Wednesday, December 22, 2010


To begin with something other than words words are two great paintings:

The top one is Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' 1832 portrait of Louis Bertin; below it is Pablo Picasso's 1910 portrait of Ambroise Vollard. The great historical change that intervenes between these two paintings and makes the Picasso possible is the birth of Modernism.

Most English-language fiction written today--even today, one hundred years on--is written as though Modernism never happened: as though Joyce never wrote Ulysses; as though Woolf never read Ulysses; as though Kafka was just another bureaucrat with a nasty cough; as though Pynchon never discovered the Keebler elves pissing in the pot of gold at the end of his Rainbow. Whenever we read a contemporary novel, we should ask ourselves, "Would Jane Austen have easily understood this book?" If the answer is 'yes,' we're probably reading a 19th-century novel in modern dress. The ranks of these imposters are legion. Leaving aside genre fiction (leaving aside, that is, most of the novels that are actually written and read--a bizarre thing to do, admittedly) which is all essentially a pop survival of Romantic and Victorian literature (the romance novel is degraded Bronte and Austen; the mystery comes out of Poe and Doyle and Collins; science fiction descends from Verne and Wells; the historical novel from Scott and Hugo; the horror novel is the screaming issue of a menage a trois among Poe, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker), it's easy to see the pre-Modernist essence of such popular 'literary' writers as John Irving (Dickens in tranny drag), Jonathan Franzen (a Trollope with a hard-on), Sarah Waters (a Victorian sans censorship), or Salman Rushdie (a Bollywood production of a Tristram Shandy presentation of a Henry Fielding film). This is not to say that I don't greatly admire the above writers. Irving's books are enjoyable, satisfying reads; I liked much of The Corrections; Tipping the Velvet was great, juicy fun (readers of that novel will appreciate the dirty double entendre); and Salman is, needless to say, The Man. I just want to point out that Jane Austen probably wouldn't have had much difficulty understanding their works. (Although Rushdie, to his credit, would likely give her the most trouble.) Faced with Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, however, the esteemed Ms. Austen would surely respond with an indignant, "Wh-Wh-What?!?! This is not a novel; it is not even written." Modernism was a bomb that blew the gaudy Victorian Revival mansion of literature to bits. But most of our writers today prefer to ignore this fact and continue to take tea at four o'clock in the ruins of the old living room, obliviously sipping their oolong from a charred and broken cup while the rubble smoulders around them.

Having thus mocked these writers, let me now rush to defend them. There's nothing morally wrong (or even necessarily politically retrograde) with writing as though Modernism never happened. Art, as the sage Wilde observed, has nothing to do with morality. (Except, I would add, when it does.) Literature does not grow organically, and metaphors that figure the history of literature as a kind of tree or plant or evolving animal lie at the root (to indulge exactly such a metaphor!) of countless critical errors. The novel is not a snake that sloughs off the dead skin of one era and slithers onward never to return. Sometimes novelists create their most startlingly original effects by squeezing into old snakeskin. (W. G. Sebald's acknowledgement of the influence of Adalbert Stifter and Gottfried Keller is a good example of this; an even better example, in another medium, is the way the Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin has recovered the aesthetic of silent film and put it to ultramodern uses.) Literary history is not linear; it's a crazy, spiralling curve that crosses and recrosses itself, but never at the same point. It's a doodle, not an axis.

That said, we should also recognize that the Modernist challenge was so radical, so explosive of past artistic forms (now's the time to scroll up and look again at the paintings by Ingres and Picasso--or to read any chapter of Anna Karenina alongside any chapter of Nabokov's Ada), that to ignore it or to take it for granted as a safely 'historical' phenomenon is to shirk one's artistic duty and risk becoming a high-class hack. So I think there is something aesthetically wrong with writing pre-Modern novels in modern dress, James in jeans, Trollope with trollops, etc. This kind of writing avoids the challenge of developing new forms for a new time and rests easily in the old, dead paradigms of the past. However lively it may seem, it is a coffined literature, the novel on a bier.

