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Nathan, Robert

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1894-1985) US author who began publishing work with no fantastic interest as Richard Florance in The Smart Set from 1915, and responsible under his own name for forty-two novels beginning with Peter Kindred (1919). The Barly Fields (omni 1938) – which contains The Fiddler in Barly (1926), The Woodcutter's House (1927) – in which the phrase "little green man" (see Little Green Men) is used to describe a "small god" whose size depends on his number of worshippers – The Bishop's Wife (1928) and its sequel There Is Another Heaven (1929), plus The Orchid (1931) – fairly represents the softer-edged work of his early years. Road of Ages (1935), slightly more pointed, is a political fantasy in which the Jews are cast into a new Exile. But even in later years much of his fiction retains a wistful, melancholy, sometimes satirical sense of worlds illuminated by fantasy, as in the Tapiola series of Talking Animal tales [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] beginning with The Journey of Tapiola (1938), a mock Fantastic Voyage circumambulating a mildly Satirized lower Manhattan (see New York); the sequel, Tapiola's Brave Regiment (1941), is modestly darkened by the advent of World War Two. Between these two appeared the novel for which he is best remembered, Portrait of Jennie (October-December 1939 Redbook; 1940) – filmed as Portrait of Jennie (1948) directed by William Dieterle – where J W Dunne's time theories frame the sentimental tale of a young girl possibly not of this Earth whose love for a human artist cause her to jump repeatedly through time in order to meet him again, in a Pastoral-hued New York; at each meeting she is markedly older; the last time he sees her she is a corpse in the ocean. Other Timeslip tales include The Married Look (1950), So Love Returns (September 1958 Saturday Evening Post; 1958), The Wilderness-Stone (1960) and Mia (1970). Later came some Arthurian fantasies, including The Fair (1964), which sustains a sublimated elegiac tone in its depiction of a maiden's adventures there, and The Elixir (1971). The Summer Meadows (1973) movingly explores the nature of love in a fantasy quest for significant and telling moments in its protagonists' lives; and Heaven and Hell and the Megas Factor (1975), in which angels investigate Earth and conclude that Homo sapiens can only be saved through the universal injection of a peace serum, which succeeds. "And people greeted one another with smiles."

Of stronger sf interest are The Innocent Eve (1951), in which Satan attempts to gain control of the A-Bomb, and The Mallott Diaries (1965), which deals with Neanderthal survivals in a Lost World in Arizona. But these pale in comparison with The Weans (November 1956 Harper's Magazine as "Digging the Weans" plus April 1959 Harper's Magazine as "A Further Report on the Weans"; much exp 1960 chap), a satirical archaeological report on the long-destroyed US, or "Wean", civilization (see Ruins and Futurity), featuring the discovery of the menacing remnants of a huge hollow figure off an east-coast island, whose name is "Libby" (see Statue of Liberty). "Encounter in the Past" (July 1967 F&SF) is a Time Travel tale. Nathan's reputation is submerged at present, though authors like Peter S Beagle [for detailed entries on Beagle and Nathan see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] are explicitly influenced by him; on revaluation he may be seen as a significant creator of humanistic fantasy. [JC]

see also: The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Robert Gruntal Nathan

born New York: 2 January 1894

died Los Angeles, California: 25 May 1985



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