The thrillers I’ve read of late* are full of details about male sexuality, which led me to ask why there is so little sexual detail in biographies. Even when it comes to extramarital affairs, there is rarely anything about the frustrations or needs or entitlements that led to relationships that were often life-changing for all involved. I knew of one biography, Carl Rollyson, who writes about such issues, and I had a fresh appreciation for Lewis Mumford’s candor about his difficulties with premature ejaculation as a young husband and with getting an erection in early stages of his extramarital affairs – at least he acknowledged that these were significant, both to him and to his partners.
In 2003, at Berkshire Publishing Group, we hosted a gathering of the editors of our first big reference work, the Encyclopedia of World History. It was held over a couple of days at the Egremont Inn, and included not only William H. McNeill but David Christian, John McNeill, educator Heidi Roupp, and women’s historian Judith Zinsser. We went through categories and topics, laying out a plan for what became a five- and then six-volume work in a second edition. The disagreement that stands out in my memory is one over the article on sexuality. I’d included the topic in the draft list because it was obviously something to cover. Obvious to me, that is. Zinsser, the feminist historian, sharply disagreed. What did sex matter in history? she argued. Gender issues, yes, but not sex itself. Except, she conceded, we could have an article on concubinage and prostitution. I still don’t understand her position, but she finally agreed that we could include the topic.
Am I discovering similar disagreement amongst biographers? But why should they be uncomfortable with experiences that novelists write about freely?
Here’s an article on “Sex and the Biographer” by James Dempsey, biographer of Scofield Thayer, published in 2013. I was glad Sophia Mumford hadn’t seen it, because it showed a side of Thayer, her boss and friend, that would have disturbed her, but I was glad to have a clear picture of the man who was connected both to the Mumfords and to T. S. Eliot, and glad that Jim had decided to tell the truth about Thayer’s sexuality, distasteful as some of his behavior was (he liked very young women and resistance from them).
I’ve shared the following query with a couple of biographers groups, and so far Carl Rollyson is the only person who’s had a substantive response. A couple of people have mentioned the Thomas and Jane Carlyle marriage, but they lived in the 19th century! I’ve just listened to Carl’s highly relevant recent podcast on the subject of literary prurience, which you can listen to here. I’m in complete agreement that we need to write about the whole man or whole woman, and sex has to be part of the stories we tell. What holds us back, at a time when people seem to talk freely about everything else?
(To the Biographers International Group on Facebook) I’ve just joined this group at the suggestion of one of my colleagues in the Women Writing Women’s Lives seminar, and I have a question for you. I am looking for biographies that address the question of male potency, both from the point of view of the man/men and of his or their partners. I ask because it can dramatically affect real-life relationships – in terms of male identity and sexual satisfaction – but is generally glossed over in books. I have found only a couple biographers, or memoirists, who talk about impotence (early and late); both were men.
I am writing a book about women’s attraction to powerful men, using the biographies of Sophia Mumford (married to Lewis Mumford) and Valerie Eliot (married to T. S. Eliot) as the throughline. When I read about extramarital affairs and late-life marriages, like T. S. Eliot’s second, I wonder about the sex. TSE and his second wife were defensive on the subject of his sexual potency, and male potency comes up all the time in popular fiction written by men. It is important and shouldn’t be off limits, and I am hoping some of you will steer me to writers who have found ways to consider it. Of course anything about women’s experience would also be welcome, but it’s getting hard, staying hard, and women’s obligation to keep a man hard, that I’m asking about. My favorite line comes from Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women, about a man’s young lover: “she puts the lead in my pencil.”
The image above comes from the Delos Archaeological Museum and shows a phallos-bird, a symbol of good fortune. The inscription reads, in English, ‘This for me and this for you.’
* A few of authors who write freely about sexuality and about male potency: Lee Child, Barry Eisler, and Don Winslow.