When I look around for books that buck this trend and show signs of life (which has nothing necessarily to do with 'realism'), I note the ghastly irony that two of today's brightest lights come from beyond the grave. W. G. Sebald and Roberto Bolano, both of whom were killed by their bodies while their minds and imaginations were still green, accepted the challenge of Modernism and set about inventing new forms to fit the mess of modernity. Among the living, Thomas Pynchon continues to kick against all the pricks (long may he weave). And William T. Vollmann may be the most ferociously ambitious writer alive. His energy and curiosity seem boundless, and his talent burns like whale oil--it's so bright we have to wear shades. If any American writer of our time is truly a child of Melville (that arch-Modernist a century ahead of his own time), it's Bill Vollmann. When I read his book (the word 'novel' doesn't quite capture it) The Atlas recently, I experienced a rare transport of cultural optimism. There are other writers I could mention, all fighters of the good fight: Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Carlos Fuentes, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Samuel Delany, Stephen Wright, the currently-underrated E. L. Doctorow, and many others both living and recently dead. The real stuff is out there (but for how long?), and if we can see past the screen of banal novels and commercial products pitched in the few remaining newspaper book sections, we might find something that will truly blow our minds.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Mitchell Zuckoff has composed a biography worthy of its subject. Robert Altman: The Oral Biography is the most compulsively readable 'inside Hollywood' book since Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. I found it almost literally unputdownable. It's an appropriately Altmanesque bio, a book of overlapping, often contradictory voices that sum into an exceedingly complex portrait of one of the world's greatest filmmakers. (And make no mistake: Altman is up there with Welles, Eisenstein, Bergman, Fellini, Hitchcock and Bunuel, among the very greatest of the greats. Here's the supporting evidence for this evaluation: Short Cuts, Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Secret Honor, Thieves Like Us, The Player, Gosford Park.) We come away from Zuckoff's book with a surprisingly balanced portrait: there's Altman the genius and Altman the asshole; warm, nurturing Bob and cruel, drunken Bob; here's Altman the filmmaker of uncompromising moral vision, and here's Altman the con man who overbilled his financers, underpaid his employees, and pocketed the difference. Most actors who worked with Altman are effusive in their praise; but one of the book's most interesting moments is Sam Shepard's harsh but cogent (and, I think, entirely fair) criticism of Altman's directorial style. There are many wonderful, funny and sad stories herein, but the perhaps the biggest surprise is the full story of the MASH theme song, which unexpectedly becomes the story of Michael Altman's life. And like all of Altman's films, this bio is replete with memorable images: Sterling Hayden enveloped in a cloud of hash smoke on the set of The Long Goodbye; Kathryn and Robert Altman getting stoned on psychedelic brownies in the front row at the 1993 Oscars; Altman assembling his entire family in the living room of his house in the early 1970s and informing them that if it ever came down to a choice between them and making movies, he would choose movies; and of course Altman's priceless, instantly legendary response to a studio executive's directorial suggestions: "Fuck you. Rude letter follows." This book rarely attempts to interpret Altman's films (as the man always insisted, that's the viewer's job), but it succeeds in painting an indelible portrait of their maker.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens

