2010 National Book Award Finalist,
Secret Historian: The Life
and Times of Samuel Steward
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Interview by Meehan Crist
Meehan Crist: When did you first decide to write a biography of Samuel Steward, and why?
Justin Spring: I remember the exact moment: I was sitting in the coffee-break area of the Beinecke Library with a friend of mine, Tim Young, who is a curator and librarian. I had just finished reading Steward’s letters to Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas the day before, and that morning I had read Steward’s memoirs in a sitting. They were amazing. And I said to Tim, “I wish I could just throw over the project I’m working on and write a biography of Sam Steward.” He looked at me for a moment. Then he said, “Well, why don’t you?”
“Because nobody would buy it.”
“I’d buy it.” Tim said. “So would you.”
And in that moment I knew I was going to write the book. It wasn’t going to be easy to sell, and it wasn’t going to be easy to write, but it was going to be a really, really, really good book!
It then took me a year to track his papers to San Francisco.
MC: It seems that the project took off after you discovered the treasure trove of Steward’s papers in an attic in San Francisco. What was it like when you first went into that attic and realized what you’d found?
JS: I’d like to tell you that it was a magical moment – and perhaps in a movie version of the book it might be: young researcher peers into dark attic and finds an Aladdin’s Cave of scintillating erotic memorabilia.
The reality was different. Steward’s executor had suggested that if I came to San Francisco he would show me the things he had kept from Sam’s bungalow. He didn’t indicate that there was much, and I don’t even think he was sure I would come. But then I showed up as arranged. It was awkward, because we barely knew each other. Even so, he had been good enough to bring down nearly everything from the attic ahead of my arrival, and to place it in a large, empty spare room. The room had only a ceiling-fixture light bulb, and there was no place to get comfortable, just an old desk and an old chair. There were various kinds of boxes in the center of the room, and shelf after shelf of material along the walls. But there was no way of knowing what any of it was.
What first amazed me was the quantity: it was an enormous amount of material, including some very odd and unlikely things, including Steward’s ashes, and the ashes of Steward’s three beloved dachshunds.
Having spent many years reading manuscripts in publishing houses, I instinctively knew I had months of work ahead of me, picking through all those stacks and stacks of paper. But then, picking my way through the mess, I started to realize how interesting the collection was. First off, there were the very disturbing Polaroid albums, which contained image after image of Steward and his friends having sex, either in couples or in large groups. There was a bizarre collection of erotic art, most of which turned out to have been made by Steward. There was also a box of disciplinary devices (watching me go through them, the executor half-apologized for having gotten rid of Stewards’ guns.) Old jock straps. Bodybuilding photographs. Pictures of sailors.
Within an hour I had gotten over my initial ambivalence. My sinuses were inflamed from the dust and filth, and I had a thumping headache, but I was convinced that without a doubt I’d come across something totally extraordinary. From that point onward, the only thing I really cared about was speed. I had to read and photograph as much as I possibly could. I had only three days to get it all recorded before my non-refundable flight home.
MC: What questions drove you as worked on Secret Historian? In other words, what was it that you hoped to better understand by writing it?
JS: I conceived of the book as one in which, by following the course of a very particular (and outspoken) individual, the reader would be able to observe and participate in various shifting perceptions of homosexuality over the course of roughly 75 years of American history. The reader would also necessarily do so in human terms, since Steward himself would be the guide and central character in the story. I had a general sense of what those shifting perceptions were going to be, but I wanted find out how they had specifically impacted one man on an ongoing, moment-by-moment basis.
More specifically, though, I was focusing on a second question: why had so very talented, brilliant, and driven a scholar, poet and novelist abandoned his vocation simply to have sex – and why had he further degraded himself by first becoming a tattoo artist, then a pornographer?
Needless to say, the answers I found to these questions were not at all the ones I had anticipated.
MC: Do you feel you’ve answered those questions for yourself and/or the reader, or are there lingering questions, some sense of ambiguity?
JS: I am admittedly ambiguous in my own feelings about the choice Steward made to value his sex life over his literary production. I would like for him to have achieved more as a literary man, partly because I think he could have written some really wonderful literary novels. But partly also because, had he done so, he would probably have been more satisfied with himself at the end of his life. Then again, if he had done what I preferred, he would not have been Sam Steward!
But there is another kind of ambiguity in Steward’s life story. People who are uncomfortable about sex – that is, people who see sex as a potentially self-destructive and largely anti-social force - tend to read Steward’s life as a cautionary tale, one in which the talented writer gets too caught up in sex and not only loses his way as a writer, but also never develops a fully loving relationship with another human being, and instead engages in a series of meaningless and degrading sexual encounters for the better part of his life.
People who are comfortable with sex, however – who see sex as a means to personal fulfillment and self-realization – tend to see in Steward’s story a lifelong effort to demystify sexuality for himself and for others, and at the same time to reconcile his own essentially solitary nature to his lifelong desire for ecstatic connection to another through sexual union.
I’m not being coy when I say that I am comfortable with that ambiguity; I think it contributes enormously to the readability of the book, and gives it a lasting resonance. Sexuality is, to me, an endless puzzle. I think it may be equally puzzling to most people. I think that’s why so many people find Steward’s story to be fascinating.
MC: What was the most unexpected thing you learned in the course of writing Secret Historian? How did this discovery help shape the book?
JS: One thing I realized is that pornography can be created with the idea of promoting social change. Another is that the frank discussion of non-mainstream sexual orientations and non-mainstream sexual practices can, in the best of circumstances, promote tolerance and acceptance of sexual difference in the larger culture. These are ideas that Sam had early on, and he worked hard to put them forward. They are ideas that are still being put forward – not without controversy - in our own times.
