What Is a Cult Classic? Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land & Other Favorites

This 1961 SF novel is a cult classic.

What exactly is a “cult classic”?

My brain tells me this saucy subgenre includes offbeat books like Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (a 1960s feminist comedy)  and Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet (a quartet of poetic sexy novels about a group of exotic writers, artists, mystics, expatriates, and a femme fatale in Alexandria, Egypt).  My brain tells me such books are appreciated by a limited audience.

If you peruse lists of cult classics, and there are hundreds, there is nothing very offbeat about the majority of the books.  They showcase mainstream classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22, The Catcher in the Rye, and Jane Eyre.  And this is why we don’t trust categories.  I don’t want to snap my chewing gum in public and say “I told you so,”but are these cult classics?  You’ll find these on your high school English syllabi.  Yes, I agree that Naked Lunch and A Confederacy of Dunces belong, but Pride and Prejudice is not really a cult classic, is it?

So how do the dictionaries define the phrase?  The Oxford Dictionary vaguely opines:   “Something, typically a film or book, that is popular or fashionable among a particular group or section of society.”  The more specific Collins dictionary struck a chord with me: ” typically a movie or book that is popular or fashionable among a dedicated passionate fanbase creating an elaborate subculture that engage in repeated viewings quoting dialogue and audience participation.”

The uncut version!

This summer, instead of perusing a huge tome like Tale of Genji, I plan to enjoy one or more cult classics.  I am thinking about cult classics because I have been reading Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel, Stranger in a Strange Land,  which is my first Heinlein, and was the first science fiction book to make the New York Times Best-Seller list. It is  literally a cult classic, in the sense that the hero, Valentine Michael Smith, a man from Mars, founds a church/cult on Earth based on a ’60s-style philosophy of brotherhood and free love. It actually influenced the counterculture philosophy of the ’60s.

Far-out, yes?  Are you in the groove?  The hero, Mike, a human raised by Martians on Mars, has returned with human astronauts to Earth, supposedly  as a Martian ambassador.  He is an innocent unused to Earth’s gravity who can barely walk and he knows very little English. He often shuts his body down for hours and is mistaken for dead, in order to process, or “grok” what is happening.  (Heinlein’s word “grok” is in  dictionaries and means “to understand profoundly, intuitively, or by empathy.”)  Mike takes everything literally and trusts everyone:  if you share a glass of water with him, you become his lifelong “water brother,” which is more binding that the relation of “blood brother.”

But Mike is in danger.  Ben, a journalist investigating the legality of the sequestration of the alien,  disappears, and his panicked girlfriend Jill, a nurse, takes his warnings seriously and breaks Mike out of the hospital and flees with him to the estate of Ben’s friend, Jubal Harshaw, an eccentric, rich, wily lawyer, doctor, and  writer of pop fiction, who manages through his contacts and experience to cut deals to ensure the freedom of Mike and Ben.

Neil Gaiman,  in his introduction to the lovely hardcover Penguin Galaxy edition, explains that this underground best-seller had “an enormous effect on the 1960s.”

Gaiman writes,

Stranger fed the counterculture.  People tried to put Heinlein’s precepts into action, with mixed results.  (The claims that Stranger is a book that inspired the Manson family seem entirely without basis, but the book certainly inspired its share of communes, and at least one church.)

I am fascinated by the premise of the stranger and his perceptions of our world, though, truth to tell, am bored by the orgy scenes. And there is an uncut version, published by Ace in 1991, which I would like to read, because he developed the characters more thoroughly in the original:  he had to cut 60,000 words to get it published.  (Does this remind you of Trollope’s The Duke’s Children? Which to read?  The original, or the uncut?)

Inspired by Heinlein, I plan to read more cult classics, if I “grok” what they are.  Any suggestions?   Somewhere  we have a book by Kathy Acker. I am quite sure it counts as a cult classic, because I find the postmodern Ms. Acker unreadable! Still,  this will be the summer I “grok” Acker.  I am looking at the cover of her Great Expectations and “grok” it. And a  stranger recommended a romance novel called Stormswept, which might be a bracing post-post-modern follow-up!

Do recommend some cult classics!

7 thoughts on “What Is a Cult Classic? Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land & Other Favorites

  1. It’s interesting the way books and films rise from “cult classic” to “standard”. Hitchcock’s film Vertigo rose from “odd thriller” through “cult classic” to being voted the best film of all time recently by assorted critics. Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner moved from “cult classic” to “classic of Scottish literature”. Mervyn Peake’s Titus trilogy seems to have moved out of “cult” as well.
    A “cult classic” has something odd about it, which people can fix on: Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children was never a cult classic, for all the people who thought it unjustly unknown, because people read it as a novel rather than an explanation of the Truth. The reasons Hogg and Peake could move away from being “cult classics” was because of qualities of writing and characterisation which are necessary for literary acceptance, but not for cult status. I think that’s why – if it isn’t forgotten – Stranger in a Strange Land will stay as a “cult classic”.
    Other cult classics: Voyage to Arcturus; Cards of Identity; All About H. Hatterr. They’re often the product of writers who didn’t write many books. Cult writers are rather different: Ronald Firbank and Henry Green are known through the more popular writers they influenced rather than their own books.
    Are there any cult poets? Or do so few people read poetry that there’s no other kind?

    • It is very difficult for me to figure out the “cult classics.” And it’s probably different in the the UK. My impression is that Mervyn Peake’s books are less well-known here , and yet they were around in the ’60s, even at Woolworths, with cover art similar to that of the paperbacks of Lord of the Rings. So were they cult then in the U.S. but forgotten now? (They are in print though, so maybe they’re read and I don’t know).
      I looked for A Voyage to Arcturus for years and finally found it online! So definitely a cult classic, since I’d heard about it and wanted to read it.
      Hmm, cult poets? Well, I don’t know. Sylvia Plath, but that’s probably well beyond cult by now.
      Thanks for the suggestions, and I’ll add them to my list.

  2. I have forgotten the name of the man with the golden retriever who lives around the corner and the names of characters in most of the books I’ve read, but I’ve never forgotten Valentine Michael Smith.
    A book I believe qualifies as a cult classic is Cosmic Banditos by A.C. Weisbecker. It’s funny, it’s bizarre, it’s wise. I almost had a phrase from the book ‘It will be interesting to see what happens next’ tattooed on my arm to remind me that sometimes it’s best to look forward with a sense of curiosity rather than the terror I usually feel.

    • Stranger is fascinating! I can’t believe it took me so long to read it.
      Thanks for the recommendation of Cosmic Banditos, a book I’ve never heard of. I looked it up: it’s free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

  3. I don’t really know what’s cult and what isn’t any more. I know I read Acker back in the day and I think I liked her work – but it’s so long ago I can’t be sure… I loved and still love Richard Brautigan – is he/was he a cult author? Probably, as he’s never been hugely popular in the mainstream. I must re-read him soon.

    • I do think Brautigan qualifies. Some of those “cult writers” made it, like Kurt Vonnegut, but Brautigan’s audience was more limited. I don’t know if anyone reads him now.

  4. Pingback: Five More Cult Classics: At Least I Think They Are! – mirabile dictu

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