The story of A Christmas Carol is so familiar to us that we've lost an appreciation of its conceptual audacity. To celebrate the Christmas season, a time of "goodness and light," Dickens gave his readers a gloomy Gothic ghost story complete with rattling chains. Dickens explicitly refers to Hamlet in the book's opening pages, but in truth his ghosts have a slightly less exalted pedigree. A Christmas Carol, with its weird spirits and night journeys and climactic conversion, reads like a pagan Halloween tale grafted onto a Christian conversion narrative. It is also, of course, a great Liberal fairy tale. It seems clear to me, for example, that Scrooge is working late on Christmas Eve because he's busily drafting the 2012 Republican Party platform. ("Are there no prisons?...And the Union workhouses, are they still in operation?...The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour then?") Scrooge is a "greed is good" laissez-faire capitalist, a 19th-century Gordon Gekko who by story's end is converted into George Soros. (If Ayn Rand had written this story, the Scrooge of the first chapter would be her straight-talking hero and the charitable Ebenezer of the last chapter would be a traitorous villain. But then, if Ayn Rand had written this story, it wouldn't be worth reading. She was a marginally talented hack; Dickens, on the other hand, was a very highly talented hack.) The socioeconomic moral of A Christmas Carol is that the problems of capitalism (poverty, greed) are amenable to capitalist solutions. Dickens preached reform rather than revolution. Unlike his reader Karl Marx, he tells us that social evils are best alleviated not by a general social upheaval but by the transformation of capitalism into a more benevolent, charitable, liberal system--a social transformation that exactly parallels Scrooge's personal one. Dickens dreams of a capitalism without Scrooges, a Christianized, Christ-like capitalism. It's a dream that seems, in the age of Madoff and Goldman Sachs, even more pipe-derived than Marx's most utopian moments.

It's also interesting that while Dickens may have set out to compose a fable about the Christianization of capitalism, the tale he actually wrote reflects exactly the opposite process: the capitalization of Christianity. A Christmas Carol is a chapter in the long and not exactly magical transformation of caritas into cold cash. The charity that equals love becomes a few bucks on the collection plate to buy off one's capitalist bad conscience. In the terms of Dickens's tale, Scrooge's conversion is dramatized largely through monetary transactions. Scrooge's consciousness in the final chapter is not one whit less money-centered. In fact, by spending his money more liberally now, the newly Christianized Scrooge becomes more fully engaged in capitalism: both a liberal spender and a conservative getter. Christianity, it seems, is less about who we are than how we spend. It's the 'charity and moderation' branch of capitalism. That many of the scriptural tenets of Christianity are inimical to capitalism (the line about rich men and the eye of a needle; the exemplary poverty of Jesus) is but one complication that Dickens chooses to ignore, preferring to end his tale on the day after Christmas, before the cultural contradictions of Scrooge's new life make themselves felt.

One other way in which Dickens tries (unsuccessfully, I think) to write his way around these contradictions is to implicitly portray Scrooge's conversion as a redemption of the tale's entire fictional world. Dickens's nervously capitalized insistence at story's end that Tiny Tim "did NOT die," that the child was somehow saved by Scrooge, resurrected Lazarus-like from a death we have already witnessed (albeit in the 'future'), marks the new Scrooge as a redeemer with messianic powers. If Scrooge can save Tiny Tim, what can't he do? The sad death and late salvation of Tiny Tim is also the story's cheapest and most transparently manipulative element. It's almost as phony as the ending of the book of Job.

I'll end with a brief note on sex in A Christmas Carol. What am I talking about? There's a very curious scene in the second chapter where the daughter of Scrooge's former love is "pillaged" by the other children. The narrator's description of this roughhousing is blatantly eroticized. He even breaks into first person and confides in the reader his desire to join in the fun. Real sex is, of course, even more severely repressed in this eminently Victorian fiction than in Victorian society, so it seems that this odd little scene provides an outlet for all the eroticism that's deeply submerged elsewhere. Something very similar occurs in the sensual description of foods early in chapter three.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Of the enormous library of criticism, commentary and biography that has grown up around James Joyce's Ulysses, only three books are truly essential: Richard Ellmann's James Joyce, Stuart Gilbert's James Joyce's Ulysses (which is as close as we can come to an 'authorized' reading--meaning it should be read with at least a few grains of salt), and Don Gifford and Robert Seidman's Ulysses Annotated. These books aside, very little of the Ulysses criticism I've read has genuinely enriched my reading of Joyce's text. Hugh Kenner's Joyce books will teach you much about Professor Kenner, his likes and dislikes, but the time you'll spend reading them would be better spent re-reading Ulysses. (This raises yet again Italo Calvino's great and essential question, a question that should shake all professors of English to the bottoms of their soles: Why should we read books about books when we can read the books themselves?) Likewise, virtually all the volumes and articles written about Ulysses tell us much about the favorite critical theories of their authors but little about Ulysses that can't be learned by a close re-reading. In other words, just about everything published in the academic Joyce industry exists not to be read but to burnish its author's CV.

