/ Cory Doctorow / 4 am Tue, Jan 24 2017
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  • The Abominable Mr Seabrook: a sympathetic biography of an unsympathetic, forgotten literary legend

    The Abominable Mr Seabrook: a sympathetic biography of an unsympathetic, forgotten literary legend

    William Seabrook was once one of America's foremost literary stars; now he is all but forgotten. Seabrook travelled the world, writing a series of (decreasingly sympathetic) accounts of indigenous people and their culture, outselling the literary giants he kept company with, and who pretended not to mind the women he paid to let him tie them up and keep around his home. In The Abominable Mr. Seabrook, graphic novelist Joe Ollman presents an unflinching look at Seabrook, his literary accomplishments and failures, his terrible self-destructiveness, and the awful spiral that took him from the heights of American letters to an ignominious suicide after his discharge from a psychiatric facility.

    After a series of youthful misadventures -- plum newspaper jobs that he managed to screw up over and over again, a failed marriage, a stint in the French Army in WWI and a gas attack that damaged his lungs -- Seabrook made his name by travelling to Arabia and living among Bedoin and Yadizi tribespeople, penning a bestselling and critically acclaimed account of his life among them, a book that is considered to be a very sensitive and respectful account of people whose reality was largely unknown in the west.

    Vaulted to stardom, Seabrook next voyaged to Haiti with the intention of writing about voodoo. After a long and dedicated process, he befriended voodoo practicioners and returned to America with a book that contained religious secrets that no one else had ever published on. But Seabrook's resolve not to exploit his subjects weakened when publishers offered large sums for permission to sensationalize his adventures. Seabrook's Haiti book introduced the word "zombie" to the world, and also marked a turning point in his professional life, which began to resemble the shambles that was his personal life.

    Seabrook was an alcoholic and a BDSM fetishist who wouldn't admit to either. Money and fame made it possible for him to indulge his obsessions beyond any kind of healthy limits, to his own detriment, the detriment of his wives, the sex workers he hired, and the books he wrote.

    Seabrook next travelled to Africa, determined to live among cannibals, but couldn't manage the charm and sensitivity that had won him access to the intimate lives of his subjects in Arabia and Haiti. On returning to France to write his Africa book, Seabrook foundered and drank, and committed the grave literary sin of falsifying the record, claiming to have eaten human flesh in Africa, though he knew that what he'd eaten was a butchered ape, passed off as human flesh. In a grim nod to verisimilitude, Seabrook obtained some human flesh from a French morgue and sampled it.

    Seabrook's literary circles ranged wide, from Aleister Crowley to Gertrude Stein and Aldous Huxley. His life took many odd turns -- a period as a respectable suburban gardener in the Hudson Valley; a period of involuntary confinement in a mental institution (the experience of which provided material for one of his best books); a terrible book on "witchcraft" that he "researched" by paying sex workers to let him tie them up naked and humilate them, and so on.

    Ollman's biography of Seabrook is sympathetic without ever being forgiving. We get a picture of Seabrook as a colossal asshole, and none of his sins or addictions are romanticized; but Ollman also presents Seabrook's unquestionable genius alongside of this flawed and broken person. Biographers often take sides in their subject's lives -- siding with the people whom we all inevitably wrong in our lives, or siding with the person doing the wronging. But if Ollman sides with anyone, it's Seabrook's work, focusing on the way that Seabrook sabotaged his most visible redeeming quality -- his literary genius -- with his selfish and self-destructive habits.

    The Abominable Mr. Seabrook [Joe Ollman/Drawn + Quarterly]

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