the word grok—first introduced to the world via Stranger in a Strange Land—has permeated the English lexicon. The particularly unattractive neologism can be found in both Webster’s Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary, which identify it as a verb meaning, to understand profoundly, intuitively, or by empathy. 

11. IT ALSO GAVE CALIFORNIA A NEW RELIGION. 

A few years after Stranger in a Strange Land was published, St. Louis native Timothy Zell made it his life’s work to bring to life of one of Heinlein’s creations: the Church of All Worlds. Adopting the handle Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, founding father Zell established the Neo-Pagan group as a legally recognized religion in the state of California to promote philosophical tolerance, polygamy, and tenets of both socialism and libertarianism. Heinlein never joined or endorsed Zell’s Church of All Worlds, although he is said to have subscribed to the organization’s newsletter, Green Egg

12. MORE IMPORTANTLY, IT MIGHT HAVE GIVEN THE WORLD THE WATERBED. 

Also in 1968, Charles Prior Hall sought a patent on a modern mattress filled not with solid stuffing but with water. Unbeknownst to the would-be inventor, acquiring this registration would prove difficult because the concept and design of “the waterbed” could be traced to three recent novels, all written by Heinlein: Beyond the Horizon, Double Star, and Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein later acknowledged his personal hospital stints had driven him to design a more comfortable sickbed, but he never pursued the project beyond illustration in his fiction. In 1971, Hall finally won legal rights to a variation on his waterbed design. 

13. THE NOVEL WAS FALSELY ACCUSED OF INFLUENCING CHARLES MANSON. 

Stranger in a Strange Land’s otherwise impressive legacy gained an unsightly blemish when it was associated with cult leader Charles Manson by several writers who claimed the infamous murderer was a fan of the work. 

Hoping to free Heinlein of the anchor that was any association with—or worse yet, blame for—the atrocities committed by the Manson Family, novelist and journalist J. Neil Schulman contacted the incarcerated Manson in 1981 and asked him outright about his relationship with the novel. According to Schulman, Manson claimed to have never even read Stranger in a Strange Land, which would wholly negate the connection between the novel and his crimes. 

14. HEINLEIN WAS IRKED BY READERS WHO LOOKED TO STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND FOR “ANSWERS.” 

In the wake of his novel’s success, Heinlein endured the fate of many influential artists: Answering harebrained questions from misguided fans. Some readers viewed the text as a manifesto of sorts—an articulation of what Heinlein saw as wrong with society and, what’s more, how to overcome these follies. When probed by readers to expand on his presumed solutions for fixing the world, Heinlein had trouble disguising his frustration. On one occasion, he expressed his feelings by saying: “I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines. In consequence, each reader gets something different out of that book because he himself supplies the answers. It is an invitation to think, not to believe.” 

15. IN 1991, THE UNABRIDGED VERSION OF THE BOOK WAS FINALLY PUBLISHED.

Shortly after Heinlein’s death, the author’s widow asked the University of California, Santa Cruz, to send her the original version of Stranger in a Strange Land. The university complied and sent the entire document—all 800 pages of it—to her for reading. Because of changes in copyright law, the original publication contract was cancelled, allowing Virginia Heinlein to release this early incarnation of the novel, which all parties agreed would be more agreeable, both in content and length, to a more modern audience than it would have in the early 1960s. What’s more, all parties agreed with what Heinlein himself had been saying all along: the longer version really was better.

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11 Ridiculously Overdue Library Books (That Were Finally Returned)
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Last week, Massachusetts's Attleboro Public Library received a big surprise when one of its regular patrons returned a copy of T.S. Arthur's The Young Lady at Home ... more than 78 years after it had been checked out. 

The man, whose name was not revealed, was reportedly helping a friend clean out his basement when he came across the tome. He recognized the library's stamp, then noticed its original due date: November 21, 1938. “We were amazed,” said Amy Rhilinger, the library’s assistant director. “I’ve worked here for 15 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Because the library charges $.10 per day for overdue books, the total bill for this dusty read would come to about $2800—but the library isn't planning to cash in. “We’re not the library police," Rhilinger said. "We’re not tracking everyone’s things. Everyone returns things a few [days] late, and it’s one thing we joke about here.”

Though it's rare, the decades-overdue book's return is not unprecedented. Here are 11 more tardy returns.

1. The Versatile Grain and the Elegant Bean: A Celebration of the World’s Most Healthful Foods by Sheryl and Mel London

LOANED FROM: The Lawrence Public Library in Lawrence, Kansas
YEARS OVERDUE: 21

In 2014, someone anonymously returned this fitness-friendly cookbook, which had been missing since September 24, 1992. The volume, published that April, contains over 300 recipes—and it’s probably safe to assume that the culprit had plenty of time to try out every single one of them.