The somewhat distinguished Declan Kiberd, Professor of Anglo-Irish Literature at University College Dublin (Jam Juice's allmust mutter, no less) comes promising to remedy this situation, but unfortunately he fails miserably. The best thing I can say about Ulysses and Us is that it's not entirely a steaming lump of elephant dung. The cover is very well designed, and the cover photograph of Marilyn Monroe reading Molly Bloom's soliloquy is enough to "make me do love sticky," but this is one book that should definitely not be judged by its cover. If I so desired, I could list all of my disagreements with this book, page by page, but such a list would quickly run to hundreds of items and would be almost as useless as Kiberd's ill-considered production. Why do I hate this book? (And 'hate' is not too strong a word in this case.) We can start with its infinite condescension. Kiberd poses as an anti-academic academic, a regular guy who wants to show the world that Ulysses is a book for "ordinary men and women." Kiberd uses this phrase over and over (like the word "everyday," it's one of his fetishes), and every use stinks to the sky with the odor of an ivory towered twit lowering himself to lecture the proles. More importantly, Kiberd's idea of returning Joyce to his imaginary "ordinary people" (Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore?) is to interpret the book in such a way that it's easily digestible by a middle-class corporate readership. Kiberd's reading banalizes Ulysses, turning one of the great books of world literature into a Dale Carnegie primer. I'm not exaggerating. Here's Kiberd on the "Eumaeus" episode: "[Joyce's] Ulysses was not just an example of a high-risk business venture but also a sort of 'self-help' manual, in which an older Irishman teaches a younger one how to live and blossom." When I read this jaw-droppingly stupid sentence, I scrawled in the margin, "Oh Christ!--this is a thoroughly philistine reading--Kiberd isn't recovering Ulysses from academy so much as turning it over to the corporate kitsch self-improvement mentality--Joyce spins in grave." Again, I could multiply this example many times, but what would be the point? Ulysses and Us is useless. I think I'll do to my copy what Leopold Bloom does to Titbits (wipe my ass with it). Joyce's novel deserves much better than this turd of a book. And Declan Kiberd deserves to be stripped of his position at UCD and forced to beg for change from the tourists on Grafton Street. Hell, I'll give him a euro if he sings "The Croppy Boy" for me....No I won't.

Monday, December 13, 2010


"In 1989, Bob Flanagan nailed his penis to a wooden board."

