(1856-1931) was an Englishman
who moved to the United States
in the 19th century
, as a young man. He is known for a book, My Life and Loves
, an autobiography
of his first four decades in the U.S.
The book has two particular charms. One is that Harris worked at a number of unorthodox trades, and so is able to describe the details of several walks of American life in the second half of the 19th century. He worked, for instance, as a “sand hog” deep underwater during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, and as a cowboy in the West. I’ve heard Harris described as a shameless self-promoter, and perhaps he was, but you have the feeling you are reading about the real life of real people in his descriptions. I think material of this kind is worth looking at, lest we forget how different life was not long ago.
The other charm of Harris’ book is his straightforward description of his seductions of women. It is here that I see quite a bit of self-promotion, but if you can overlook that, it’s really rather interesting. Harris went to the trouble to read medical books to find out how sex really works, mechanically speaking - I don’t suppose that was nearly as easy in his day as it has become - and tried to comport himself in such a way as increase the pleasure of his ladyfriends and reduce their hardships. For instance, he learned to carry around a little douche which he used for birth control (no longer recommended!), somewhat to the astonishment of many of the women he slept with. Titillation is certainly part of the pleasure of reading this book, but I rather think that details of the sexual sort are of historical interest, too.
You can understand that the second of these two topics made My Life and Loves quite notorious for many decades - it was widely banned in its own day. I have posted a short quotation at puritanism. There are four further volumes, but volume 1 is the only one of great merit.
I’m reassured to see that Harris, writing of events more than 100 years before ours, uses obscene language much like our own - perhaps some things don’t really change all that much.
He gives one very interesting piece of advice to the reader. He says he is often asked by men how to be a successful seducer of women. You must try, he says, unceasingly, and never be put off by rejection. He himself estimates one success for every hundred attempts, and even the unsuccessful attempts rarely brought him any trouble. Now, no doubt that is true of sex. But it is also good advice for endeavors in general.