When I pick up a biography, I have certain expectations about how the book I am holding came to be. I assume, for example, that the biographer has a broad and deep knowledge of his or her subject’s life and has approached the task of representing that life in narrative form with professional objectivity. My expectations for an autobiography, however, are quite different. Knowing from experience that all lives are shaped by a subjectivity that filters and orders our perceptions of ourselves, I can’t demand objectivity from the autobiographer. Nor do I wish to, for it is the very subjectivity of autobiography—that inevitably self-conscious construction of the self for an imagined reader—that draws me to autobiographies in the first place.
But when an autobiographer writes two versions of his or her life—two narratives in which elements are selected and arranged and considered differently—how is the reader to regard the disparate selves encountered in the texts? Which account of a given incident should one accept, and on what basis? These are the questions that I faced in editing and blending the published and unpublished autobiographies of Samuel Steward (1909–1993), the English professor, tattoo artist, pornographer, and sexual record keeper whose important place in twentieth-century gay history and literature was established in 2010 by Justin Spring’s landmark biography, Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward.
The life that Steward sought to present in his autobiography was by any measure a remarkable one. When he sat down at his typewriter on August 21, 1978, a year before his seventieth birthday, to compose it, no one but his closest friends knew the many different identities he had performed during his life: he had been a popular university professor of English for more than twenty years; a close friend of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas as well as Alfred Kinsey and Thornton Wilder; an accomplished tattoo artist using the name Phil Sparrow; an essayist and short-story writer who published prolifically in European gay magazines under a variety of pseudonyms; and the author, as Phil Andros, of a series of widely circulated pornographic gay novels in the sixties and seventies. He was also a compulsive record keeper who maintained a massive journal and meticulous card-file index documenting his forty-five hundred sexual encounters with more than eight hundred men, including all the members of his high school basketball team, Rudolph Valentino, Lord Alfred Douglas, Roy Fitzgerald (later known to the world as Rock Hudson), a number of his university students, and many sailors from the Great Lakes Naval Training Station north of Chicago. His books late in life included an edition of Gertrude Stein’s and Alice Toklas’s letters to him, a novel based on the life of the painter Sir Francis Rose, a book about the tattoo business, another on gay hustlers, and two murder mysteries featuring Stein and Toklas as sleuths.
The story of this life would undoubtedly have been a sensation if it had reached publication. But after finishing a hundred-ten-thousand-word draft in 1979, Steward decided that his manuscript was too long and formless, and he ultimately published only a slim volume of largely unrelated selections from it, which appeared to little notice in 1981 as Chapters from an Autobiography. I read Chapters years ago, but it was only later—when I was working on an edition of the quirky monthly essays that Steward wrote during the forties for the Illinois Dental Journal—that I found the complete manuscript of the autobiography among his other papers at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. It was immediately clear to me that taken together, the two texts contained the elements of a fascinating but virtually unknown gay autobiography. Would it be possible to integrate them into a single more complete and accessible narrative by filling in gaps in Chapters while cutting redundant and irrelevant material from the complete manuscript?
I wasn’t sure, but I started with an editorial principle rooted in the desire to produce a final text faithful to Steward’s own writing style: apart from very minor changes in wording necessitated by syntactic or logical problems, I would rely only on his own wording and sentence structures. A given paragraph in my text, for example, might be constructed with sentences taken from two or more other paragraphs, but its coherence would be entirely due to the logical reordering of Steward’s own sentences or to the deletion of sentences when necessary and not to any rewriting on my part to make his own sentences fit together. But whose logic would be at play, and by what criteria would deletions be deemed necessary? A pair of corresponding but significantly different paragraphs from Steward’s two sources offers a good example of the way I attempted to answer those questions. The subject is his recollection of incidents from his childhood. Here is the original version in the unpublished manuscript:
Not much of my childhood remains in my memory. When I was three or four, I remember how my arm pained me when my mother held my hand as I walked beside her, thus pulling it straight up. And when we lived for a while in Richmond, Virginia, because my father in one of his innumerable jobs worked for the International Harvester Company, I went across the street to a vacant lot and set fire to it. People came with brooms to swat it out; I do not remember any fire engines. From the Richmond period I also recall the first grade, when I stood and asked to go to the toilet—at which Miss Munday, the teacher, put her finger vertically across her lips and held one finger up in the air. The toilet was in the basement; the stalls were dank and green with slime. I remember also in Richmond my mother dropped a jar of homemade tomato catsup and the lid came off, spilling the catsup all over the kitchen floor, at which my father hit her across the face. I also recall reading a child’s book while I lay flat on my stomach; a few feet away my baby sister, five years younger, was on the potty, and a bit of shit exploded from her tiny behind, to fall precisely on King Arthur’s face. And once, I was roller-skating on the street near a telephone pole, the kind that had climbing-spikes sticking out the sides; a begoggled motorcyclist rounded the corner from Monument Avenue, hit the curb, flew thirty feet into the air, and punctured his skullpan on a spike. He hung there a moment and then his body fell to the ground, dead, with brains and blood scattered all over the sidewalk. This accident haunted my nightmares for a long time.