That's probably the single best sentence in all of Peter Gay's Modernism (it's certainly the most enjoyable), and unfortunately, both for Gay and the reader, it's a quote from another writer's article. This fact suggests the biggest problem with Gay's book: it is for the most part a compendium of received opinions, with hardly an original or provocative idea in its 500+ pages. Less a history of Modernism than a historian's extended commentary on that 'movement of movements,' Modernism reads like a very, very, very long New York Review article: it's an interesting, readable, and fairly fast-paced commentary that (unlike most NYR pieces) contains no revelations among its pleasures. Aside from Gay's discussions of Le Corbusier's Vichyite collaboration and Hamsun's enthusiastic Hitler-worship, there's very little here that will surprise anyone already familiar with the literature on Modernism. And if the book is considered solely as an introductory survey, other problems arise. For all its impressive breadth, Modernism's coverage of this international movement remains spotty and mostly shallow. Confining ourselves to the Bs, we note that Brecht is only mentioned in passing, Balthus not at all, and Bacon only in a list of artists not covered. British and American Modernism are slighted: no mention of Wyndham Lewis, very little of Pound, no Stein, no Dos Passos or Faulkner or Wolfe, no John Marin, no O'Keefe or Stieglitz, hardly any Man Ray, and Virginia Woolf is forced to stand for all of Bloomsbury. Gay ignores the currently accepted academic division of 20th-century culture into Modern and Postmodern, and while I commend him on this (I think of 'Postmodernism' as Late Modernism), I find his discussion of Pop Art grumpy and geezerish. These pages especially would have benefited from deeper thought and less reliance on the critic Gore Vidal delightfully refers to as 'the Hilton Kramer hotel.' Gay also belabors a paper tiger in his repeated insistences that Modernism was "not democratic." No one who knows enough about the trend to read this book will be under the impression that it was, not after the well-publicized (and now very old news) revelations of Pound's black shirt, Yeats's blue shirt, Eliot's anti-Semitism, Woolf's snobbery and Hamsun's fervent Nazism, to list just a few of the most prominent examples. (Any list of great Modernist artists with at best equivocal relationships to totalitarianism must also include Shostakovich, Richard Strauss and Eisenstein, and no viewer of Birth of a Nation can be unaware of David Wark Griffith's dipshit racism.) On a more abstract level, Gay's two defining characteristics of Modernism--the "lure of heresy" and a "principled self-scrutiny"--might have been synthesized into a single, more focused idea--the heresy of inwardness--that may well have produced a better and deeper book. As it stands, this unoriginal and mostly unshocking work is a most un-Modernist survey of Modernism.

I'll take this opportunity to recommend two better books on the Modern: Robert Hughes's instantly classic The Shock of the New and Peter Conrad's lively and learned Modern Times, Modern Places.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Bolano's SAVAGE DETECTIVES and Jack Miles' GOD

Near the beginning of God: A Biography by Jack Miles (a book that's about as interesting as an extended exercise in reification can be), the author discusses the form of the Hebrew Bible as though that compendium of disparate texts were a single, coherent work. This intentionally ahistorical approach (I think the book would've been much more interesting if it had taken a more materialist, social historical approach) leads to this observation:

"The beginning and end of the Hebrew Bible are not linked by a single, continuous narrative. Well short of the halfway point in the text, the narrative breaks off. What then follow are, first, speeches spoken by God; second, speeches spoken either to or, in some degree, about God; third, a protracted silence; and, last, a brief resumption of the narrative before a closing coda. The narrative suspense that lasts from the Book of Genesis through II Kings is succeeded, past that point, by another kind of suspense, one more like the kind jurors experience in a courtroom as different witnesses take the stand to talk about the same person. A sequence of testimonies--each in its own distinctive voice, with its own beginning and end--can be as effective as narrative in suggesting that the person about whom the words are spoken does not stop where the words stop."

Now, Miles's project of reading the Bible as a kind of novel (instead of what it is, an anthology) and the Bible's God as a coherent novelistic character (instead of what he/it is, a combination of the various god-figures in different stories by different tellers) seems more than a little dubious to me, but the passage I've just quoted reads like a marvelously observant and prescient commentary--not on the Bible, but on a book written about the same time as Miles's "biography" and published three years later, Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives. The narrative that begins strongly, breaks off unexpectedly, and then resumes near the end; the long middle section consisting of voices speaking about the central character(s), like witnesses called to testify--is this not uncannily like the form of Bolano's novel? And isn't Miles's description of the effect of this form uncannily like the effect of reading the midsection of Savage Detectives? I seriously doubt that there could've been any direct influence here, and I have no reason to think that Bolano based his form on the Bible, but the similarity between Miles's description and Bolano's novelistic form is almost too remarkable to be coincidental. But then again, aren't all coincidences exactly that remarkable? (Because if they were less remarkable, no one would remark upon them.)

