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Frank Harris and Pornography

Ever since Frank Harris published the first volume of My Life and Loves in 1922, his name has been associated with pornography. That association has been exploited by various unscrupulous individuals, no doubt to some profit.

The Observations of an Old Man

I was prompted to write something about the subject of Harris and pornography when I recently acquired a rather curious item. It is a book, privately printed in Philadelphia in 1929 in a limited edition of 500, entitled Observations of an Old Man in Love, being an interlude in the Life and Loves of F. H.. The reader is clearly meant to conclude that this is a piece of writing by Frank Harris: that it is privately printed implies that it is smut, and so it is. (The musings of "F. H." are supplemented by an unrelated item called the Quimbo Lexicon which is a series of supposedly amusing definitions of made-up words all deriving from "Quimbo", slang for vagina).

Could the "Observations" be by Harris? Proof either way is impossible without hard evidence, but I am confident it is not. The style is not his - it is too terse - and there are some anomalies, the most significant of which is in a passage where "F. H" answers those who he says have asked why he did not become "a great novelist" and answers that he did not because he was in life "a great romancer" - by which he means "lover". Is it credible that the real Harris would have omitted to mention that he did in fact write several novels and many short stories? One suspects that the pretended Harris had only read the first two volumes of My Life and Loves, and not very carefully, at that. The same passage concludes that:

... you cannot be a great lover and hope to be able to immortalise the passions at the same time.

Frank Harris never wrote that sentence.

Perhaps less decisively, the language is freer than in My Life and Loves, with "fuck" and "cunt" used liberally. But the sentiments are too coarse and pedestrian to be convincingly Harrisian: "for a real whoring holiday give me a blonde".

So, why would someone try to pass this off as by Harris? The answer lies in the impact made by My Life and Loves, in particular the first volume, with its candid descriptions of sexual exploits and - in its first edition - illustrations of naked women.

The Erotica Market

The buyer of pornography, particularly in the repressed culture that still existed well into the twentieth century, liked to have his (invariably male) vanity flattered. He preferred to characterise his tastes as 'sophisticated' and 'adult'. To cater for his pretensions, pornographic books were marketed as 'artistic' - in fine bindings, printed on expensive paper in fancy typefaces, in limited editions. At the same time, the fact that many of these publications fell foul of the law added to their attraction, making their readers feel daring and piratical.

Frank Harris's autobiography was aimed square at this market, whatever his later protestations. His miscalculation was in assuming that he could publish it and retain what was left of his earlier reputation as a serious writer; his name was already tarnished in many circles, and few of his works were distinguished enough to live on their own merits. The outcome was that he gained a new notoriety, as a writer of explicit material, to the extent that he can be mistakenly credited even today with writing another monstrous landmark of erotica, My Secret Life.

My Life and Loves became much sought after by connoisseurs of erotica. It was the real thing, with graphical descriptions of sexual encounters: as we shall see, the masturbatory bookbuyers would often be disappointed in their purchases, but Frank Harris delivered the goods.

Those involved in the pornography market set about exploiting the Harris name as best they could: pirate editions of My Life and Loves appeared, as did bogus works such as the aforementioned Observations of an Old Man; some of Harris's own late works Confessional, Pantopia and The Tomcat were sold as if they were pornographic. With Harris's death, Samuel Roth's mendacious The Private Life of Frank Harris appeared in a further attempt to cash in on Harris's infamy.

Taking Advantage

Those who attempted to buy pornographic literature at this period were taking an additional risk beyond that of coming into conflict with the law: of being swindled by those who sold it. As today, those who were in the trade were rarely very scrupulous individuals, and they were happy to sell their wares by whatever means. A common practice was the hyping of relatively innocent material using words like 'candid' and 'unexpurgated' to suggest much stronger meat. As alluded to above, some of Harris's works were sold like this by the Panurge Press, who made a speciality of it to judge by their advertisements in my copy of Pantopia which include one for a book on chastity belts and those old favourites The Satyricon and The Heptameron. Haldeman-Julius also used the same trick for some of his Little Blue Books, as an article by Jessica Amanda Salmonson points out.

Publishers such as the Panurge Press took relatively little risk with the law; the authorities were unlikely to pay much attention to such mild fare as they produced. But while they left the appetites of their readers unfulfilled, there was room for those who were more willing to cross the line, which at the time was largely one of language. The popularity of the difficult and unreservedly literary Ulysses - which was infamously pirated by the shameless Samuel Roth - was surely due to the combination of its status as work of art with the presence of passages in which sexual activity is depicted using plain four-letter words.

In the Observations of an Old Man, its anonymous creator treated Harris's name as a quality mark of literary bawdiness, one which it was worth the trouble to forge. The dubious result was no doubt considered a great prize by many who bought it - not cheaply, I'm sure - a secret work by the great master of unchained language and thought, one which he is even more unbuttoned than in his autobiography, one in which he expresses the kind of smoking-room wisdom about sex that is beloved of men with too much whisky in them and too little brains.

Nobody wants to believe he has been suckered: I should know, I bought the damn thing, too.