Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Secret Historian, Justin Spring

BEST OF 2010

I have never been a fan of non-fiction. I've said this before when reviewing Patti Smith's Just Kids. But, Secret Historian marks my second experience with non-fiction this year. And, both experiences have been incredible. When I first started reading Secret Historian, I assumed I would never complete the biography. At 400 pages, I figured I would have enough by time I got through 200 pages and skimmed through the handful of photographs at the center of the book. I was wrong. There is so much of interest in the life of Samuel Steward that I can't imagine having put this book down before it ended.

Samuel Steward was born in a small town in Ohio. Later moved, with his two aunts, to Columbus, Ohio where he attended the Ohio State University. He received his PhD in Literature. Became a professor. Published a couple of novels. Wrote articles for magazines. Became friends with literary types (Thomas Mann, Gertrude Stein, Thornton Wilder, etc). Was a focus of one of Kinsey's studies. Moved to San Francisco to become a tattoo artist. Became a tattoo artist for the Hells Angels. Published pulp fiction gay porn. Steward lived the life of a great biography.

Stewart was in the habit of recording his sexual escapades. He kept track of the names, dates, places, and sexual encounters of his partners. At times, he would tape pubic hair of his sexual partners to the back of the index cards containing all of this information. Basically, a card catalog of his tricks. All of this information came in handy when Kinsey started to meet with Stewart. Eventually, Kinsey would film Stewart in the middle of an S&M encounter with another of Kinsey's case studies.

Stewart tattooed a ruler on his forearm. He did this so as to always know the length of the cock of the man he was about to spend his evening with. To sum up the sexual life of Stewart: "a grand total of 197 releases in 1951, and a grand total of 184 contacts for that year: an orgasm every forty hours" (p.129). At first, one is almost turned off by this sexual appetite. But, by time the biography reaches the middle, I felt happy for Stewart. He was seeking. He was exploring. He was happy. And, almost always safe (except for a few encounters that left him with a brief and mild STD).

The sex documents aren't too revealing or over the top. The reviews of the biography made me think I might be shocked by the content within the pages. But, either I am very aware and comfortable with sex, or the biography was careful enough to keep things on very even ground. For a wider audience of readers.

There are moments of great sadness to Stewart's life. He was anti-relationships. He lived his life alone. Only look for quick, physical encounters. Stewart was obsessed with S&M. Always looking for someone to really make him feel the sexual experience. At times, the encounters went too far and scared Stewart into a few months of celibacy. These are the most telling moments of Stewart's life.

Also, Stewart's desire to achieve greatness. To produce a piece of art that made him feel complete. He used to teach his students about the knowledgeable man seeking a meaningful life. Stewart was such a man. He tried teaching, writing, tattooing, etc.

The biography is beautifully written and often reads as fiction. An incredibly quick and interesting 400 pages on the life of a man who needs to be read about.


No comments:

Post a Comment