[Insufferably pedantic comment on this post's first sentence: Yes, I suppose that technically it's not reification but hypostatization. I stand corrected--by my own insufferably pedantic self.]

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


First, a facile deconstruction of this book's foundational premise. In his "Polemical Introduction" Frye rejects all schools of literary criticism that apply 'extraliterary' ideologies to literature. His catalogue of hermeneutical ill-repute names the "Marxist, Thomist, liberal-humanist, neo-Classical, Freudian, Jungian [and] existentialist" schools. These he rejects on the grounds that a valid theory of interpretation must "grow out of the art it deals with." The attentive reader might immediately object that all the hermeneutics in Frye's list 'grow out of' literature, broadly defined: Marxism out of Hegel and the 19th-century social novel, Thomism out of Aquinas and the Bible, liberal humanism out of the canon of Adler-approved Great Books, neo-Classicism out of Aristotle and his centuries of epigones (including the one who gave his name to Thomism), Freudianism out of Sophocles and Shakespeare, Jungianism out of the very fruitful Golden Bough, and existentialism out of Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche. But leaving this argument aside, we soon notice that Frye's own supposedly 'intrinsic' method grounds its authority in an appeal to science, an ideology further from literature than any of the occupants of Northrop's Hall of Shame. Frye's insistence upon the intrinsicality of the method he will present in these pages is fatally undermined by the scientism that pervades his argument. (And it's a rather odd scientism, curiously old-fashioned even for the Fifties, when this book was published. Frye's 'science' is a Victorian caricature, a deterministic, totalizing worldview innocent of quantum uncertainty and Popperian scepticism.) That's one easy way to deconstruct Frye. A second, more strictly De Manian approach might focus on Frye's denial that criticism is a parasitical growth on literature and his simultaneous figuring of his ideal criticism as "grow[ing] out of" literature, very like a parasite. (The knowing deconstructor will refer to J. Hillis Miller's discussion of parasitism in "The Critic as Host.")

But the fact that a philosophical or theoretical text is fundamentally wrong and occasionally dotty (as Frye's book is) doesn't mean it's not worth reading. If we were to condemn all the philosophers who got the Big Stuff wrong, who before Nietzsche would 'scape whipping? Who after him? At the beginning of The Renaissance Walter Pater (pater of us all; ghostly father of Modernism) writes that the true value of all abstract aesthetic studies lies "in the suggestive and penetrating things said by the way." Frye's work remains valuable precisely because of the suggestive, illuminating things he says along the way to his explication of an archetypal mastermyth. There is, for example, his valuable distinction among terror, horror and dread: terror is "fear at a distance;" horror is "fear at contact;" dread is "fear without an object." (We might concretize this by saying: Nazi society was a place of terror, the concentration camps places of horror, and a world in which Nazism could occur a place of dread.) There is the bravura passage in which Frye outlines a reading of Lycidas that unfolds into an encyclopedic history of the pastoral. (Moments like this suggest that Harold Bloom's theories of influence represent a 'secularization' or 'disenchantment' of Frye's archetypal structuralism. Bloom is a Frye who privileges Romantic poetry over the Bible and Jung.) There is this brilliant insight about Paradise Lost: "the real basis of the relation of Milton's God to his Adam is the relation of the tragic poet to his hero." And there is also the great readerly schadenfreude evoked by such jaw-droppingly wrong ideas as "Racks and dungeons belong in the sinister vision not because they are morally forbidden but because it is impossible to make them objects of desire." How can anyone who has read Sade, Freud and Proust write that sentence? And there's the even greater schadenfreude that comes when Northrop stumbles over his blind spots and we watch his clumsy pratfalls: the later passages on satire are skewed by authorial prudery, and Frye astonishingly dismisses The Satyricon in a single obtuse sentence. But what of Frye's beloved schema, his allegory of the four seasons of literature, the reason he wrote this book and the only thing most readers have taken away from it? I think every reader is free to take it or leave it. Aside from giving Frye a structural backbone to build a book on (cf. the function of The Odyssey in Ulysses or Wagner's Parsifal in The Waste Land), it's not essential and can be knocked away like the scaffolding Frye himself likens it to in his introduction. And that thought leads me to suggest that Frye's Anatomy might more profitably be read as an example or artifact of Modernism than as a paradigm for criticism. Alternatively, we might pay close attention to the first word of Frye's title and read the book as an "anatomie" akin to Burton's vast work on melancholy. Despite his scientistic pretensions, Frye has written not a clinical dissection of literature but a wide-ranging and highly compressed compendium of thoughts and ideas, some powerful, some worthless. I found it worthwhile to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


