Monday, November 15, 2010

Towards Building Our History

The Secrets of Samuel Steward

For me, one of the many interesting things about Samuel Steward—novelist, professor, tattoo artist, pornographic writer, and friend of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas—is the role secrecy played in his life. If he were young today, he might not need to be so secretive about his sexuality and his passions, and then some of the pathos in his life might be missing. And yet he pushed the boundary of secrecy as far as the time allowed. He kept meticulous records of his various activities, as if he hoped that one day they might be found. Alfred Kinsey, the sex researcher, gave legitimacy to Steward’s record keeping. Several years after his own death, Steward was lucky that a brilliant biographer, Justin Spring, found his collection of materials and was able to share the tale of his entire courageous life.

A young Steward.
Courtesy Estate of Samuel M. Steward

I first heard of Sam Steward in the late 1970s when I bought Dear Sammy: Letters from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. In college, I read everything about Gertrude and Alice, although very little of Gertrude’s own work. Truth be told, I wanted the life around the literature more than the literature itself.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein in her garden at Bilignin by Sam Steward.
Courtesy Estate of Samuel M. Steward.

I heard that Steward was a retired professor living in the East Bay, and then somebody said he also wrote pornography and had been a tattoo artist. And whatever tenuous connection I had to Steward disappeared. After I read the book, I loaned it out and never saw it again.

Dear Sammy Letters from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas by Samuel M. Steward

Then his name came back when a biography was published this summer. There were a surprising number of book reviews about this tale of an eccentric gay man who lived most of his underground adult life in Chicago and the East Bay.

I bought Justin Spring’s Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade and couldn’t put it down. Much of Steward’s life in the Bay Area took place only a few miles from where I grew up and where I now live. I was so fascinated by this gay life so different from my own that I bought the visual diary that is a companion volume for those who want to know more and are willing to part with $150. A few years ago, I could have been arrested for owning An Obscene Diary: The Visual World of Sam Steward. Also organized by Justin Spring, this volume contains several drawings, hundreds of personal Polaroid snapshots (most are of a sexual nature), and a few illustrations of Steward’s ephemera and his now famous “Stud File.”

Anchor Tattoo Shop on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland.
Photographer unknown, courtesy Ed Hardy.

Location of Anchor Tattoo Shop today.

Sam Steward in front of his rear cottage on Ninth Street in Berkeley.
Courtesy Estate of Samuel M. Steward.

A recent photo of the gate to Sam's rear cottage on Ninth Street in Berkeley.

Justin Spring is like an extension of one of the driving characters of the biography, Alfred Kinsey. Spring knows that Steward’s recordkeeping and sexuality is of historic interest, and he withholds judgment, other than to share the evidence of a fascinating life. In a way, he finishes what Kinsey began. While he does admit that Steward is a troubled man, he does not attempt postmortem pop psychology on his subject. He tells the man’s tale with incredible detail and compassion.

Aren’t most biographies existential in some way? They give meaning or purpose to a life. In this case, it is a life full of amazing stories, but perhaps a life that didn’t fulfill the early literary promise of Steward’s well-received first novel, Angels on the Bough.

Spring remains fairly invisible throughout the book except when he is annoyed with the challenges he encounters in the labyrinthine bureaucracies of the Kinsey Institute and Yale’s Beinecke Library. All of this material would probably still be in an attic if it weren’t for Spring. He has applied considerable research abilities, discipline (he seems a stickler for accuracy), and his ability to structure a story. In this era of personal writing and revelation, that is no small accomplishment. And he also knows how to shape a narrative into a compelling story.

As the recent struggle for LGBT rights shows, the struggle is far from over. A key part of this long arc is being a witness to our own history. By sharing Steward’s life, Justin Spring has not only made an enormous contribution to queer history, but also given hope to people who have felt their identity dismissed or marginalized.

The next entry will be a conversation with author Justin Spring.

1 comment:

  1. I think it is worth parsing out 'secrecy' more fully. There is secrecy versus concealment, (secrecy is 'kept to ourselves', concealment is 'withheld from others', therefore what is concealed need not be secret, but what is secret need always be concealed) and then there is dissimulation, (the downplaying of the real) and disguise, (the hiding of the real) and hypocrisy (the masking of the real with a falsity). Every hypocrite is a dissembler, but not every dissembler is a hypocrite.

    Gay men all have their own comfort level of self-revelation, based on personality, geography, historical context etc. that needs some more exploration.