Spring talks sexual renegade’s archives

Justin Spring discussed pornographer Samuel Steward’s life story Monday.
Justin Spring discussed pornographer Samuel Steward’s life story Monday. Photo by Henry Ehrenberg.

It is hard to imagine a man who is both a devout Catholic and an orgy participant.

But one such man is Samuel Steward ­— an English professor, novelist, pornographer and sexual record-keeper. Steward, whose papers had previously been lost to the world since his death in 1993, has been brought to the forefront of homosexual scholarship after the publication of Justin Spring’s latest novel, titled “Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade.” In the first of this year’s School of Art Lecture Series talks on Monday, Spring discussed Steward’s life story and displayed a slideshow of significant images from Steward’s archives and art, in front of an audience of nearly 50 art students and faculty.

Spring began the hour-long talk with a brief description of his previous two books, which were biographies on Fairfield Porter and Paul Cadmus. He compared these men to Steward, discussing the similarities in their interests and artistic styles.

“Both [Porter and Steward] entered their fields with a desire to change the world,” Spring said. “They left behind huge archives describing the time they lived.”

After learning about the clear homosexual motifs in Porter’s and Cadmus’ work, Spring wanted to explore gay imagery in 20th-century art even further. Struck by the divide between the subtle suggestions of homosexuality in art from the early part of the century and the blatant homoeroticism of artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe in the aftermath of the sexual revolution, Spring wanted to find a middle ground that related more to the sexuality that was part of his own life, he said.

Steward’s reputation for leading a double life — serious literary intellectual by day and sexual fanatic at night — led Spring to believe that he was the perfect subject of such a project.

“When he accepted a job at the World Book Encyclopedia in Chicago, he would work during the day but write pornography in his free time,” Spring cited as an example. “He would leave it in the bathroom for other men to find — he even began a fantasy-based correspondence with another man this way.”

Spring also highlighted the significance of archives, which were not only important in documenting Steward’s life after death, but also comprised a significant amount of Steward’s own analysis of homosexual mores.

When Spring first discovered Steward’s files, he came across a lockbox labeled, “Stud Box.” A part of Steward’s extensive record-keeping, it contained a card for every man he had ever slept with, including notes on physical and phallic characteristics, circumstances of the encounter and other analytical notes. Steward also kept sexual calendars and journals, documenting the life of a mid-century homosexual for researchers at the Kinsey Institute.

Despite the specificity of these analyses, audience members said they were struck by the repetition of ideas that Spring discussed throughout history.

“It’s so surprising how homosexual relationships were dealt with in such a straightforward way in visual means,” Doron Langberg ART ’12 said. “Though it becomes more subtle, there is always this explicit dialogue with the body itself.”

Moreover, Spring is often regarded as a writer on 20th-century culture within a broader scope, said Rochelle Feinstein, a Yale School of Art professor.

Spring’s book on Samuel Stewart was nominated for the 2010 National Book Award in Nonfiction.

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