Once I had these realizations, I had to admit to myself how very sane my subject was, and how very right he had been in his actions – not only to create his lifelong records, journals, photographs, letters and writings about his own sexuality (despite real danger of legal prosecution and imprisonment for simply having them in his home), but also, later, for him to create fictional works based on those records, work that was outrageously pornographic at the time of its creation, and that even now is too forthright in its sexual descriptions to be taught in schools or discussed in polite company.
MC: In the preface to Secret Historian, you say you attempted to follow Steward’s “whimsical-serious example” in both style and “commitment to sexual and emotional truth.” Could you describe Steward’s writing style and the ways in which you tried to follow his example?
JS: Sure. First, I’ll just describe style. When I first read Dear Sammy, Steward’s book of letters from Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, I couldn’t help thinking of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, in which the fictional editor, Charles Kinbote, gradually usurps the narrative of John Shade’s long poem through his constant interruption via footnote. Steward hadn’t intentionally done that, and he didn’t mean to usurp Stein and Toklas. But there certainly are moments when his footnotes are more interesting than the letters he is annotating. The result is a gentle (and mildly outrageous) comedy; a loving dialogue between Steward, Stein and Toklas.
When the time came for me to write Steward’s biography, I immediately knew there had to be lots of footnotes! Steward himself had been a passionate collector of fine and telling details; in creating my footnotes, I felt that I was quietly in dialogue with him. I also knew that readers would enjoy this slightly screwy way of telling Steward’s story.
Now, regarding Steward’s “whimsical-serious example” – well, isn’t that the best possible way of talking about sex—and about life generally – if you can manage it? Steward had used his light touch in his first, comic novel, Angels on the Bough, and he maintained a similarly whimsical tone throughout his life—even in the most abject portions of the sex journals, even in the raunchiest parts of the Phil Andros porno novels. Those porno novels are both whimsical in their observations of character and society, and serious in their dedication to the demystification of sexual encounters between men.
Alice Toklas praised Steward for his “best whimsy and pretty lightness,” and I agree with her that his ability to take a light tone is one of his finest qualities as a writer. It informs his teaching, his fiction, his journal-writing, his photographic sex-play, his graphic erotic art—even the entries in his Stud File (a record of his sexual encounters). Through it all, he somehow manages to be pleasing and seductive, even in his most shocking and outré moments. I adopted a similar tone. It came naturally to me in the telling of Steward’s story.
MC: What was the most difficult decision you had to make while writing Secret Historian, and why was it so hard?
JS: What not to include. When I delivered the original manuscript, it was 1600 pages long. And I felt quite seriously that everything in it should stay, because Steward really did live the most extraordinary life, and he had described it so extraordinarily well – doing so in ways that I’d never before seen on the page.
My editor gently persuaded me that even if Steward’s life had been magical, no one wanted to read a 1600-page biography. He furthermore pointed out that while Steward may have been a good writer, he was not Henry James. He then let me know, again in the gentlest of ways, that only after I returned to him with a 550-page manuscript would he consent to read what I had written. So…for more than a year I did nothing but remove things from the manuscript. One at a time. It took me nine drafts, and it was excruciating.
MC: What part of Secret Historian was the most thrilling to write, and why?
JS: The most dramatic chapter takes place while Steward is living a double life as mild-mannered English professor by day, skid-row tattoo artist by night. This is at the height of the McCarthy Era, when summary dismissal of homosexuals from their jobs is basically an everyday occurrence. All during this time Steward keeps taking more and more insane risks—sexual and otherwise—which pretty much ensure that he will be found out and dismissed from the university. The day-to-day tension of Steward’s diary during this period is absolutely extraordinary.
But the chapter in which I describe and analyze the Phil Andros porno novels is thrilling in a different way: it describes a moment in Steward’s life when, instead of crumpling into obscurity and old age, he reaches down inside himself and creates work that is absolutely singular and extraordinary, doing so against all odds and with no possibility of any sort of financial or critical success whatsoever. He does it simply because it needs to be done—both for himself and for others. He’s writing from the heart. It is a very beautiful and inspiring period in his life, and tracing the workings of his mind during the writing of those books was something that absolutely thrilled me.
MC: If you could choose one person to read your book, who would it be, and why would you want that particular person to read it?
JS: Myself in my late teens. I am not at all like Steward; I grew up self-conscious and inhibited. I needed a roadmap of what my life might hold, and there was none. I had no one to talk to about sexuality back then, and even if I had had someone, I would probably have been too shy to engage in that sort of conversation. But with a book like Secret Historian—which is so very intimate, and which lets one consider things of great delicacy and complexity in the most reassuring sort of privacy (just a book and a reader)—well, my life both then and after might have been a whole lot easier. And not just for me, but for my family, for my friends, for the people who wanted to love me, and for the people who wanted me to love them. Throughout the writing of the book I kept that former self in mind as my ideal reader: the very closed-off, shut-down person I used to be.
MC: At a moment when this country seems so deeply divided, especially around issues of sexuality (abstinence) and issues of gay rights (marriage), and when so many are concerned about the shape of our cultural and political future, how do you see the role of the nonfiction writer? How do you see your work on this book as an engagement with that role?
JS: To put it as simply as possible: my work consists of saying what needs to be said, in the best and most effective possible way. By presenting Steward’s biography at this particular moment, I believe I have been lucky enough to add to the ongoing national dialogue on sexuality and sexual orientation at a critical moment. For that reason, I’m particularly grateful to the National Book Foundation for placing the book before the public in a way that suggests, as never before, that the issues it presents in a historical and biographical context should no longer be simply ignored or dismissed.
Meehan Crist is reviews editor at The Believer. She holds an MFA from Columbia University, and her work has recently appeared in publications such as The Believer, Lapham's Quarterly, and the Los Angeles Times. Her nonfiction book, Everything After, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.