2. The Real Book About Snakes by Jane Sherman

LOANED FROM: The Champaign County Library in Urbana, Ohio 
YEARS OVERDUE: 41

Like the previous entry, whoever turned in this musty old field guide declined to reveal his name. But lest anyone question the man’s honesty, he also left the following note: “Sorry I’ve kept this book so long, but I’m a really slow reader! I’ve enclosed my fine of $299.30 (41 years, 2 cents a day). Once again, my apologies!”

3. Days and Deeds: A Book of Verse for Children’s Reading and Speaking compiled by Burton and Elizabeth Stevenson

LOANED FROM: The Kewanee Public Library in Kewanee, Illinois
YEARS OVERDUE: 47

According to Guinness World Records, the $345.14 fee paid by the borrower of this lyrical compilation stands as the highest library fine ever paid.

4. The Fire of Francis Xavier by Arthur R. McGratty

LOANED FROM: The New York Public Library, Fort Washington Branch, in New York, New York
YEARS OVERDUE: 55

In 2013, this one was discreetly mailed in and the perpetrator was never brought to justice (be on guard, Big Apple bibliophiles).

5. The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

LOANED FROM: The Rugby Library in Warwick, England 
YEARS OVERDUE: 63

The item found its way home during an eight-day “fines amnesty period,” which shielded the guilty patron from a £4000 penalty. “It’s amazing to think how much the library has changed since that book was taken out in 1950,” said librarian Joanna Girdle. 

6. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

LOANED FROM: The Chicago Public Library in Chicago, Illinois 
YEARS OVERDUE: 78

Harlean Hoffman Vision found a rare edition of this novel nestled amongst her late mother’s personal effects and vowed to set things right. “She kept saying, ‘You’re not going to arrest me?’” recalled marketing director Ruth Lednicer, “and we said, ‘No, we’re so happy you brought it back.’”

7. Master of Men by E. Phillips Oppenheim

Amazon, Public Domain

LOANED FROM: The Leicester County Library in Leicester, England
YEARS OVERDUE: 79

Oppenheim was born in the surrounding region and, hence, the Leicestershire County Council was thrilled to reclaim this piece of their literary heritage after it turned up in a nearby house—even though the library branch it originally belonged to had shut down decades earlier.

8. Facts I Ought to Know About the Government of My Country by William H. Bartlett

Amazon, Public Domain

LOANED FROM: The New Bedford Public Library in New Bedford, Massachusetts
YEARS OVERDUE: 99

Stanley Dudek of Mansfield, Massachusetts claims that his mother—a Polish immigrant—decided to brush up on American politics by borrowing this volume from the New Bedford Library in 1910. “For a person who was just becoming a citizen, it was the perfect book for her,” says Dudek.

9. Insectivorous Plants by Charles Darwin

LOANED FROM: The Camden School of Arts Lending Library in Sydney, Australia
YEARS OVERDUE: 122

An Australian copy of Darwin’s treatise on bug-eating flora was borrowed in 1889. After two World Wars, Neil Armstrong’s moon landing, and the birth of the internet, it was finally returned on July 22, 2011.

10. The Ancient History of the Egyptians, Carthaginians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes and Persians, Macedonians, and Grecians (volume II) by Charles Rollin

LOANED FROM: The Grace Doherty Library in Danville, Kentucky
YEARS OVERDUE: 150 (approximately)

In 2013, this tome was discovered at a neighboring school for the deaf, where it had presumably been stored since 1854 (as evidenced by a note written inside dating to that year). The library owns no records from this period, so exactly how long it was gone is anybody’s guess, but, said librarian Stan Campbell, “It’s been out of the library for at least 150 years."

11. The Law of Nations by Emmerich de Vattel

LOANED FROM: The New York Society Library in New York City
YEARS OVERDUE: 221

Five months into his first presidential term, George Washington borrowed this legal manifesto from the historic New York Society Library. For the next 221 years, it remained stowed away at his Virginia home, and organization officials wondered if they’d ever see it again. “We’re not actively pursuing overdue fines,” joked head librarian Mark Bartlett. “But we would be very happy to see the book returned.” His wish was granted when Mount Vernon staff finally sent it back in 2010 (luckily, they dodged a whopping $300,000 late fee).

An earlier version of this post appeared in 2014.

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11 Popular Quotes Commonly Misattributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald
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F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a lot of famous lines, from musings on failure in Tender is the Night to “so we beat on, boats against the current” from The Great Gatsby. Yet even with a seemingly never-ending well of words and beautiful quotations, many popular idioms and phrases are wrongly attributed to the famous Jazz Age author, who was born on this day in 1896. Here are 11 popular phrases that are often misattributed to Fitzgerald. (You may need to update your Pinterest boards.)

1. “WRITE DRUNK, EDIT SOBER.”

