Steward, Samuel.” Philip Sparrow Tells All: Lost Essays by Samuel Steward, Writer, Professor, Tattoo Artist”, edited by Jeremy Mulderig, University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Remembering Samuel Steward
Samuel Steward (1909–93) was a man of many talents: English professor, tattoo artist for the Hells Angels, sexual adventurer who shared the considerable scope of his experiences with Alfred Kinsey, and a prolific writer whose publications ranged from scholarly articles to gay erotica (the latter appearing under the pen name Phil Andros).
He was also a monthly contributor between 1944 and 1949 to the “Illinois Dental Journal”, a trade publication for dentists, where writing as Philip Sparrow he concocted a series of “charming, richly allusive, and often quirky essays on a wildly eclectic assortment of topics”.
Editor Jeremy Mulderig has collected thirty of these columns and, prefaces them with revealing introductions that relate the essays to people and events in Steward’s life as well as to the intellectual and cultural contexts in which he wrote. Steward wrote about some of his famous friends including Gertrude Stein, André Gide, and Thornton Wilder. He shares his stint as a holiday sales clerk at Marshall Field’s (where he met and seduced fellow employee Rock Hudson), of the roles he played as an opera and ballet extra in hilariously shoddy costumes, of his tendencies to hoard and his disappointment with the drabness of men’s fashions, and his dread of turning forty. There are essays about a bodybuilding competition and a pet cemetery, the boulevards of Paris and the alleys of Algiers. Mulderig carefully explains the gay context and the allusions present in these essays and highlights what we now see as a kind of private game that Steward played with his mostly oblivious audience of Midwestern dentists.
This is the first collection of any of Samuel Steward’s writings to be republished since his death in 1993 and is a major step in documenting his important place in twentieth-century gay literature and history. Steward was a once-neglected figure in queer history and recently we have learned a great deal about him thanks to Justin Spring’s wonderful biography.Steward’s essays were well constructed and sarcastically funny and probably misunderstood by the dentists who read the journal. We can be positive that they did not catch the coded gay references.
Steward dared to experiment “with the comic, personal and confessional modes of the casual essay in ways that might have been difficult to risk otherwise.”The essays were written at a time of censorship and homophobia.Steward’s skill, intelligence, and wit allowed him to get away with the many gay references. Muldering has gone a wonderful job in editing and annotating the essays and even today they are great fun to read.