By James Dempsey
Worcester, MA, USA
Writers do not generally have high opinions of literary biographers. The recently retired Philip Roth has said that he faces just two tragedies—death and a biography. John Arbuthnot would have agreed, calling biography "[o]ne of the new terrors of death." (Hardly new—in the eighteenth-century, Samuel Johnson gave a thorough posthumous spanking to syphilitic libertine poet John Wilmot for his unsavory ways.) Hemingway accused the breed of seeing "gold" in "dirty sheets." The biographer is a "Judas," said Oscar Wilde, a "disease," said George Eliot. All in all, literary biographers are viewed by many as siblings-in-sin to the kind of paparazzi who once photographed Britney Spears' shorn genitalia as she disembarked from a limousine.
The truth to tell, critics of biography may have a point. The recreation, or rather, the metaphorical verbal reimagining of a human life by the biographer necessitates a certain willingness to snoop around, to perform the literary equivalent of nosing through a host's bathroom cabinet to see what medications he or she is taking, or, perhaps more aptly, of examining bed sheets for evidence of physical intimacies. Sexuality is a hugely important part of the human makeup, and so is a needful component if one is to construct a complete picture of one's subject. The human animal is innately and shamelessly curious, and that curiosity sometimes drives mankind to great discoveries and sometimes to mere voyeurism.
Small wonder that society looks on with such distaste as the biographer dabs an incarnadined beak into the cavities of his carrion.
But the practice of peeping through the bedroom windows of our literary heroes may lend some small understanding to the life one is examining. I have recently completed a biography on Scofield Thayer, who lived 1889-1982 and who was an important figure in magazine history (he was editor of The Dial, a hugely influential New York journal) and in bringing Modernism to American readers and art-lovers. Scholars of the 1920s have always known about Thayer, since he is usually given a walk-on part in so many books and articles about the period. He was enormously wealthy, and a great patron of the arts and literature. All of the great figures of Modernism—Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Picasso, etc. —had dealings with him.
When I began my research, Thayer's sexuality seemed fairly well resolved. He had been cuckolded by his friend E.E. Cummings, and, indeed, encouraged that relationship, even after his wife was impregnated by Cummings and gave birth to a daughter. We also have a story about an angry father visiting Cummings at his New York apartment in search of Thayer, whom he charged with the seduction of his teenage son. Then there are the words of Ernest Hemingway in a letter to Ezra Pound soon after Cummings married Thayer's wife: "E.E. Cummings married to Scofield Buggaring Thayer's first wife." Hemingway seems to have had an inside track on Thayer's sexuality.
Scofield Thayer (1889-1982)
Putting all this together, one would assume, as many have, that Thayer was homosexual, perhaps closeted, perhaps with pederastic impulses. I originally set out to discover with whom Thayer may have had a physical relationship, and I soon found that putting people in bed with each other is extremely difficult, especially after the passage of so much time. Thayer had relationships with many women, but how many were platonic and how many involved what Anthony Burgess's Alex so succinctly called the old in-and-out is difficult to say.
But while putting Thayer in bed with particular people was difficult, finding his views on sex was anything but. Thayer was in the habit of scribbling his private thoughts and ideas into small notebooks bound in red leatherette. Thayer spent two years on Freud's couch in Vienna, and he wrote down his thoughts, ideas, and observations at great length, as well as numerous free-associations.
There are scores of these red notebooks at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, where Thayer's papers are kept, and as I slowly deciphered the tiny writing it soon became obvious that sex was hugely important to Thayer. He thought about it and wrote about it a great deal. And the vast majority of these long descriptions and discussions of sexuality focused on the woman as sexual object. Indeed, from reading Thayer's detailed disclosures of his sexuality, it soon became evident that, whatever else he was, he was definitely and indeed rampantly heterosexual. He wrote about the sexualities of upper- and lower-class women. He decided that "Anglo-Celtic girls" were not cooperative enough sexually, and that the Puritanism of "American" girls made their maculation all the more pleasurable—their sex is "extra starched," he wrote, making it "[t]he more stiffly and therefore the more agreeably crinkleable." He found the women of southern Europe "higher sexed" than those of the north. All in all, as far as sex went, Thayer seemed to be tasting the local wine wherever he went, geographically and socially. It was as if were in quest of a kind of sexual nirvana. "After some girls...," he wrote, "one feels that one has been in bed with God."
