The curiously forgotten: Eugene Burdick, FWS Craig and Anthony Price

At first glance, the names of the three authors Eugene Burdick, FWS Craig and Anthony Price have very little in common, save that none of them are well known today. At second glance too, they have little in common for their writing – American political thrillers, compilations of electoral facts and British espionage novels – were not all in the same field.

So other than all featuring in multiple places on my bookshelves at home, what brings the three of them together? It’s the way they’ve been curiously forgotten, in large part I suspect due to them just pre-dating the take-off of the internet.

Eugene Burdick I’ve written about before, and his obscurity comes in part from bad luck over timing:

A best-selling author shifting millions of books in the post-war decades, a renowned public intellectual, a friend of celebrities such as Marlon Brando, a highly respected political scientist and famous enough to feature in an advert for Ballantine Ale, Eugene Burdick’s career was tragically cut short when he died of a heart attack in 1965, aged just 46.

He’s now an almost completely forgotten figure, so obscure that the majority of his books do not even merit their own Wikipedia pages and the only people I encounter who know of him are those I’ve already shared the mystery of his obscurity with…

Three of his novels have themes which should make them frequent contemporary reference points.

The Ninth Wave, published in 1956, follows a political campaign complete with then cutting-edge innovations of opinion polling, computers and the use of campaign consultants. Though we now know – even in a world of Facebook and Obama – that data and numbers can’t quite predict and control political outcomes in the way the book lays out, the world has turned out close enough to Burdick’s picture of the future to make The Ninth Wave a prescient and still relevant story, and one that should be loved by people who are into the mechanics of politics, despite the rather uneven quality of the writing (caused in part by it being ‘written’ via dictation without subsequent editing.)

Loved too should be Burdick’s 1965 novel, The 480. The title is a reference to the 480 different groups the electorate has been divided into by that novel’s political campaign stars – a set of slicing and dicing closely based on the real work done by John F Kennedy’s 1960 Presidential election campaign.

As with The Ninth Wave, we know political campaigning has turned out to have a greater role for art than the pure-science envisaged in the novel, but once again it’s easier to see how the book could have remained a favourite of political geeks rather than one that faded into obscurity, especially given the JFK-approved veneer it gives to modern targeting techniques.

Then there is his 1962 Cold War nuclear drama Fail-Safe, co-written with Harvey Wheeler about a series of mistakes which result in a US nuclear bomber force heading off to obliterate Moscow. Made into a successful film directed by Sidney Lumet and staring Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau, its subsequent obscurity (save for a televised play in 2000 with George Clooney) is at least more understandable in that the year of the film’s release, 1964, also saw Dr. Strangelove hit the cinema…

Indeed, Fail-Safe was so similar to Red Alert, the book on which Dr. Strangelove was based, that legal action was taken for copyright infringement, with a view to delaying the Fail-Safe movie until after Dr. Strangelove has been released. The result was both an out-of-court settlement and Dr Strangelove indeed getting released first.

Yet none of that really explains why Eugene Burdick has so firmly disappeared from view. So if you like political thrillers, Cold War dramas or both – take a look at his work and enjoy.

Fail-Safe got a remake this century featuring George Clooney so it has had a modest after-life even as Burdick has been forgotten, but what about those other two novels? They could have become a pair of staple references in talk about campaigning and data, especially as both topics have become so popular in the last decade or so. Yet, apart from a brief reference in The Victory Lab, the novels are forgotten. It’s their age that does for them. Too little from the books is available via a search engine query so people turn to other, more readily available, reference points instead.

The same applies too to FWS Craig, the pioneering and brilliant collator of British political statistics. He died in 1989, having for decades authored the standard reference works on the British electoral system. For several generations people looking to check an election result, find out a constituency’s electorate or delve into other electoral facts would reach for their shelf or nearest library to consult a Craig publication.

His methodical brilliance came to an end just before the rise of online data sources for such information. Had he lived another decade, it’s quite possible his data would have made it online and would now be updated by successors, making the FWS Craig website a popular and successful resource. But he died just too soon for that legacy and though his printed books have since in part been updated by academics, essentially the data sources that people now refer to regularly are those of others (and also often regrettably therefore without the huge historical context that Craig, with data going back into the 19th century, so helpfully provided).

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As for Anthony Price, an author of in their time award-winning espionage novels, he subsequently slipped into obscurity. So much so that for many years I wondered if he was still alive, until much to my unexpected pleasure I discovered a new reprint of one of his novels in a Canberra bookshop and, checking the author biography, discovered he was still with us. In my memory I shouted out loud “That’s lovely!” and people in the shop turned to see what happened. In reality, I suspect, I cracked half a smile in silence and someone walked past me in the distance. (I have since exchanged letters with him, and he is as lovely and gracious a man as you’d wish the author of some your favourite books to be.)

The reprint shows that, as with Clooney and Burdick, Price has not completely faded away. Yet why had someone who used to be the author of an annual best-selling and frequent award-winning new book, not better known now? In his case in part due to a botched TV adaptation of his novels (“dreadful” was his verdict), a problem made worse by them being done at a time when complicated copyright and royalty restrictions tied up repeats and then hindered DVD releases. As with Craig, you wonder what a difference of a few years would have done to his subsequent fame.

Of course, in part, the strange obscurity of all three makes discovering their work all the more fun. So if you’ve not yet, I hope you do so soon.