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Secret Historian: The Life and Times of…
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Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo…

by Justin Spring

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Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
A personal game changer of a book for me as it offers a detailed look into what a long, complicated, and varied thing life as a weirdo can be.

As Spring notes in the introduction it is in many ways "a story of obsession, isolation, and failure," so don't come looking for chicken soup for the soul. In fact, if you're not a queer, tattooed, and/or bdsm freak don't even bother reading it because you'll find little of interest, and even less that seems like "history" in the traditional sense.

Final summation, read it. Then, track down as many Phil Andros novels as you can find. ( )
  knownever | Feb 19, 2014 |
Interesting for its historical perspective on the life of a gay man in America from the 1920s through the 1980s. Steward spent 20 years as a professor at Loyola, then De Paul, universities. He left academia in his late forties to pursue a second career as a tattoo artist. Steward was a compulsive record keeper and diarist. His first-hand accounts of same sex interactions in the markedly diverse socio-economic worlds in which he moved, all of which were pre-Stonewall, were intriguing to read. Beyond the history, however, it's the story of a man with potential for literary brilliance, or at least achievement, who instead frivoled away his life first on alcohol, then on sex and then with barbiturates.

I was reminded of those old experiments conducted on rats in the 1950s where the rodents preferred to continually stimulate the limbic area of their brains rather than engage in any other activity. The rats’ health suffered and they eventually died from lack of food or water. Steward made similar choices. Reading the life of a man who repeatedly chose sensory pleasure as a diversion from intellectual application inspired mostly pity and some contempt as I trudged through the book. The repetitiveness of his actions, the reader’s ability to see the slow erosion of his quality of life and the recurrence of poor choices whenever a new opportunity presented itself made for depressing reading. It also cast Steward as a one dimensional and uninteresting man, yet I can't help thinking that that impression is in part the fault of the book’s author, Justin Spring.

After the publication of Steward's first (and only) novel in the 1930s, he was befriended by Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. The two encouraged him throughout their lives to continue writing. They also introduced him to many of their friends who in turn introduced Steward to theirs. Throughout his life, Steward remained friends and was a prolific correspondent with some of the great literary and artistic figures of the mid-20th century. He received letters from former students as late as the 1980s relating the significant and long-lasting impact he had had on their lives. I can only believe that he was actually an engaging teacher and erudite correspondent to hold the admiration and friendship of so many for so long. But because so little of this sort of perspective on Steward’s life was offered, and much of it towards the end of the book, I was left with the impression of a man who was often dull and desperate.

Uncomfortably, I have to ask myself how often I, like many of us, have made similar choices to Steward though perhaps not in the same addictive manner? How many of us slump in front of a TV after a long office day or choose even to engage in sports or social activities, rather than embark on a creative or intellectual pursuit, one which would require mental effort and patience to reach perfection? I am reminded not to waste the opportunities offered to me daily. It is possible to procrastinate a life away. ( )
  California_Tim | Mar 30, 2013 |
Exhaustive and thorough review of a man who lived several lives and recorded everything; especially his sexual encounters. This book is so well written and sourced that Steward's lives seem to coalesce. He was ahead of his time and helped usher in changes of morality by living authentically as he was. ( )
  willmurdoch | Nov 5, 2011 |
Drawing on the voluminous material left after Steward’s death—thanks to his habit of compulsively recording many aspects of his life, especially his sexual encounters—Spring has delivered the fullest account of this enthralling writer, professor, tattoo artists, and pornographer we are ever likely to have, and written one of the best books of the year. Using Steward’s life, Justin Spring has given us a vivid, in-depth look at gay life before Stonewall, when the “naiveté” of the mainstream about homosexuality allowed gays an odd kind of freedom to pursue “straight” men with impunity, while remaining outsiders in a world where they were not allowed to exist. Brilliantly navigating through the many lives and pseudonyms of Steward, Secret Historian is a remarkable work that shows Justin Spring to be as much of a master seducer as Steward himself. Writing in a compulsively readable style which perfectly complements its subject’s incredible story, he turns what could have easily become a sordid tale of compulsive sex, publishing disappointments, and near misses into a balanced, clear-eyed portrait of a fascinating, complex human being who was, “if nothing else, a man who dared to live his beliefs. ( )
1 vote rmharris | Oct 24, 2011 |
Not my cup of tea, but provacative and well written. ( )
  madamepince | Aug 15, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
Spring, the author of “Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art,” speculates that Steward’s goal was to create “a single, lifelong body of work through which he hoped to demystify homosexuality for generations to come.” Given that Steward lived in an era in which so much of gay history was hidden under mattresses, shoved in the backs of bureau drawers, burnt up in ashtrays and wished away in confessional booths, his desire to document and preserve is in itself as moving as it is rare. Demystification, however, is another matter: his life turns out to have been far too sui generis to exemplify anything except the fact that so much more was going on in gay America than even most gay Americans realized.
added by simaqian | editNew York Times, Mark Harris (Aug 26, 2010)
 
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...the question of being important inside in one...
Gertrude Stein to Samuel Steward, letter of January 12, 1938
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374281343, Hardcover)

Drawn from the secret, never-before-seen diaries, journals, and sexual records of the novelist, poet, and university professor Samuel M. Steward, Secret Historian is a sensational reconstruction of one of the more extraordinary hidden lives of the twentieth century. An intimate friend of Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Thornton Wilder, Steward maintained a secret sex life from childhood on, and documented these experiences in brilliantly vivid (and often very funny) detail.

After leaving the world of academe to become Phil Sparrow, a tattoo artist on Chicago’s notorious South State Street, Steward worked closely with Alfred Kinsey on his landmark sex research. During the early 1960s, Steward changed his name and identity once again, this time to write exceptionally literate, upbeat pro-homosexual pornography under the name of Phil Andros.

Until today he has been known only as Phil Sparrow—but an extraordinary archive of his papers, lost since his death in 1993, has provided Justin Spring with the material for an exceptionally compassionate and brilliantly illuminating life-and-times biography. More than merely the story of one remarkable man, Secret Historian is a moving portrait of homosexual life long before Stonewall and gay liberation.

Secret Historian is a 2010 National Book Award Finalist for Nonfiction.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:19:34 -0400)

Drawn from the secret diaries and journals of novelist, poet, and university professor Samuel M. Steward, this is a reconstruction of one of the more extraordinary hidden lives of the twentieth century. An intimate friend of Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Thornton Wilder, Steward maintained a secret sex life from childhood on, documenting his experiences in vivid (and often very funny) detail. After leaving academe to become tattoo artist Phil Sparrow, Steward worked closely with Alfred Kinsey on his landmark sex research. During the early 1960s, Steward changed his identity once again, this time to write exceptionally literate, upbeat homosexual pornography as Phil Andros. An archive of his papers, lost since his death in 1993, has provided biographer Justin Spring with the material for an illuminating life-and-times biography. More than merely the story of one remarkable man, this is a moving portrait of gay life long before gay liberation.--From publisher description.… (more)

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