The Manuscripts, Correspondence and Books of Olaf Stapledon

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The collection consists of manuscripts, typescripts, correspondence, miscellaneous items and books relating to the personal life and career of W. Olaf Stapledon. The collection includes manuscripts and typescripts of most of Stapledon's published articles, stories and poems, a large quantity of manuscripts of unpublished poems; manuscripts notes for several works of fiction; about 40 manuscripts (some complete, some fragmentary) of unpublished prose; authors proof books of nearly all published works; several bound notebooks; a nearly complete collection of his pocket diaries and appointment books from 1900-1950, lecture notes on political, literary, educational and philisophical topics from the early 1920's to 1950. The collection of correspondence is comprised of more than 200 items, mostly letters from public fugures, writers, and various publishers and institutions with which Stapledon was associated. Letters in the Stapledon correspondence include letters from: John Dover Wilson, Virginia Woolf, Arthur Koestler, H.G. Wells, Naomi Mitchison and J.B. Priestly. Of special interest is a substantial file of letters that are responses to and commentaries on Last and First Men. The collection also contains other items such as a large collection of foreign translations of his fiction, first editions of his books, and journals containing contributions by Stapledon, autographed and presentation copies of books by other writers, books from his personal library and scrapbooks and photographs.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Olaf Stapledon was born in 1886 in the Wirral, the only child of a Liverpool shipping family. He was educated at Abbotsholme, a progressive public school, and read history at Balliol College, Oxford (1905-1909). He then spent a rather indecisive period in the family firm, including some time in the office in Port Said, which provided ideas he later used in (1950) A Man Divided. After spending time as a school master, he began lecturing for the Workers' Educational Association and taught extramurally for the University of Liverpool. The experience was to some extent a new beginning, for the need to explain history, literature and philosophy clarified his own ideas and ideals.

Stapledon served in the Ambulance Unit of the Society of Friends during the First World War which helped to formulate his pacifism and provide material for (1932) Last men in London. He went on to be an active supporter of various peace movements, campaigning for European Unity and World Government. Stapledon was a man of broadly socialist ideals and, moreover, thought it of prime importance that people understood each other. After the War, Stapledon received his Ph.D in Philosophy from Liverpool but while continuing to lecture became increasingly drawn to creative writing as a means of exploring and expressing his complex ideas.

Beginning his main writing career between the wars, Stapledon attracted the favourable comment of Arnold Bennet, J.B.Priestly, Hugh Walpole and H.G. Wells. In 1930 he published his first novel Last and First Men, followed by (1935) (1937) Odd JohnStar Maker and (1944) Sirius. Although Stapledon wrote other works of fiction, these are the novels that have made him one of the most influential British science fiction writers.

Last and First Men is introduced by what amounts to a summary of his objectives and methods. Ungoverned speculation at the merely fantastic is rejected in favour of controlled imagination as a means of understanding the present and its potentialities. This understanding is intended not to predict specific events but to stimulate reassessment of contemporary ideals in order that we meet the future with a clearer vision and sense of purpose. Stapledon's belief that the human condition is greatly in need of improvement is permeated with an optimistic assumption that our present condition is merely a brief stage in a vast evolutionary programme. This theme is embodied in an imaginary cycle of rise and fall of future civilisations, as the survivors of each decline, in turn, travel the universe and start anew. The book is remarkably expansive, covering two million years of human evolution.

Stapledon's major work, Star Maker, considers two closely connected fundamental problems which science fiction writers often encounter and avoid. The first is the need to select or evolve the ideas which should govern our approach to the future; the old ones which have caused enough trouble already will obviously not do. Secondly, there is the fact that Utopia by decree is not only incompatible with the free development of human potential but also is likely to bring about a socio-political order which is the very antithesis of Utopia - immutable, repressive and boring, because, being supposedly perfect, it cannot change or countenance individual differences. Stapledon insisted that creativity has its own dynamic and, furthermore, that as a concept it should not be limited to human creativity but should include what he termed Spirit, namely the creative life-force of the universe. Individual creativity, far from being suppressed to qualify for membership of traditional Utopia, was therefore given new oppurtunities in the form of joining with others. This novel finally offers the vision of a composite mind which is finally capable of understanding the original creativity of the universe - the Star Maker of the title. In this Utopia, gentleness, toleration and freedom have ceased to be mere slogans, are no longer threatened by violence, and have the status of a universal religion; striving for individuality leads not to domination but to community and symbiosis.

Stapledon was somewhat taken aback in the 1940's when he was acclaimed by science fiction fans. Ironically, the praise he received as a science fiction writer may partially account for his total neglect by historians of modern literature. Yet Stapledon did much original thinking about such subjects as alternative words, colonization of other worlds, cosmology, cyborgs, ESP, imortality, monsters and time travel. Arthur C. Clarke and James Blish are among the science fiction writers who have expressed their indebtedness to him and his influence on the development of the genre is second only to that of H.G. Wells.

Stapledon died at his home on the 6th September 1950. After clearing the dinner table he collapsed in the kitchen. A massive thrombosis that had been building up for days killed him almost at once.

Arrangement

The collection has been organised into two parts

  • A-I Manuscripts
  • J-K Books and pamphlets belonging to Olaf Stapledon

Conditions Governing Access

Access is open to bone fide researchers

Acquisition Information

Mrs A.Z. Stapledon, W. Olaf Stapledon's widow deposited manuscripts of Stapledon's books in 1970 . This deposit was later added to by John D. Stapledon, Olaf Stapledon's son, on behalf of the Stapledon family in the summer of 1983.  The material was deposited initally on loan but on the 1st January 2000 it became a permanent gift.

Other Finding Aids

A finding aid is available for consultation in the reading room

Archivist's Note

The collection was originally listed in 1985 by Michael Perkin. It was later listed using EAD 1.0 by David Powell, this list has been edited and a new collection level description added by Roy Lumb for inclusion on the Archives Hub . Some renumbering of items and editing and expanding of the list was carried out by Michelle Alexander in 2004. Additional editing and improvement of this list was made by Elinor Robinson in 2005.

Conditions Governing Use

Reproduction and copyright rules available upon request

Custodial History

Prior to the 1983 deposit the Stapledon collection was used extensively by a group of American scholars (Robert Crossley, Harvey Satty and Curtis C. Smith) who initially sorted and catalogued the collection and aided in the negotiations between the University and the Stapledon family

Accruals

There are no anticipated accruals

Related Material

Stapledon's correspondence with the society of authors 1943-50  is held at British Library, Manuscripts Collection

Bibliography

Crossley, Robert, Olaf Stapledon: speaking for the future/Robert Crossley;with a forward by Brian W. Aldiss, Liverpool University Press, 1994  Includes bibliographical references (p.451-457) and indexFielder, LeslieOlaf Stapledon: a man divided Oxford University Press, 1983McCarthy, Patrick A, et. al. (eds)The Legacy of Olaf StapledonGreenwood Press, 1989