The Lost Autobiography of Samuel Steward: Recollections of an Extraordinary Twentieth-Century Gay Life, by Samuel Steward, edited by Jeremy Mulderig, Yale University Press, 360 pp., $30.00
The Lost Autobiography of Samuel Steward: Recollections of an Extraordinary Twentieth-Century Gay Life reads, at times, like a wet dream. Sex was Samuel Steward’s main way of navigating the world — wherever he is, at whatever phase of his life, he’s sure to find a man. On vacation in Algiers, Steward sees a man on the street. They fuck. Visiting the author André Gide at his home in Paris, he spots a beautiful man in the apartment. The next time Steward visits, Gide pushes him into his bedroom, where the beautiful man is waiting for him, naked. They fuck. Thornton Wilder, three-time Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and playwright, heretofore unknown publicly to be anything but heterosexual? They fuck. He cums in ninety seconds on Steward’s belly. And finds inspiration to write the third act of Our Town.
Steward, an English professor, tattoo artist, essayist, and gay pornographer, recorded each of his sexual experiences on a 3” x 5” index card that he then alphabetically catalogued in his “Stud File.” By the end of Steward’s life, the Stud File contained more than 4,500 entries compiled from over 800 men. The meticulously-kept records buttress The Lost Autobiography, which is a collation of texts that Steward wrote throughout his life.
Steward first attempted to write an autobiography in 1978, at age 69, after publishing a collection of letters written to him by Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, whom he had befriended via letter-writing and who had hosted him several times in their home in the French countryside. After writing for 102 days, he produced a 110,000-word manuscript, which, by early 1979, had become a clean 368-page draft. (This manuscript is housed, along with the rest of Steward’s papers, in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.) The 368-page draft was published in 1981 in an abridged form titled Chapters from an Autobiography, which omitted large chunks of his life contained in the original document, including details about his childhood, education at Ohio State, adult life in California, and nearly all of his life in Chicago, his home for almost thirty years. The two texts sometimes describe the same scene differently, offering diverging emphases, descriptions, and explanations of events.
The Lost Autobiography, released this year, is an integration of the original manuscript and Chapters. The editor, Jeremy Mulderig, a professor emeritus of English at DePaul University who stumbled upon the two manuscripts in the Beinecke Library while editing a collection of the monthly essays that Steward wrote in the Illinois Dental Journal, reordered sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, cut and added phrases from elsewhere in the text, and omitted markers of textual moves. He did not, however, alter Steward’s original words or sentence structures.
The result is a work that forces us to examine the truth of autobiography. Setting down one’s life in a narrative form is a process of culling and construction. It demands that one reduce experiences and emotions to things containable by words, clearing away enough of life’s underbrush for a reader to discern, more or less, a basic narrative arc. But this is a task that largely remains invisible behind autobiographical texts, which usually belong to the crudely-defined category of “nonfiction,” accepted as fact, as the truth. Rarely do we see a narrative as visibly constructed as The Lost Autobiography of Samuel Steward.
Steward and Mulderig render Steward’s life in a peculiar, particular way. On paper, it is one in which the presence of the male body is always closely felt. At age fourteen, in 1923, Steward masturbated for the first time (“the tingling raced from head to feet”). He began clumsily trying to kiss the girls that all the other boys liked – Edith, Agnes, Mabel, Kathryn. He began paying loving, relentlessly specific attention to the male body.
He fainted when he saw his high school track coach, Coach Johnson, in the gym showers:
His muscular tanned body turned actively under the shower as he soaped himself, his arms and chest. The hair of his strong wide chest was now streaming downward under the water, his black curly hair atop his head flattened down the sides of his handsome face, strong-jawed, dark-browned…my eyes traveled down the length of his superb body, the sturdy thigh muscles, the well-developed calves. I could hardly bring myself to look at his genitals, swinging free.
He began to masturbate his friends and men around town, though he quickly graduated to “sucking and fucking,” launching a criminal life that risked twenty years of imprisonment under the laws of the State of Ohio.
After sharing sexual encounters with dozens of men in Woodsfield—including, Steward claims, four football players, three track runners, and the entire high school basketball team— he left for Columbus, where he studied English at the Ohio State University and continued to suck and fuck. He earned a bachelor’s degree and a Ph.D. and instructed at the university after graduation, until being sent to teach English at Carroll College in Helena, Montana, for one year, where he slept with his students. After the school year, he departed for a summer job at Glacier National Park, where he had sex with his bunkmate, who was, Steward writes, “extremely handsome with black curly hair” and had “a body with excellently defined musculature” that carried “a heavy sexual aura.” He left Glacier National Park after the summer’s end, moving westward for a teaching position at the State College of Washington in Pullman, and, while leaving for Chicago and hopping around universities there, while traveling to Europe and befriending Gertrude Stein and sucking Lord Alfred Douglas’s dick, while moving to Oakland, tattooing the Hells Angels, writing homosexual erotica, and settling down to confine and collapse his life into something containable in the pages of The Lost Autobiography of Samuel Steward: Recollections of an Extraordinary Twentieth-Century Gay Life, the male body, “Man,” as he termed it, capitalized, stayed a constant companion. His sex did not cease.
The reader of The Lost Autobiography is certainly taken on an extraordinary ride. But why should she believe it? There’s no comfort to be taken in the truth and inevitability of the autobiographical narrative. The man behind the curtain is so starkly there in this case — Mulderig introduces the text by explaining how he completely changed and reorganized Steward’s writings. He explains, in depth, the laborious process of crafting a cohesive narrative out of a life. He denies the readers, from the start, the ability to imagine that this autobiography is a simple record of a life as it happened.