This quote is often attributed to either Fitzgerald or his contemporary, Ernest Hemingway, who died in 1961. There is no evidence in the collected works of either writer to support that attribution; the idea was first associated with Fitzgerald in a 1996 Associated Press story, and later in Stephen Fry’s memoir More Fool Me. In actuality, humorist Peter De Vries coined an early version of the phrase in a 1964 novel titled Reuben, Reuben.

2. “FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH: IT’S NEVER TOO LATE OR, IN MY CASE, TOO EARLY TO BE WHOEVER YOU WANT TO BE.”

It’s easy to see where the mistake could be made regarding this quote: Fitzgerald wrote the short story “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in 1922 for Collier's Magazine, and it was adapted into a movie of the same name, directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, in 2008. Eric Roth wrote the screenplay, in which that quotation appears.

3. “OUR LIVES ARE DEFINED BY OPPORTUNITIES, EVEN THE ONES WE MISS.”

This is a similar case to the previous quotation; this quote is attributed to Benjamin Button’s character in the film adaptation. It’s found in the script, but not in the original short story.

4. “YOU’LL UNDERSTAND WHY STORMS ARE NAMED AFTER PEOPLE.”

There is no evidence that Fitzgerald penned this line in any of his known works. In this Pinterest pin, it is attributed to his novel The Beautiful and Damned. However, nothing like that appears in the book; additionally, according to the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Association, although there were a few storms named after saints, and an Australian meteorologist was giving storms names in the 19th century, the practice didn’t become widespread until after 1941. Fitzgerald died in 1940.

5. “A SENTIMENTAL PERSON THINKS THINGS WILL LAST. A ROMANTIC PERSON HAS A DESPERATE CONFIDENCE THAT THEY WON’T.”

This exact quote does not appear in Fitzgerald’s work—though a version of it does, in his 1920 novel This Side of Paradise:

“No, I’m romantic—a sentimental person thinks things will last—a romantic person hopes against hope that they won’t. Sentiment is emotional.” The incorrect version is widely circulated and requoted.

6. “IT’S A FUNNY THING ABOUT COMING HOME. NOTHING CHANGES. EVERYTHING LOOKS THE SAME, FEELS THE SAME, EVEN SMELLS THE SAME. YOU REALIZE WHAT’S CHANGED IS YOU.”

This quote also appears in the 2008 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button script, but not in the original short story.

7. “GREAT BOOKS WRITE THEMSELVES; ONLY BAD BOOKS HAVE TO BE WRITTEN.”

There is no evidence of this quote in any of Fitzgerald’s writings; it mostly seems to circulate on websites like qotd.org, quotefancy.com and azquotes.com with no clarification as to where it originated.

8. “SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL, BUT NOT LIKE THOSE GIRLS IN THE MAGAZINES. SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL FOR THE WAY SHE THOUGHT. SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL FOR THE SPARKLE IN HER EYES WHEN SHE TALKED ABOUT SOMETHING SHE LOVED. SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL FOR HER ABILITY TO MAKE OTHER PEOPLE SMILE, EVEN IF SHE WAS SAD. NO, SHE WASN’T BEAUTIFUL FOR SOMETHING AS TEMPORARY AS HER LOOKS. SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL, DEEP DOWN TO HER SOUL.”

This quote may have originated in a memoir/advice book published in 2011 by Natalie Newman titled Butterflies and Bullshit, where it appears in its entirety. It was attributed to Fitzgerald in a January 2015 Thought Catalog article, and was quoted as written by an unknown source in Hello, Beauty Full: Seeing Yourself as God Sees You by Elisa Morgan, published in September 2015. However, there’s no evidence that Fitzgerald said or wrote anything like it.

9. “AND IN THE END, WE WERE ALL JUST HUMANS, DRUNK ON THE IDEA THAT LOVE, ONLY LOVE, COULD HEAL OUR BROKENNESS.”

Christopher Poindexter, the successful Instagram poet, wrote this as part of a cycle of poems called “the blooming of madness” in 2013. After a Twitter account called @SirJayGatsby tweeted the phrase with no attribution, it went viral as being attributed to Fitzgerald. Poindexter has addressed its origin on several occasions.

10. “YOU NEED CHAOS IN YOUR SOUL TO GIVE BIRTH TO A DANCING STAR.”

This poetic phrase is actually derived from the work of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who died in 1900, just four years after Fitzgerald was born in 1896. In his book Thus Spake ZarathustraNietzsche wrote the phrase, “One must have chaos within to enable one to give birth to a dancing star.” Over time, it’s been truncated and modernized into the currently popular version, which was included in the 2009 book You Majored in What?: Designing Your Path from College to Career by Katharine Brooks.

11. “FOR THE GIRLS WITH MESSY HAIR AND THIRSTY HEARTS.”

This quote is the dedication in Jodi Lynn Anderson’s book Tiger Lily, a reimagining of the classic story of Peter Pan. While it is often attributed to Anderson, many Tumblr pages and online posts cite Fitzgerald as its author.

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