Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade" by Justin Spring

I’ve got to say, what initially drove me to read this book was the title. Most authors choose to fluff up the title of a book, which makes this particular one very refreshing. Actually, I’d describe the whole book as refreshing. Everything including Justin Spring’s writing style, his chosen book title, and his subject was like a breath of fresh air. It’s not often that you get to read about someone with several different “identities.”

First of all, it is rare that you see an autobiography of someone so interesting written like a research paper. I know that might sound off-putting, but it’s actually kind of nice. It contrasts nicely with the free-spirited nature of Samuel Steward, and also makes for a much easier read on a more complicated subject. Though it may seem robotic at times, I like the way Spring integrates quotes from both Steward and secondary sources about Steward. That might just be because it’s a familiar style for me, considering I’m a high school student and I often have to write like that.

Secondly, Samuel Steward led a life that was anything but boring. He discovered his homosexuality at an extremely young age, and he came to accept it very shortly thereafter. He did not by any means shy away from the spotlight. One of his childhood hobbies was collecting autographs and letters from celebrities, and he never shied away from an opportunity to do so. As a teenager, he got much more than an autograph from silent film actor, Rudolph Valentino. He walked away from the experience not only with a signature, but also a bit of pubic hair to prove it. By no means is this a book for anybody uncomfortable with the subject of sex. In fact, sex dominated much of Steward’s lifestyle. He worked as a researcher for the Kinsey Institute, documenting every sexual encounter he had for about 20 years. He also went on to become an author of erotic literature, often in the subgenre of sadomasochism. As the title might warn readers, this book is for a very mature crowd. Not everything about his life was purely sexual though. His stint as a tattoo artist by the name of Phil Sparrow was quite the prolific one. He actually helped Don Ed Hardy spiral into his reputation as one of the most famous tattoo artists ever. The anecdotes don’t even stop there, but I don’t want to give away more of the book really.

The most important thing I took away from this book comes from Steward’s attitude. He was so open about all the sexual aspects of his life that most people would be afraid to even share with a close friend. He charged all of his literature (written under the pen name Phil Andros) with sexual energy, splaying phallic imagery across every page and poorly disguised anagrams for sexual words. But even more importantly, he was unafraid of his homosexuality. He was “sensually attracted” to Catholicism, but his religious belief did not affect his perspective on his own sexuality at all. In fact, it empowered him, because he realized that his sexuality is not a choice. Everything would always push him in the direction of his homosexuality, whether he liked it or not. But rather than try to change it, he embraced it. When something about yourself is impossible to change, you might as well just embrace it. There’s no point in trying to fight it because it’s a waste of time. There’s no point in really hating any part of yourself, because it’s a waste of time. If the world can’t handle you for who you are, then that’s someone else’s problem, and not yours.

Review by Soraya. Add your review of "Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade" in comments!

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