What’s more, Thornton Wilder’s biographer raises doubts on Steward’s claims of a sexual relationship with the playwright, which go uncorroborated and unsubstantiated beyond his entry in the Stud File. And, in a central scene, Mulderig provides evidence in the footnotes that the scene as written may be wildly misrepresentative of reality.
In his manuscript, Steward recalls his firing from DePaul University as follows: in 1954, right after realizing that tattooing is immensely more profitable than teaching English, Steward is called into the office of Dean William T. Powers, who Steward intuits wants to fire him. So he prepares a letter of resignation, dates it a week prior, goes into Dean Powers’s office, says, “Hold it just a minute, Fatty,” hands him the letter, and leaves, triumphant, saying, “Fuck Kammer,” (the school’s chancellor) on his way out, and, “well, that was the end of twenty years of teaching — given up without any sorrow or regret.”
Mulderig notes that William T. Powers did not become dean at DePaul University until the 1955-1956 school year, meaning that Steward has antedated his account by two years, and Steward’s contemporaneous journal entries reveal that his bravado is fictionalized. As Steward described the scene in his personal journal at the time, Dean Powers called Steward into his office to inform him that his contract would not be renewed because of Steward’s “outside activities” — that is, tattooing, or homosexuality, or both — and Steward was devastated. No “Hold it just a minute, Fatty,” no prepared resignation letter, no “Fuck Kammer” on his way out.
The fracture between life as written and life as lived troubles The Lost Autobiography. Beyond instances of direct contradiction with contemporaneous accounts and beyond the authoritative instability of this particular narrative, the book’s sexual escapades simply strain belief: Could he really have fucked Rudolph Valentino and Lord Alfred Douglas? How did that stranger on the train know that he was gay and down to fuck? Was there even a way to safely approach men like that in the 1930s, pre-Grindr?
This fracturing runs deep through The Lost Autobiography of Samuel Steward. It is difficult, on any level, to pin down the truth, if it exists, about his life. Steward himself lived under three personae: Samuel Steward the professor of English, beloved by students and equipped to teach seminars on topics ranging from Anglo-Saxon grammar to the Jacobean dramatists to the modern novel; Philip Sparrow the tattoo artist, working first in Chicago and then in Oakland on tens of thousands of men, including the local chapter of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang; and Phil Andros, man-lover, writer of highbrow literary gay erotica. And his gay sexual life, if not always hidden, was at least furtive, and his “closet,” as it is for many, was a nebulous thing, changing degrees of opened and closed between setting, time, and company.
Yet, as complex as his inner workings were, as legally, socially, and professionally regulated as his life was, Steward staked a claim to his agency and visibility through his body.
“I was in no sense a case of multiple personalities,” Steward writes. “I did in a sense have an old artichoke heart, and the various pen names I used in the things I wrote…were like the separate leaves that are capable of being stripped away. But what was at the center?”
The body, the great unifier. Through the deaths of his parents, his firings from academic positions, his movements into and out of Protestantism and Catholicism, his passage through decades and across the country, Steward inhabited a white, cis, gay body that was wholly his and his alone. His experiences were lived in and mediated through his body, which was heavily regulated by homophobia but transgressed its confinement through experiences of intense embodied pleasure. Anti-gayness physically and discursively confines the ability of gay people to experience their bodies to their fullest abilities and desires, and shame and fear fracture the self from the body in moments of erotic gay pleasure. But Steward’s relentless pursuit of the bodies of men, his enthrallment with physical pleasure, his identification of himself and the world through terms of the flesh were all attempts to rebel, to enjoy, to create something whole and full.
Both the fractures of Steward and the fractures of The Lost Autobiography of Samuel Steward cohere in physical form: the body and the book. Their internal rifts are subordinate to their factual, physical existences. The book may strain the form of the autobiography to its limits, may create a gulf between representation and reality, may exist in grafted sentences and re-ordered chapters. But, at the end of the day, it exists materially, cohesively.
The same, generally, is true of Samuel Steward. He was an English professor and an erotica writer and a tattoo artist and he also went by Philip Sparrow and Phil Andros and he fucked his way around the world and was repressed and free and honest and enigmatic and all these things were held at once within him, bound together in his material form. The body can be grasped, touched, sucked, seen. It can assert its own existence.
What, then, could a gay man born in Ohio in 1910 have done but live a life through his body? The very existence of homosexuality — Steward’s full personhood — had been, throughout his life, socially and criminally denied, but every orgasm he shared with a man was intimate proof to the contrary. The power of the body lies in its assertion of an irremovable physical presence — queer people, trans people, racialized people, undocumented people stick in this world through the existence of queer, trans, racialized, undocumented bodies. It is a goal of oppressive structures and individuals to regulate, or to deny, that assertion, to constrict one’s ability to use one’s own body, or to make it disappear entirely. So what freedom can be found today, as Steward found throughout his extraordinary twentieth-century gay life, in feeling, sensing, living fully and deeply in our own bodies?
There are no clean answers to this in The Lost Autobiography. But there is a scene in which Steward meets Thomas Mann and tells the German writer that he has “written what is possibly the greatest paean of love to the human body that has ever been put on paper.”
The paean, from Mann’s 1924 novel The Magic Mountain, reads, in part, “the body is rough and paling on its surface from fear and shame of itself. But it also is a great adorable glory, miraculous image of life, holy wonder of form and beauty.”
The Lost Autobiography pushes us frantically, haphazardly, sensually to reject fear and shame of the flesh, embrace the physicality of the self and others, and behold the marginalized body as a miraculous image of life, the holy wonder of form and beauty, the great self-asserting unifier.