"I guess I'm just ahead of my time." -- Samuel M. Steward

In the early 1990s when I was a student at Ohio State University, I received my first vague hint about the amazing life of Samuel Steward. A professor in the English department remarked during a lecture that a 1930s graduate student at OSU had befriended Gertrude Stein, attempted unsuccessfully to correspond with James Joyce, and later become a legendary writer of gay porn novels. A short time later I became aware of, but did not read, a volume of letters from Stein and Alice B. Toklas to a friend named 'Sammy.' A few years after that, I read in Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's fine biography of Alfred Kinsey a graphic account of the activities of Kinsey informant Samuel Steward, whom the author identifies as a friend of Stein and Toklas. Thus, over the course of fifteen years I had acquired many of the pieces of the Steward puzzle, but I never followed up on any of these hints; I never put the pieces together.

Justin Spring puts all these pieces together and reveals many more in his absolutely fascinating biography. Secret Historian is more than a great gay life; it's a great American life, the Whitmanian breadth of which is measured by the facts that Samuel Steward spent an afternoon in the 1930s with Thomas Mann and many late nights in the 1960s with Sonny Barger. During the Great Depression he wrote his master's thesis on Spenser and his doctoral dissertation on Cardinal Newman, and thirty years later he was the official tattoo artist of the Hell's Angels. His friends ran from High Modernists to high motorcyclists. He had a tete a tete with Andre Gide and a sadomasochistic relationship with a former Nazi stormtrooper. He had sexual encounters with Rudolph Valentino, Rock Hudson, and the aging Lord Alfred Douglas, and that's just the tip of this book's phallic iceberg. Steward is one of those people who seems to have known everybody and blown at least half of them. Spring expertly guides us through the many contradictory changes of Steward's amazingly multiple life, from his smalltown Ohio childhood to his years as a Chicago orgiast, from his scholarly studies of Spenser and the Oxford Movement to his volumes of hardcore gay porn (Camille Paglia, for one, would have no trouble making the connection between Spenser and porn; see the Spenser chapter in Sexual Personae), from his years as a professor at Catholic universities to his second career as a highly regarded tattoo artist, from his decades of truly dangerous sexual outlawry to his final years as a friend of the San Francisco Police Department and organizer of a neighborhood watch program, from his passionate midlife attraction to black men to some late in life remarks that sound identical to those of so many racist "Reagan Democrats." Along the way we are afforded eye-opening glimpses of Chicago police corruption, the Chicago gay underworld, Oakland in the dangerous years after the Summer of Love, and much more. This book is an embarrassment of riches, and I close it thinking that while Samuel Steward may never have found 'success' as a literary artist, he successfully followed the dicta of his first master, Oscar Wilde, and made an artwork of his life. And that life was a fucking masterpiece.

I have one criticism upon finishing the book. Spring tells us of Steward's "common law wife" and long-standing friend Emmy Curtis, but he seems to downplay her role in Steward's life--including, importantly, his sex life with her. Steward's sexual activity was overwhelmingly gay but not exclusively so, and the extent to which he had sex with Emmy Curtis is the extent of his bisexuality, one level of sexual complexity that this book (perhaps following Steward's lead) almost completely ignores.