Deep Thought: Forest, Trees

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A seer thinking deeply, with a towel on his head

Deep Thought: Forest, Trees

I've just spent a whole week without reliable internet access. That is, I could get online, but I could only type with one finger, and I loathe predictive text, so I soon got bored with it. So I've been catching up on my reading. I dipped into some of the books I've picked up on remainder tables and at flea markets, but never got around to reading because…well, the Post. I found some interesting things.

One book I happened to have was Frank Harris' biography of Oscar Wilde, which I think I bought from the library's annual sale at the Autumn Leaf Festival the last time they had it, which was pre-pandemic. So the book had been sitting around awhile. Not that it aged much in the interval: the copyright on the book was 1930. I don't know when it was written. It could have been anytime after the late 1890s, when Wilde died. Harris was a friend – in fact, he'd tried to get Wilde to flee from the authorities when he was on trial. Harris even chartered a steamboat to facilitate escape. Wilde wouldn't go, though – which was a mistake, as he ended up doing hard time, which wrecked his health.

According to Harris, George Bernard Shaw explained Wilde's reluctance to escape on the fact that Harris was a scary person. Shaw compared him to a 'pirate'. If you look at a photo of Frank Harris, you'll see what Shaw meant. Harris was a funny-looking guy with a murderous handlebar moustache. I'm not sure I would have got on a boat with him, either, even if the cops were after me.

Reading this book made me curious about Frank Harris, so I read another: the first volume of My Life and Loves, which is available on Gutenberg. (I have a tablet. I don't like tablets to type on, but they're fine for reading ebooks.) Volume 1 is the only one that's public domain right now, so that's all I read. The first volume is highly entertaining, but I refuse to pay money for any more of Frank Harris. I'll tell you why.

You may or may not have heard that journalist Frank Harris' four-volume memoirs were banned in the US and UK for 60 years, but, like me, you may not know why. The illustrations sort of gave it away: pictures of naked ladies. Gratuitously displayed throughout the oeuvre. At this point, I know exactly which ones of you are already googling 'Frank Harris', and which ones are doing an eyeroll. It gets better, or worse, depending on how you look at it. Harris announced that human beings spent a lot more time thinking and talking about sex – and actually doing it – than ever appeared in a memoir. He intended to remedy this situation by describing his sexual adventures right along with the other stuff. And he does.

It's boring. Aside from a few interesting historical titbits about clothing and a glimpse into seduction techniques of the 1870s, there's not a lot there. You do wonder how Harris got through Volume 1 without causing any pregnancies: his contraception information, gleaned from reading several medical books, was pretty dodgy. If the sex part entertains, enjoy. The ban was lifted in 1963.

What Harris seems not to have realised is that he led a truly interesting life, apart from the boring sex. At 14, he ran away from public school in England (he wasn't fond of the kind of sex going on there), and bought a steerage ticket to New York with his maths prize money. By the time he got to the big city (this was about 1869), he had another $20 from entertaining people, his berth had been upgraded to first class, and a rich American banker tried to adopt him. Harris, who was Irish, had an eidetic memory and a gift of gab. He was also very, very energetic about everything he did (not just sex).

In New York City, he picked up money shining shoes, worked on the pylons of the Brooklyn Bridge until he got the bends, and got another job offer in Chicago. So off to the Windy City, where he became night clerk in a hotel and reorganised that establishment. Six months later, he'd become a 'cow puncher' and was off on a cattle drive. He was still just 15 years old…

By the end of Volume 1, Frank Harris has been around the world and has studied in France. He has a university degree. He's been shot at by Mexicans and Native Americans. (He rode to fetch the cavalry.) He's met some interesting people.

What I got from reading Frank Harris' memoir, volume 1, was that Frank Harris had a great time. He was generous in sharing this glimpse of life back then, even if part of it definitely constitutes TMI1. But I don't think he appreciated what was valuable in his experiences. I wish I could tell him that.

Nobody cares about your sex life, sport. And nobody cares what you thought about Emerson's poetry. You have atrocious taste in art and literature. What people in the future want to know about is the vanished world you lived in. You really landed in New York and found an Irish couple in a shanty on the edge of Central Park, and they rented you a bed? That sort of knowledge is pure gold! You drove your cattle back to Chicago and the very next day, the Chicago Fire broke out? You were there, in the middle of it, driving the cows into the countryside to save them? How could you not realise that the future would know all it wanted to about sex, but be fascinated by buffalo herds?

Forest, trees. Noticing the wrong things. We all do it. But I'd recommend skipping the 'naughty bits' in My Life and Loves and concentrating on the adventures of Frank Harris, the Greek-quoting cowboy. Maybe you'll begin to realise what it is you really should be writing down for the world.

Deep Thought Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

12.04.21 Front Page

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1'Too Much Information'.

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