Thayer was also a connoisseur of prostitutes, comparing those of different countries and different cities; and, not surprisingly, he worried a good deal about sexually transmitted diseases and their cures. He thought a great deal about the relationship between money and sex, both in the honest transaction with the prostitute and in the more regular sexual politics of the larger world. He described women's breasts as "naked fruit" and their curves as "Apennine." He saw the female body as "a flowering from the tubular trunk of the vagina,- an elm tree or a rocket. One would crawl among the leaves or stars." He wrote humorously about how eager were the mothers of unattached women to push their daughters into his path. He wondered whether "old semen" still present from an earlier sexual escapade might impregnate a second woman, even if one practiced coitus interruptus. He wrote, "In their relationship to millionaires girls fall into two classes: those who require to be handled with tact [and] those who don't." Such sentiments may not be admirable, but there is no denying that these are the writings of a man whose primary sexual object is obvious.
As Thayer grew older, and as his mental condition deteriorated, we begin to see changes in his sexual life. Particularly unsettling is his growing need for some resistance to his sexual advances, a resistance that he evidently achieved great pleasure in overcoming. As a millionaire, he apparently did not meet as much resistance as he wished. "The great trouble with being an unmarried millionaire is the difficulty one encounters in one's relations with the opposite sex, the difficulty of obtaining that resistance to one's sexual advances which is requisite to any satisfactory sexual life. They are all on their backs like steel traps…" he wrote. This yearning for power over his sexual partner developed further into a desire for younger and younger flesh. "The younger virgin has the sexual advantage over her inestimable elder sister [in] that she is more untouchable," he wrote. For Thayer, the virgin came to represent the perfect sacrifice to his manhood, comprising desirability, beauty, and utter innocence. In the hierarchy of his aesthetic, he placed the untouched girl above even his beloved painting and poetry: "Art, literature etc. are minted gold: virgin girls are that gold in the anfractuous rough; they are the naked nuggets," he wrote.
In the fall of last year, when I finally was allowed to open a trove of Thayer's correspondence that had been embargoed until thirty years after his death, I fully expecting to find details of some sexual scandal. What I in fact discovered were hundreds of affectionate letters between Thayer and his wife, Elaine. These covered the period from before their wedding in 1916 through their divorce and after. Astonishingly, the relationship seems to have been loving from start to finish. Soon after the wedding there occurred some tortuous struggle between the two, after which the couple evidently agreed that theirs would be an open marriage. They went on to live separately in New York City, where each went about his or her own business, occasionally getting together socially and even sexually. "In so far as a man marry for sexual pleasure he kills the golden goose," Thayer wrote. "Nothing so dissolves sexual attraction and pleasure as cohabitation." Thayer suffered a mental breakdown in the late 1920s that removed him permanently from public life.
In his continuing relationship with Elaine, and in his deeply fond letters to her as she went through her own tribulations, and despite her cuckolding him and bearing another man's child, Thayer was in a manner true to his "Lily Maid" Elaine all his sane life. As a biographer, this deepened my understanding of the man and opened to me an aspect of him I had not suspected.
Nor was this all: Thayer's passion for innocence also manifested itself, more darkly, in the proto-Lolitas whose purity he pursued as his sanity stumbled into eclipse.
There's no doubt in my mind that such insights have value. And if we as a culture accept that the production of biography is a worthwhile literary pursuit, then we must also accept that, by and large, the more salient information a biographer has to work with, the better. If that includes sexuality—and a reading of Thayer's writings shows a man fascinated by his and others' sexuality—then the question is not so much whether but how one should treat the subject. And yet, to be candid, one must admit to the undeniable truth that we are all subjective creatures, and that each of us can see the same set of facts in wholly different ways. What the biographer might regard as his natural intellectual curiosity is for the subject of that biography the equivalent of being photographed in flagrante in some seedy motel.
The most difficult question, of course, is whether the biographer's little epiphanies are worth all the focus on a person's private life, even if the subject has been dead a substantial period of time, and I fear that on this point the two sides involved—those whose lives are of public interest and those who write about those whose lives are of public interest—will probably never agree. For most of us, with the possible exceptions of exhibitionists and the sex workers of the porn industry, physical intimacy with another is an intensely private affair. And I daresay most people would agree that with the passage of time, the privacy of an individual is trumped by the historical and cultural revelations that might arise from invading that privacy. Still, it is one of the tasks of the biographer that I found myself performing with some vacillation.