For publication, Steward condensed this paragraph and also seems to have tried deliberately to make it less grim by writing a cheerier first sentence, deleting the toilet and catsup incidents, and changing “shit” to “poop”:
Luckily, not much of my childhood remains in my memory, but I think it was sheltered and pleasant enough. When I was three or four, I remember how painful it was when my mother held my hand as I walked beside her, for my arm was pulled straight up. In Richmond, Virginia, where we lived for a while because my father had one of his innumerable jobs there, I went across the street to a vacant lot and set fire to the dry grass. I also recall lying on my stomach reading a child’s book about King Arthur while a few feet away my sister Virginia, five years younger, was on the potty, and a bit of poop exploded from her tiny behind, to fall directly on King Arthur’s face. And once I was roller-skating on the street near a telephone pole, the kind that had climbing-spikes out the sides; a motorcyclist with goggles rounded the corner from Monument Avenue too fast, hit the curb and flew into the air. His skullpan was punctured on a spike. He hung there a moment and then fell to the ground dead, with brains and blood splattered all over the sidewalk. This accident furnished me with nightmares for a long time.
If the first version of incidents from Steward’s childhood was overly dark, this one seems almost too consciously sunny. The new opening sentence is more cheerful, but what sense does it make? Why is forgetting a pleasant childhood a “lucky” thing? Moreover, the newly added phrase “sheltered and pleasant enough” is completely in conflict with the details that follow in either version of this paragraph, and it seems even more inappropriate when one knows that Steward’s mother died when he was six, his alcoholic and drug-addicted father was mostly absent, and his aunts raised him while at the same time attending to the endless work of operating a rooming house. That sentence, I felt, had to be cut on logical grounds alone. Two significant details that appear only in the unpublished manuscript remained to be considered: the slimy toilet and the spilled catsup. In this case, the catsup incident seemed to me to offer the richer and more profound comment on Steward’s early home life, and including it in my final text would be steering a middle course between the too-grim manuscript and the overly cheery published text:
Not much of my childhood remains in my memory. I remember how painful it was when my mother held my hand as I walked beside her when I was three or four, for my arm was pulled straight up. In Richmond, Virginia, where we lived for a while because my father had one of his innumerable jobs there, I went across the street to a vacant lot and set fire to the dry grass. I remember also in Richmond my mother dropped a jar of homemade tomato catsup and the lid came off, spilling the catsup all over the kitchen floor, at which my father hit her across the face. I also recall lying on my stomach reading a child’s book about King Arthur while a few feet away my sister Virginia, five years younger, was on the potty, and a bit of poop exploded from her tiny behind, to fall directly on King Arthur’s face. And once I was roller-skating on the street near a telephone pole, the kind that had climbing-spikes out the sides; a motorcyclist with goggles rounded the corner from Monument Avenue too fast, hit the curb, and flew into the air. His skullpan was punctured on a spike. He hung there a moment and then fell to the ground dead, with brains and blood splattered all over the sidewalk. This accident furnished me with nightmares for a long time.
In merging elements of the two paragraphs in this way, I could not claim that I was understanding Steward’s intentions more fully, since his final intention would seem to be his last version, the one published in Chapters. Instead, I was drawing on the internal consistency of the text, the documentary information about Steward’s life that I had at hand, and a sense of what combination of details made the best story. And the same principles operated when I decided which larger elements that Steward had cut from his manuscript should be reinstated and which others should be cut to arrive at a final text of about eighty-five thousand words. For example, the deleted manuscript chapters on his more than twenty years as a college professor were obviously an essential part of his life story and had to be included. So, too, were the deleted chapters on medical topics—his severe allergies, his testicular cancer, his single case of syphilis. But on the other hand, I deleted a curious chapter on the occult that didn’t seem to fit anywhere in the narrative, and I also cut his discussion of his fraternity life at Ohio State, even though it appeared both in the manuscript and in Chapters, because it struck me as trivial in comparison with the rest of his chapter on university life.
I made none of my decisions—whether about sentences or chapters—glibly. In fact, I agonized over most of them, often with the sense that Steward was looking over my shoulder as I reorganized and reshaped his text. But I relied in this process on the point I made above: that unlike biography, autobiography promises not objectivity or completeness but a personal encounter with the writer and his or her world. As I traveled deeper and deeper into the story that Steward was telling—selecting or rejecting or rearranging sentences, paragraphs, and chapters—it was the potential vividness of that encounter that guided me. I was continuing the subjective process of choosing and arranging details that he had begun but left unfinished—with the hope that my own subjective intervention would rescue the story of his extraordinary life in his own words for many future readers.
Jeremy Mulderig is an emeritus professor of English at DePaul University and the editor of The Lost Autobiography of Samuel Steward: Recollections of an Extraordinary Twentieth-Century Gay Life (University of Chicago Press, 2018) and Philip Sparrow Tells All: Lost Essays by Samuel Steward, Writer, Professor, Tattoo Artist (University of Chicago Press, 2015).