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Edgar Pangborn was born in New York City on February 25, 1909, to Harry Levi Pangborn, an attorney and dictionary editor, and Georgia Wood Pangborn, a noted writer of supernatural fiction. Along with his older sister Mary, Edgar was homeschooled until 1919 and then educated at Brooklyn Friends School. He began music studies at Harvard University in 1924, when he was still only 15 years old, and left in 1926 without graduating. After that he studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, but did not graduate from that school, either. On leaving he publicly abandoned music, shifting his creative focus to writing. His first novel, a mystery called A-100: A Mystery Story, was published under the pseudonym "Bruce Harrison" in 1930. It was not an auspicious or notably successful debut, and showed none of the emotional or stylistic characteristics that became the hallmark of his later work.
Over the next 20 years he wrote numerous stories for the pulp detective and mystery magazines, always under pseudonyms. He also spent three years (1939–1942) farming in rural Maine, and three years (1942–1945) doing his World War II military service in the Pacific with the U.S. Army Medical Corps.
It was not until the early 1950s that Edgar "suddenly appeared" within the science fiction and mystery fields, publishing a string of high-quality, high-profile stories under his own name in prominent magazines like Galaxy Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. His work helped to firmly establish a new "humanist" school of science fiction, and inspired a subsequent generation of writers, including Peter S. Beagle and Ursula K. Le Guin, who has credited Pangborn and Theodore Sturgeon with convincing her that it was possible to write worthwhile, humanly emotional stories within science fiction and fantasy.
In the 1960s Pangborn also began painting semi-professionally in oils, and exhibited portraits, nudes, and landscape paintings at local and regional art shows.
He continued to write in all genres until he died in Bearsville, New York on February 1, 1976.
Twenty-seven years later, in 2003, he was named winner of that year's Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award.
Mr. Pangborn came from a writing family. His mother, Georgia Wood Pangborn, was a noted writer of ghost stories that appeared regularly in such popular mainstream periodicals as Scribner's Magazine, Harper's Monthly, Woman's Home Companion, and others. His father, Harry Levi Pangborn, worked as an editor of Webster's Dictionary. Words and literature were a part of the Pangborn household from the very beginning. As children, Edgar and his sister Mary carried on the tradition by writing an extensive series of fanciful, handwritten storybooks, often collaborating on these with each other and also their mother.
For the first 20 years of Edgar's writing career, which started when he was 21, Edgar wrote what he referred to as "literary hackwork" for the pulp magazines. His serious work began in 1951, with the publication of his first science fiction story, "Angel's Egg", in Galaxy Science Fiction. The story of a race of tiny winged beings who come to Earth to help mankind, as told by a kindly biologist, it is considered a classic of the field, and has been translated into six languages and reprinted more than twenty times. By 1954, Edgar was well-known and his second science fiction novel, A Mirror for Observers won the International Fantasy Award. This book is told from the point of view of a "Salvayan" (Martian) observer on Earth, who struggles with another Martian over the fate of a gifted young man. Galaxy reviewer Groff Conklin described Mirror as a "beautiful and moving book . . . told in little details which make the tragedy all the more impressive."
From there Edgar continued writing in science fiction and in other genres as well, including the historical novel Wilderness of Spring and the contemporary courtroom drama The Trial of Callista Blake. In 1954 Pangborn wrote '"The Music Master of Babylon", a story set in the ruins of post-apocalypse New York and clearly related to Stephen Vincent Benét's 1937 "By the Waters of Babylon", already considered a classic.
Edgar's best-known book, the Hugo-nominated Davy of 1964, is set in a much later part-time of that post-apocalyptic future. It was a picaresque bildungsroman set in a repressive theocratic society which developed out of the ruins of the destroyed old world. This post-apocalyptic world eventually became the backdrop for most of Edgar's short fiction, among them the Hugo-nominated "Longtooth", his Nebula finalist "Mount Charity", and his last novel, The Company of Glory.
Because of his educational background and early interests, Edgar's works often deal with musical themes. Music plays a prominent role both in Davy and A Mirror For Observers. Edgar's works are also known for being humane and poignant in a way that nevertheless allows for some dark themes and raunchy humor.
In his introduction to Edgar's posthumous story collection Still I Persist In Wondering, Spider Robinson observed: "[Pangborn] said again and again in his books that love is not a condition or an event or even a state of mind—that love is a country, which we are sometimes privileged to visit."
Edgar never discussed his early musical training in detail with anyone in the science fiction, fantasy, or mystery fields. It was known that he studied the piano and violin, but that was all. In 2003, however, a large stack of handwritten music manuscripts were discovered in the attic of the Bearsville house in which Edgar died. These manuscripts included original string quartets, sonatas, nocturnes, and other orchestral forms written by Edgar during his music conservatory days.
The scores are now being converted to digital notation files that will allow MIDI playback, so they can finally be heard.
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Throughout his life, Edgar Pangborn maintained extensive correspondences with other writers, and he became particularly close to the American fantasy author Peter S. Beagle. After Edgar's death that connection was maintained by Edgar's sole heir, his older sister Mary.
During the last years of Mary's own life, Peter S. Beagle served as one of her trustees, and when Mary died in February 2003 she bequeathed the entire Pangborn estate to him, including all of Edgar's literary work. Over 50 boxes of manuscripts and papers were moved out to California for sorting, filing, digitizing, and cross-correlating with the papers in the permanent Edgar Pangborn collection held at Boston University.
The final planned result is a series of definitive hardcover editions that will bring all of Edgar's works back into print in the form he intended; and, in addition, release some long-rumored manuscripts for the first time.
In 2001, the small press specialty publisher Old Earth Books published an authorized reissue of Edgar's first science fiction novel, West of the Sun. In 2004, forgetting that their contract had lapsed, Old Earth Books followed that up with unauthorized hardcover releases of Davy and A Mirror For Observers. This error has since been corrected. When the existing inventory sells out these editions will not be reprinted.