- Samuel Steward and the Pursuit of the Erotic: Sexuality, Literature, Archives ed. by Debra A. Moddelmog and Martin Joseph Ponce
Robert Corber’s cover endorsement of this book refers to its subject, Samuel Steward, as “neglected.” But he is far from that, with Justin Spring’s comprehensive biography, a portfolio of his explicit sex Polaroids, and a recent collection of his writings.1 Steward is a fascinating character precisely because of his varied identities (Samuel M. Steward, Phil Sparrow, Phil Andros) and the fluidity of his various incarnations (aspiring novelist, academic, artist, tattooist, pornographer, BDSM pioneer, and valued informant for the famous sex researcher Alfred Kinsey). He has been a gay role model and was photographed in 1998 by Robert Giard for his Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers. Now, with this collection, he is being rediscovered as a queer cultural hero.
It is an intriguing collection of essays. In a useful introduction, the editors summarize Steward’s colorful life and set out their claims: he is “a good figure to think with and through for queer studies scholars and queer publics alike,” and his life and various endeavors provide “an early articulation of some of the aims and methods of queer studies” (2). So, in a sense, it is the queer aspects of Steward’s contribution to sexual history that provide the envisaged thematic unity of the project. But there is more to the story than that. As the book’s title indicates, the connecting thread in all of Steward’s undertakings was a pursuit of the erotic, whether in his Kinsey research, his Stud File (the metal box card index of his many sexual contacts), his souvenirs of pubic hair, his photographs of group sex, his keen interest in the sexual potentials of tattooing, his detailed archiving of BDSM encounters, or even his hoarding. How successful is this book in both demonstrating its subject’s erotic quest and indicating the potential of all this for queer studies?
On the face of it, the chapters cover Steward’s life effectively: his flirtation with academia (introduction); his pornographic archive (chapter 1); the Stud File (chapter 2); his hoarding (chapter 3); his sexual research (chapter 4); his relationship with the lesbian literary icons Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (chapter 5); his essays for the Illinois Dental Journal (chapter 6); his BDSM practices (chapter 7); his pornographic pulps (chapters 8 and 9); and his latter days (“Recollections”). But these chapters vary in their effectiveness. Some are exemplary. Tim Dean (chapter 1) examines Steward [End Page 499] as a pornography archivist, with his Kinsey research, Polaroid documentation, and collection of the hair of his lovers, all mementos of a past that might otherwise have vanished—pornography as “cultural memory” (28). Scott Herring (chapter 3) argues for the queer logic behind aspects of the older Steward’s reported hoarding. Earlier remnants of a rich sexual history, reminders of the past, eased his transition from a life of sexual excess to one of aging and sexual privation. It was something that Steward himself wrote about: “tangibles to which the imagination and memory could be tied” (79). Jeremy Mulderig (chapter 6) elegantly reprises his study of Steward’s essays (as Philip Sparrow) for the Illinois Dental Journal in the 1940s, an understated queerness that makes perfect sense in the light of retrospective knowledge about their author (and Mulderig’s teasing out) but that was probably undetected by most of their readers.
Other essays in the collection are stimulating but only partially successful. Jennifer Burns Bright (chapter 7) explores Steward’s “lived archive” of BDSM practice, a useful description, though she limits her inquiry to the published material, missing rich archival possibilities (144). Martin Joseph Ponce (chapter 8) rather charitably analyzes interracial sex in Steward’s pornographic work $tud (1966), finding a complexity that I suspect is more in Ponce’s reading rather than in Steward’s intent or writing.
It is debatable...