William Fitzgerald Jenkins was born on June 16, 1896, in Norfolk. Although he had no formal education beyond the eighth grade, he was a voracious reader with a fascination for science and technology. He published his first work, a tribute to Confederate general Robert E. Lee, in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot in 1913. A Confederate veteran sent him five dollars after reading it. After his family moved to New Jersey, Jenkins worked as an office boy and then as a bookkeeper for the Prudential Insurance Company in Newark. He quit in 1917 to devote himself full-time to writing. From then on he supported himself solely by writing, except during World War I (1914–1918) and World War II (1939–1945), later quipping that during his career “I only starved twice.” Jenkins married Mary Mandola of Greenwich Village, New York in 1921. They had four children, Mary, Elizabeth, Wenllian, and Jo-an.
Jenkins also was an avid inventor who held two patents for a front projection system for motion picture special effects. He sent some of his ideas to the American military; others ended up in his stories.
Although his fame derived mostly from his science fiction writing, Jenkins published in various popular genres, including romance, mystery, adventure, westerns, and general interest, in both pulp and slick magazines throughout his life. He wrote under numerous pseudonyms, including Murray Leinster, William Fitzgerald, Louisa Carter Lee, and Jean Farquar. He also wrote as Major Owen Hatteras, a house name that H. L. Mencken often used at the Smart Set magazine, where Jenkins began writing fillers and epigrams and then poems, sketches, and stories. He began publishing epigrams there in 1913, when he was just seventeen; his first identifiable work was a sketch under the pseudonym Jean Farquar titled, “I Am Happy,” in October 1915.
A torrent of stories for various publications followed, and continued for half a century. At the beginning of his career, he wrote a number of stories for the mildly erotic so-called hot pulps (Breezy Stories, Snappy Stories, and Saucy Stories), but gave this up soon after his marriage in 1921. He wrote love stories, mostly as Louisa Carter Lee, for Love Story Magazine in the mid-1920s, adventure stories and westerns (primarily in the 1920s and 1930s), and mysteries, detective stories, and thrillers. He began writing science fiction stories very early in his career (“The Runaway Skyscraper,” for instance, appeared in Argosy on February 22, 1919), and achieved recognition as one of the best science fiction writers for his stories in Argosy, Astounding Science Fiction, and Amazing Stories during the pulp era.
During that period, Jenkins wrote mostly three types of science fiction stories: stories of mad scientists and criminal masterminds who terrorize populations and go on crime sprees with threatening scientific inventions; time travel and alternate universe stories; and stories of military invasions of America with the conquering army using futuristic and seemingly insurmountable weapons. But there were others, too. One of his most popular and reprinted stories from this period, “The Mad Planet” (Argosy, June 12, 1920), was set in the distant future and told of a primitive man, Burl, who tries to re-create civilization on an Earth that has become hostile, filled with giant insects and fungi. “Proxima Centauri” (Astounding Science Fiction, March 1935) was one of the first depictions of an isolated society on a spaceship traveling for generations and of an alien spaceship that is grown, not built.
Following World War II, besides writing for the slicks and mystery/detective magazines, Jenkins devoted himself almost exclusively to science fiction. The bulk of his most popular and influential pieces were written then, and he greatly expanded his repertoire. His most reprinted story was “First Contact” (Astounding Science Fiction, May 1945), a highly regarded tale concerning a first contact with aliens. A tense standoff between the two crews, both fearing the other’s hostile intent and planetary invasion, is resolved when they agree to exchange spaceships and rendezvous at the same point in the future.
Jenkins plunged into the expanding science fiction paperback market beginning in 1953 with his first installation in the Joe Kenmore series titled Space Platform and aimed at a juvenile market. Kenmore rocketed to space stations, space ships, and a lunar colony to defend the United States space effort from spies and saboteurs. Other Leinster series included the Med Service novels (beginning with The Mutant Weapon in 1959) and stories in which Calhoun and his alien companion Murgatroyd take on disease, crime, and war across the galaxy. Although his novels have never been as highly regarded as his stories, The Pirates of Zan was nominated for a Hugo Award in 1960 and The Time Tunnel (1967) sold more than 400,000 copies in the 1960s.
After his first story on Robert E. Lee, Jenkins rarely wrote about Virginia even though he lived most of his life in Gloucester County in an area known as Clay Bank on the York River, in a colonial house dating back to the seventeenth century. He had a great-grandfather and six granduncles who fought in the Confederate army during the Civil War.
A handful of his stories were either set in Virginia or inspired by his life in Virginia. “Sidewise in Time” (Astounding, June 1934), which is often heralded as one of the first parallel-universe stories, begins in Fredericksburg, where Professor Minnott teaches at a small school called Robinson College. On June 5, 1935, time shifts and Fredericksburg becomes surrounded by parallel universes with a Chinese village on the Potomac River, Indians, a Roman villa, and soldiers from the Confederate army, which had won the Civil War.
“Night Drive” (Today’s Woman, March 1950) was inspired by a night drive along a wooded and lonely road between West Point and Richmond. The story tells of the terror of a woman who drives along such a road, empty of inhabitants but thick with the smell of pine woods and honeysuckle, where women were being murdered. Jenkins said that “The Bad-Nigger Mood” (Scribner’s Magazine, February 1937) set at a wharf as a Baltimore-bound steamer arrives to pick up and put off goods and passengers, was also inspired by his Gloucester environs. It tells a story from the perspective of Pete, a black man who observes a violently drunken white man (“Mist’ Holmes”) verbally abuse his wife (“Miz Holmes”) and cause a scene before he passes out. The story implies, but never shows, that Pete kills Mist’ Holmes by rolling him in the water, thereby relieving Miz Holmes from a disastrous marriage to a bad man. He is a sympathetic character who, it is suggested, performs a noble act.
