Fletcher Pratt, Military & Naval Historian 

by Henry Wessells

Copyright © 1997, 2010 by Henry Wessells.
This article was furst published in AB Bookman’s Weekly  for 30 June 1997. All rights reserved.

 

In military history as in other fields, certain authors defy easy characterization. Bibliographies are of necessity compiled with an eye on documenting a subject — even a specific sub-discipline, geographic region, or a clearly defined event. An author may figure prominently in such works and yet these citations will reflect only an incomplete picture of the author’s writngs and interests.

One author who achieved distinction in widely different fields is Fletcher Pratt (1897-1956). Known in military history circles as author of Ordeal by Fire  and other books on the Civil War, Pratt also wrote Fleet Against Japan , The Marines’ War , Empire and the Sea , and many other volumes of naval history, as well as an early classic on ciphers and cryptography, Secret and Urgent . In the fantasy genre he is remembered for collaborations with L. Sprague DeCamp (the Harold Shea novels and Tales from Gavagan’s Bar ) and for two significant yet neglected novels, The Well of the Unicorn  and The Blue Star .

Murray Fletcher Pratt was born near Buffalo on April 25, 1897. The son of a farmer, he was raised on the Seneca Indian Reservation at Tonawanda, New York. He was a flyweight boxer in his early youth, and worked at the Buffalo Public Library. He studied at Hobart College for a year, but then changes in his family’s finances forced him to interrupt his education. He worked for a time a journalist on the Buffalo Chronicle-Express , before coming to New York City in 1920. 1

During the middle and late 1920s, Pratt wrote for a variety of magazines, drawing on his library background for such articles as “ A Glance at the Public Libraries, ” published in the American Mercury  for June 1928. This discussed the relationship between administrative budgets, acquisitions and censorship. He contributed articles on other, less serious topics as well, and worked for a dubious-sounding “ writers’ institute ” and a biographical encyclopedia. With the rise of the science fiction magazines in the middle to late 1920s and early 1930s, Pratt began translating German and French novels for Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories  and later Wonder Stories . “ The Octopus Cycle, ” published in May 1928 under the Irvin Lester pseudonym, was the first original story published in Amazing Stories , and Pratt wrote more than a dozen other stories through mid-decade. He would return to the science fiction and fantasy genre after World War II. 2

In addition to writing for the science fiction pulps, Pratt worked as “ special staff writer ” at American Detective , a true crime magazine in the middle 1930