Paul Linebarger – Cordwainer Smith

Pondering the pseudonym.

 

Galaxy, October1962
Cover art by Virgil Finlay for The Ballad of Lost C’mell

Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger (1913-1966), citizen of the USA, was an author, political scientist, academic, and military adviser in Korea and Malaya. To me however, and I suspect to most readers of science fiction, he was better known as Cordwainer Smith, the name behind one of the most individual science fiction careers to date.

I don’t know why Paul Linebarger wrote his science fiction under a pseudonym but that he did so doesn’t entirely surprise me. If nothing else a pseudonym allows an individual to keep their writing career separate from other parts of their life if that individual feels a conflict of interest. It wouldn’t surprise me if a political scientist, academic, and military adviser who wanted his associates to take him seriously felt the need to keep his authorial activities discrete. Or perhaps he didn’t want reader reaction to his fiction to be influenced by a knowledge of his other activities. Not that I want to claim either of these suggestions is definitely why Paul Linebarger did what he did, just that they’re definite possibilities.

However, I’m rather less interested in why Linebarger chose to write under a pseudonym than why he chose that pseudonym to be Cordwainer Smith. Now if it had been given to him by an editor then there would be no mystery as back in the day editors seemed to delight in devising the most ridiculous pseudonyms possible. Compared to the likes of Wolfe Herscholt, Belli Luigi, Polton Cross, Deutero Spartacus, and Volsted Gridban , all fine examples of editorial perverseness, a name like Cordwainer Smith hardly stands out.

However Paul Linebarger chose his own pseudonym and given the care with which he wrote his stories I can’t imagine him applying anything less than the same degree of care to choosing a pen-name. In which case I think it reasonable to assume Linebarger chose Cordwainer Smith because it had some sort of significance to him. He wouldn’t be the first to do so, Robert Heinlein for example constructed the pen-name Lyle Monroe from his mother’s maiden name and a surname taken from one branch of her family.

 

 

In Linebarger’s case however just what that significance his chosen pen-name might have isn’t immediately apparent. As far as I’m aware Paul Linebarger never explained why he chose Cordwainer Smith and those words have no obvious connection to the man. But that’s alright because I have a theory (actually, I always have a theory, it’s my least endearing trait people tell me).

Let’s start by looking at Paul Linebarger’s Wikipedia page. According to that entry:

“Cordwainer” is an archaic word for “a worker in cordwain or cordovan leather; a shoemaker”, and a “smith” is “one who works in iron or other metals; esp. a blacksmith or farrier”: two kinds of skilled workers with traditional materials.

Well okay, the assumption here seems to be that Paul Linebarger chose the Cordwainer Smith for the archaic craftsman connotations it holds. And it’s true that an author can be reasonably be described as a traditional skilled worker, just with words rather than leather or metal. (The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature, was written nearly 5000 years ago which is long enough ago  to count as pretty traditional in my book).

Which is all very well but as it stands it doesn’t seem to me to be the full story. Paul Linebarger doesn’t strike me as the sort of person who would be satisfied with such a shallow hidden meaning. Which is why I found one particular detail in the Michael Kelly book, London Lines: The Capital By Underground, of particular interest.

In this book Kelly spends several paragraphs describing the area surrounding the Barbican tube station. (The Barbican tube station is situated near the Barbican Estate, on the edge of the ward of Farringdon Within, in the City of London in case you were wondering.) According to Kelly outside the nearby Bow Church is the following:

“And, in a little square of grass, there is a statue of Captain John Smith, ‘Citizen and Cordwainer, 1580-1631, First among the leaders of the settlement at Jamestown from which began the overseas expansion of the English-speaking people’.”

Now this I find interesting, very interesting. If Captain John Smith was a cordwainer does not this suggest a connection with Cordwainer Smith? I have to wonder if perhaps Linebarger called himself Cordwainer Smith as a sly reference to Captain John Smith. If Linebarger viewed Smith as one of the founding fathers of the USA perhaps then his Cordwainer Smith pen-name was his way of hinting at a similar role in his own future history, The Instrumentality. It strikes me as the sort of meta joke Linebarger would have enjoyed. It would also allow him to imply that the tales in his future history, The Instrumentality of Mankind are being set down by one who had been part of the history of The Instrumentality right from the beginning (which as the author he clearly had). Somebody indeed who still lingered on in the wings for reasons unimaginable to tell us these tales of his past but our future history.

A tenuous connection can also be made to the Greek mythological figure Hermes, messenger for the gods and a known trickster. He was the god of boundaries and the transgression of boundaries as well as being the patron of heralds. According to legend, shortly after birth, Hermes secretly left his home and hid the cattle of Apollo. In order to ensure the cattle would not leave tracks, he made each one a set of four boots. A cordwaining trickster god who was the patron of both heralds and boundary transgressions? That seems like a reference Paul Linebarger would appreciate.

Of course this is all speculation of the most tenuous kind but I like to think that ‘tenuous legend’ is how Paul Linebarger hoped Cordwainer Smith would be remembered.

Not a man, but the ghost who wrote.

3 thoughts on “Paul Linebarger – Cordwainer Smith”

  1. Could it be that the cordwainer link to Captain John Smith also makes it a subtle way to make his pseudonym a form of the classic false name, “John Smith”?

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    1. It’s entirely possible that Paul Linebarger noticed the similarity to the classic ‘John Smith’ pseudonym and that contributed to his decision to use Cordwainer Smith. To judge from his fiction Paul Linebarger clearly liked subtle allusions and the ‘John Smith’ connection is certainly a subtle allusion.

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