Jenkins’s life in Virginia led to other stories touching on racial prejudice. “The Castaway” (Argosy, September 1946) can be read in the context of southern racism and small-town prejudice combined with guilt over colonialism. An alien crash lands on Earth and flees from a lynch mob that wants to kill him. The mob members are particularly enraged when they think he has abducted a small girl, although he has actually saved her. The alien wants to make friends and comes to realize that the two races are alike. But even an empathetic newspaper editor believes that “he is different from us, so we hate him” and realizes that because of his superior knowledge, he could initiate a process of conquest and colonization if he ever leaves the planet.
Cold War Science Fiction
During the Cold War, Jenkins was attacked by the leading Soviet science fiction writer of his time, Ivan Efremov, for being representative of a warmongering tendency of science fiction from capitalist countries. In Efremov’s story, “The Heart of the Serpent” (1959), a space crew en route to a rendezvous with aliens read “First Contact” and critique it for what they say are the author’s assumptions that contact with aliens would most likely be hostile. In Efremov’s view, and the Soviet view at the time, any civilization that was advanced enough to travel through space would be peaceful, progressive, and communist.
Although Jenkins did write some stories that envision hostile encounters with the Soviet Union, his best science fiction during the Cold War promoted peaceful coexistence, which is the primary theme of “First Contact.” “The Ethical Equation” (Astounding Science Fiction, June 1945) proclaims the usefulness of the Golden Rule. Instead of destroying a military spaceship with aliens in suspended animation, those who find it return it to its own solar system. In the follow-up story, “Adapter” (Astounding Science Fiction, March 1946), an alien weapon is pulled into a science station; under the logic of “the ethical equations” it is not dismantled, but sent back and ends up destroying an iron-consuming blob floating through the galaxy that could have threatened Earth. “Propagandist” (Astounding Science Fiction, August 1947) makes a case for taking a risk for peace. Humans and aliens are on the verge of attacking each other until the aliens learn about the good nature of humans by reading the mind of a dog.
One of the first atomic attack stories was The Murder of the U.S.A. (1946). An unknown country makes a first strike and kills seventy million Americans. After the United States retaliates against the unidentified country, the book concludes with a plea for all nations to adopt a doctrine that would prevent future nuclear attacks by promising such devastating retaliation in the event of an attack that “the enemy country [would] be turned into a waste of bomb-craters so that for ten thousand years to come any man who thinks of war will look at it and have his blood turn to ice.” Such a policy threatening massive retaliation was adopted by the United States in the 1950s.
After suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Jenkins died in 1975 in a nursing home in Gloucester. In 2009, the Virginia General Assembly passed House Joint Resolution No. 755 that designated June 27 as Will F. Jenkins Day.
Major Works as Will F. Jenkins
- Murder Will Out (1932)
- The Gamblin’ Kid (1933)
- Mexican Trail (1933)
- Sword of Kings (1933)
- Fighting Horse Valley (1934)
- Outlaw Sheriff (1934)
- Kid Deputy (1935)
- Murder in the Family (1935)
- No Clues (1935)
- Black Sheep (1936)
- Guns for Achin (1936)
- The Man Who Feared (1942)
- The Murder of the U.S.A. (1946)
- Dallas: From the Warner Bros. Motion Picture Written by John Twist (1950)
- Son of the Flying Y (1951)
- Cattle Rustlers (1952)
Major Works as Murray Leinster
- Scalps: A Murder Mystery (1930)
- Murder Madness (1931)
- Sword of Kings (1933)
- The Last Space Ship (1949)
- Wanted Dead or Alive (1949)
- Fight for Life (1949)
- Sidewise in Time, and Other Scientific Adventures (1950)
- Great Stories of Science Fiction (Editor, 1951)
- Space Tug (1953)
- Space Platform (1953)
- The Brain-Stealers (1954)
- The Black Galaxy (1954)
- The Forgotten Planet (1954)
- Gateway to Elsewhere (1954)
- Operation: Outer Space (1954)
- The Other Side of Here (1955)
- City on the Moon (1957)
- Colonial Survey (1957)
- Out of This World (1958)
- The War with the Gizmos (1958)
- The Monster from Earth’s End (1959)
- Four from Planet 5 (1959)
- Pirates of Zan (1959)
- Monsters and Such (1959)
- The Mutant Weapon (1959)
- The Aliens (1960)
- Wailing Asteroid (1960)
- Twists in Time (1960)
- Men Into Space (1960)
- This World Is Taboo (1961)
- Creatures of the Abyss (1961)
- Operation Terror (1962)
- Talents, Inc. (1962)
- The Greeks Bring Gifts (1964)
- The Duplicators (1964)
- Invaders of Space (1964)
- Time Tunnel (1964)
- The Other Side of Nowhere (1964)
- Doctor to the Stars (1964)
- Space Captain (1966)
- Checkpoint Lambda (1966)
- Get Off My World! (1966)
- S.O.S. from Three Worlds (1966)
- Miners in the Sky (1967)
- Space Gypsies (1967)
- Timeslip! Time Tunnel Adventure #2 (1967)
- Time Tunnel #3 (1967)
- Three Stories (with Jack Williamson and John Wyndham, 1967)
- Land of the Giants (1968)
- A Murray Leinster Omnibus (1968)
- Land of the Giants No. 2: The Hot Spot (1969)
- Land of the Giants No. 3: The Unknown Danger (1969)
- The Best of Murray Leinster (edited by Brian Davis, 1976)
- The Best of Murray Leinster (edited by J. J. Pierce, 1978)
- First Contacts: The Essential Murray Leinster (edited by Joe Rico, 1998)