News From Terre Haute, Indiana

February 28, 2009

B-SIDES: Sci-fi fans mourn death of a Hautean

By Mark Bennett

TERRE HAUTE — To fully appreciate Philip José Farmer’s impact on popular culture, imagine rock ’n’ roll without Jimi Hendrix’s beloved song “Purple Haze.”

Hendrix borrowed that phrase from Farmer’s 1957 science-fiction novella “Night of Light.”

The world can thank a native Hautean for inspiring “Purple Haze.” That’s impressive.

Unfortunately, while most folks here know Hendrix’s legend and music, few recognize the name Philip José Farmer. Nonetheless, millions of sci-fi fans around the world revered Farmer, who was born Jan. 26, 1918, in North Terre Haute. He wrote more than 75 novels before his death Wednesday morning at his home in Peoria, Ill., at age 91.

Farmer won three Hugo Awards, the highest honors for science fiction and fantasy writers. His “Riverworld” series employed cameo appearances by reincarnated icons such as Mark Twain and explorer Sir Richard Burton. In “Lovers,” Farmer jolted the sci-fi world with a love affair between an Earthling man and an alien woman. That earned him his first Hugo in 1952.

His fantastic tales lured a vast, loyal following, especially to his popular “Riverworld” and “World of Tiers” series.

Michael Croteau can attest to the passion of Farmer’s fans. Croteau has served as Webmaster of the author’s official Internet site, pjfarmer.com, for the past 12 years.

“I don’t think anyone will ever adequately get into writing how big his influence is on the science-fiction world as we know it today,” Croteau told the Tribune-Star by e-mail Thursday evening.

Outside that sci-fi world, though, Farmer was just another guy living most of his life in Peoria. The Peoria Journal-Star recalled how fans would flow into town for the annual “Farmercon” celebration, while the rest of the city would just scratch its head about their fascination.

Terre Haute is, not surprisingly, even less Farmer-aware. Sci-fi isn’t the usual topic of conversation in coffeeshops.

“That’s the key to his relative obscurity here, because science-fiction is a niche,” said Todd Nation, owner of BookNation on Wabash Avenue.

Nonetheless, a place in Terre Haute’s public consciousness should be reserved for Farmer, right alongside icons such as poet Max Ehrmann, author Theodore Dreiser and songwriter Paul Dresser. Farmer simply wrote for a different audience.

“Certainly, he was one of the highest tier of science-fiction writers in the nation,” said Terre Haute historian and attorney Michael McCormick.

Farmer’s life began in this city, but his stay was brief. Even his surname had no deep roots. His paternal grandfather, William Albert Park, was given up at the age of 2 to a distant relative named George Farmer. That’s how Philip’s father received the name Farmer, Philip explained in his 1981 biographical essay, “Maps and Spasms.”

Philip also described his birth in North Terre Haute in that biography, in sci-fi style. “Many ghosts of ancestors crowded around to assist in the delivery. The Good Fairy blessed me with one gift, and the Evil Witch laid on me some curses and geases. St. Francis of Assisi and Jack the Ripper telegrammed their regards,” he wrote.

George Farmer, his father, was a first-year student at Rose Polytechnic Institute. George quit school as a freshman to support his wife, Lucile, and his new son, Philip. World War I was raging in 1918, and Philip quipped that his birth saved his father from the draft. Philip’s most distant memory was getting his first haircut as a child in Terre Haute.

Shortly after Philip learned to talk, he and his mother moved into his great-grandmother’s farmhouse near Indianapolis. In that house, Farmer remembered “the old grandfather clock on the staircase landing, keeping me awake at night, reminding me, though I didn’t know it then, of the irresistible and merciless passage of time.”

His family moved around, and Farmer eventually studied briefly at the University of Missouri and then Bradley University in Peoria, where he settled, married his wife, Bette (who survives him), and raised a family with two children.

Farmer returned to Terre Haute, at least occasionally. He lectured at Indiana State University, and conducted a student writing workshop in April 1978. The English honorary society Sigma Tau Delta made him a life member during a national convention in Terre Haute.

Just like other Terre Haute icons, Farmer stirred controversy. His injection of sexuality and graphic bodily functions displeased critics. He even managed to irritate fellow Hoosier writer Kurt Vonnegut by using a character from Vonnegut’s novels — Kilgore Trout — as his pen name for one of his sci-fi novels.

Dreiser and Eugene Debs would be proud of Farmer’s chutzpah. He’s earned his place in our local pantheon.



Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.