Just my rambling thoughts about being gay and Mormon

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Book Review, "Secret Historian"

I enjoy learning about history and I find that it helps me better understand the world and how things became the way they are today. It's very grounding to be able to put some historical context around what exists today. One area of history that I enjoy is the history of homosexuality and it's place in society and culture. I'm currently reading "Secret Historian, The life and times of Samuel Steward, professor, tattoo artist, and sexual renegade".  I'm not finished with it yet, but I thought I would post some information and thoughts about it so far.
Brief Background: Samuel Steward was born in 1909, in Woodsfield, Ohio.  He was the only son of an auditor and an elementary school teacher. His mother died when he was a boy and he was effectively raised by two of his aunts, who owned a boarding house. Steward lived there he was 18, when he (along with his aunts) moved to Columbus, Ohio in 1927 to attend Ohio State University. He recognized that he was homosexual while a teenager. After earning bachelor's (cum laude; 1931), master's (1932), and doctoral (1934) degrees from Ohio State University, he spent the next twenty years in academia. He was a professor of English at Carroll College, Helena, Montana and assistant professor of English at State College of Washington (now Washington State University) in Pullman, Washington. He was dismissed from that position in 1936, however, due to the portrayal of prostitution in his novel Angels on the Bough, published that same year. Steward subsequently moved to Chicago, where he taught as an associate professor of English at Loyola University from 1936 to 1946 and at DePaul University from 1948 to 1954. He lived to be 83 years old.
Early in life he began to keep detailed records of his sexual experiences. He began what he called his "Stud File", in which he meticulously documented the details of each sexual encounter, which amounted to almost 900 different individuals. By the end of his life his journals and files were voluminous and provided a treasure trove for sex researchers.

In the course of his lifetime, Steward became acquainted with some of the most famous and infamous names in twentieth-century art and culture, including Gertrude Stein (lesbian author) and Alice B. Toklas (Stein's life partner and the person responsible for making marijuana brownies famous), AndrĂ© Gide (homosexual Nobel Prize winning author), Thomas Mann (another Nobel Prize winning author), Lord Alfred Douglas (homosexual lover of Oscar Wilde), and Alfred Kinsey (founder of the Institute for Sexual Research). For a brief time, he was the lover of the playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder and many many others. Steward himself was very intelligent and was an accomplished writer and artist.
The book provides not only a history of Steward's very unique life but also provides a window into the otherwise undocumented world of homosexual men and women during the 1920's through 1960's. It was interesting to me that prior to the early 1950's society's attitudes and actions toward homosexuals were not as severe as they were later. This generally fits with what I've read elsewhere that gays were accepted and respected by  many societies during earlier times.
Like many other gays who don't fit well into society, Steward suffered from periods of self-destructive behavior. Steward became an alcoholic but overcame that addition. He was prone to being fixated on various obsessions and compulsions at different times in his life. He suffered through periods of depression and loneliness. At one time he was fascinated by dangerously violent sex and his adventures occasionally landed him in the hospital. 
Later in his life he left academia to become a full time tattoo artist and author of gay pulp fiction novels, which he wrote under many different pseudonyms. He lived most of his life in Chicago and occasionally spent summers in Europe. He moved to the San Francisco Bay area, where he spent the late 1960s as the official tattoo artist of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang. 

Overall, I've found the book to be engaging, educational, and at times humorous. It's a pretty easy read. The presentation of Steward's extensive sex life is treated with respect and candor but without graphic details so it's not uncomfortable to read (assuming you're not uncomfortable with the fundamentals of gay sex).

1 comment:

  1. Dear Moho,

    I think it is a great book. Here is an interview I conducted with the author, Justin Spring.