Frank Herbert, PhotoJournalist by Erik Jorgensen




Erik Jorgensen

Famous people typically have mundane pasts in unknown places before they stepped into the limelight. Some have greatness dropped upon them, but others become overnight successes only after years and years of hard work and persistence. It is thrilling for a fan to discover their hero’s early efforts, especially when they pre-echo later masterpieces.

I had the privilege of uncovering a “Lost Archive” of Frank Herbert’s early journalism. Having read the Dune series several times, some of Herbert’s early articles reminded me of aspects of his Magnum Opus.

I intend to relate my tale of discovery without making it about myself.

Frank Herbert moved to Santa Rosa in 1949 to write for The Press Democrat. He got his first science-fiction short story published while living there, “Looking for Something” in the April 1952 issue of Startling Stories. In 1953 he moved to Mexico with local science fiction writer Jack Vance to start a writer’s colony.

I first learned Herbert lived in Santa Rosa from a biography written by Tim O’Reilly, who later published computer manuals through O’Reilly Media. I lived in Santa Rosa, and walked past the Press Democrat building several times a week.

In spring 2014, my Journalism class visited The Press Democrat on a field trip. I asked if they had an index of the article Herbert had written. Editor Jim Sweeney said that while they had not digitized issues that far back, “I, for one, would be interested in seeing that. Maybe we’ll have an intern do that some day.”

“OK, you talked me into it!” At the time I was just joking, but when the semester ended I realized that intern might as well be me. Sweeney graciously allowed me access to his paper’s clipping and microfilm archive. That fall, I paused my research to write for Santa Rosa Junior College’s Oak Leaf News, covering the trial of a campus cop caught stealing $250,000 per year from SRJC parking meters. After I photographed him getting handcuffed and taken to prison, I resumed scrolling through rolls of microfilm.

When I started my research, I was just somebody who had taken a Journalism class, but after three semesters of courtroom reporting, and writing a dozen articles from Pre-Trial to Sentencing, I had transformed into a real photojournalist, just like my idol Frank Herbert. With new eyes, and a deeper understanding of the process, I marvelled at the wide variety of subjects Herbert covered, and the depth he researched each one. Having lived in Santa Rosa for 20 years, I thrilled at reading his words about people and places I knew and marvelled at walking, literally, in his footsteps. For years I had walked past his newspaper office, where a forgotton trove of articles waited to pulled from thin air.

In all, I uncovered 160 articles written “by Frank Herbert” and another 200 sets of photographs, starting with “14-Year-Old Bride Misses Death by Hair’s Breadth!” on April 25, 1949. Herbert’s first published dabbling in science fiction appeared August 25, 1950, “To One Part Verne, Add Galley of Zomb, Drop in Heathcliffe and expect Occidental” This “surrealist extension into the fourth dimension,”was printed almost two years before Herbert’s first publication in Startling Stories.

In 1968 Herbert published The Santaroga Barrier, about a small town in Northern California with an oddly familiar name. Santa Rosa must have held some special charm for Herbert to pseudo-name a book after it.

Some of Herbert’s Press Democrat articles show hints of Dune. A December 1949 article describes a family of model train enthusiasts with a “weird device” which controlled their train by vocal commands. This bring to mind the Bene Gesserit technique of controlling people with “the Voice,” as well as their Weirding Way of “teleporting” short distances in combat.

Another article published that same month describes the holiday lighting of the Cedar of Lebanon at Luther Burbank’s Home & Gardens, the “plant wizard” responsible for creating 600 new plants, including the Russet potato, spineless cactus and white blackberries. Herbert noted that Burbank was buried there next to his experimental greenhouse. In Dune, planetologist Liet-Kynes was buried in the same sand he attempted to terraform. The word “planetologist” is not far in sound or meaning from “plant wizard.”

Guild Navigators in Dune echo Herbert’s May 1950 ride in an Air Force jet. The 45-minute drive to the airbase was compressed into a 4-minute flight back to the sky above Santa Rosa. “I am still trying to accustom my mind to a new conception of time and distance.” In Dune he made full use of his new conception with the Guild Navigator’s spice-fueled folding of space.

The most prescient of all of Herbert’s pre-Dune news article includes the July 1952 article about Eugene “Tiny” Atkins, a 685-pound taxi driver getting transported to court after an auto accident. It took five men to load “Tiny” bed-and-all into a moving van. When I discovered this article on microfilm, I immediately envisioned young Herbert, just months after publishing his first sci-fi short story, watching the struggle to lift the large man into their van, and imagining some sci-fi gadget like and anti-gravity ray. Seeing the photograph Herbert took instantly brought to mind Baron Harkonnen’s suspensor belts, which allowed the corpulent tyrant to levitate in Dune.

The Press Democrat also published an uncredited article on February 10, 1952 titled “Bodega Bay Dune Planting” about a proposed erosion-control project. While it is uncertain that Frank Herbert wrote this article, it seems likely that he at least read it. Years later, after leaving Santa Rosa, he proposed writing an article about dunes in Oregon, which he researched heavily but never got published. This research formed the start of Dune, but he may have first learned about the topic years earlier while working as a photojournalist in Santa Rosa. This mystery is lost in the sands of time.

Food For Thought

My friend, who used to work for The Press Democrat, asked me, “Why is it, of all the people that knew Frank Herbert worked in Santa Rosa, are you the first person to think of finding all his articles?”

While I have been a huge Frank Herbert fan for years, my research would not have been the same if I had not lived in Santa Rosa for 20 years.

While I started my research as a Journalism student, it was only by taking a break and actually becoming a photojournalist, like Frank Herebrt, that my research became truly meaningful.

Famous writers may have practiced for years before getting published. In Frank Herbert’s case, some of his earliest published works were forgotten. People knew about them, but never bothered to look them up. His journalism reveals his methods and depth of research which gave the depth to his later works.

About the Author

Erik Jorgensen is an investigative reporter and Sci-Fi Historian researching Sonoma County’s sci-fi writers, including Frank Herbert, Philip K Dick, and Jack London. He is currently working on short stories and screenplays, and claims the Goddess of the Eternal Court of History guides his quill to reveal the Truth.

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