Who Wrote the Book of Love?: A Chronicle of the Sexual Life of an American Boy in the 1950s

Who Wrote the Book of Love?: A Chronicle of the Sexual Life of an American Boy in the 1950s

by Lee Siegel


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Who Wrote the Book of Love? is acclaimed novelist Lee Siegel's comedic chronicle of the sexual life of an American boy in Southern California in the 1950s. Starting at the beginning of the decade, in the year that Stalin announced that the Soviet Union had developed an atomic bomb, the book opens with a child's first memory of himself. Closing at the end of the decade, when Pat Boone's guide to dating, 'Twixt Twelve and Twenty, topped the bestseller list, the book culminates just moments before the boy experiences for the first time what he had learned from a book read to him by his mother was called "coitus or sexual intercourse or sometimes, less formally, just making love." Between the initial overwhelmingly erotic recollection and the final climactic moment, all is sex—beguiling and intractable, naughty and sweet. Who Wrote the Book of Love? is about the subversive sexual imaginations of children. And, as such, it is about the origins of love.

Vignettes from the author's childhood provide the material for the construction of what is at once comic fiction, imaginative historical reportage, and an ironically nostalgic confession. The book evokes the tone and tempo of a decade during which America was blatantly happy, wholesome, and confident, and yet, at the same time, deeply fearful of communism and nuclear holocaust. Siegel recounts both the cheer and the paranoia of the period and the ways in which those sentiments informed wondering about sex and falling in love.

"Part of my plan," Mark Twain wrote in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, "has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked." With the same motive, Lee Siegel has written what Twain might have composed had he been Jewish, raised in Beverly Hills in the 1950s, and joyously obsessed with sex and love.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226757001
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/01/2005
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Lee Siegel is the author of numerous books, including Love in a Dead Language and Love and Other Games of Chance.

Read an Excerpt

Who Wrote the Book of Love?

Copyright © 2005
The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-75700-1

Chapter One Says to Love Her, You Love Her with All Your Heart


Part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

From the very beginning the child has a sexual life rich in content, though it differs in many points from that which later is regarded as normal. Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis


Premier Joseph Stalin announces that the Soviet Union has an atomic bomb, and President Harry Truman orders the United States Atomic Energy Commission to develop a hydrogen bomb; the Korean War begins, and Senator Joseph McCarthy discloses that he has a list of 205 Communists in the United States State Department; on national television, Bill Boyd stars as Hopalong Cassidy, "America's favorite cowboy," and Ethel Waters stars as Beulah, America's favorite Negro maid; Kraft Foods introduces the world's first commercially packaged individual cheese slices, and a plastic developed under military contract during World War II finds a market throughout the free world as Silly Putty; Walt Disney's Cinderella premieres in movie theaters, and Hank Ketcham's Dennis the Menace appears in newspaper comic strips; In the Beginning: A Children's Book about Grown-up Love, by Dr. Isaiah Miller, is banned in thirteen American states, and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer is still banned in all forty-eight; my father is hired as the medical director at Twentieth Century-Fox Studios, and my mother takes a break from her acting career to write a romance novel and give birth to my brother, Robert.

In the beginning sex created heaven and earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep. The spirit of sex swept over the waters. And then there was light.

I am four years old, maybe just five, and the light penetrates the snug passageway of draped blankets into a cozy cave behind the red velvet couch in the room where my mother is typing.

Reaching out for the bright beam, I am entranced by what seems to be the light touch of light on my palm. Slowly I close my fingers around the glow. As the fingertips of my other hand begin to move in a slow circle against the dark back of the soft sofa, a warmth radiates up my arms, through my shoulders and neck, and down into my chest and stomach. My face is flush.

Breathing deeply, slightly trembling, at once soothed and aching, I am a little afraid and yet very eager for more of the ineffable sensation. When I close my eyes, I can see myself. I say my name, hear it, and repeat it. Raising to my mouth the hand that holds the light, I feel my lips feeling my skin. I smell my fingers, and my tongue tastes the taste of my mouth. For the first time in my life, I am aware of my body as my body, and aware of that awareness as my awareness, feeling all parts of my body, inside and out, consolidated and structured into me, myself, and I, an animate form distinct from all other bodies and things. My body's pleasure is my pleasure, generating the idea of the first person singular as it predicates a range of future pleasures, desires, and secrets.

It's my first memory of myself. This is not to say that I do not have earlier recollections of other people, of my mother and father, an uncle, grandmother, neighbor, and strangers too, and of other things. There are memories of memories: a gray elephant small enough to fit into my hand; the smell, sound, and sight of the peeling bark of a eucalyptus tree in the backyard; the scent of leather seats in my father's new Cadillac; the feel of a blue paisley silk bathrobe; the taste of a piece of black licorice snatched from a cracked crystal bowl; showering rain on a green canvas awning; the squeak of wooden stairs in a dark stairwell; a ring of toadstools on the front lawn; white sheets on a clothesline ruffled by a warm breeze; the steady sway of the pendulum of an ornate antique clock high on the mantle and its sudden, delicate, and deliberate ding-ding-ding; and the tap-tap-tap of my mother's typewriter....

But this recollection of myself crouched down behind the sofa, stroking the velvet and holding sunlight in my hand, is my first memory of myself as me. And it is my first memory of what I would gradually come to anticipate, recognize, beckon, and welcome as sex. In the beginning was the flesh. And the flesh becomes words.

"Lee, darling," my mother would call out, "are you there?" I might then crawl from my makeshift cave to approach the desk at which she was typing. She'd be sure to kiss my cheek, stroke my hair, say something sweet, or smile to say the very least. She was writing a book. "A love story," she said, if I remember rightly.

There was an empty crib in the room, and my mother was pregnant. Once my brother was born, the room became his and, when it was refurnished as his nursery, the red velvet couch was moved into my room. It was on that divan that I learned about sex.

Sitting next to me there, my mother read from a book that was meant to ready me for the birth of a sibling by revealing what it was that my father had done so that my mother would become pregnant, not only with my brother, but with me as well. I learned that I would never have been born if my father had not used his reproductive system to put things called sperms into my mother's reproductive system, where a little egg lay in waiting for the boldest, swiftest, and strongest one among them. The fantastic procedure, what the book called "coitus or sexual intercourse or sometimes, less formally, just making love," amazed me from the very beginning.

Several years ago, while visiting my mother at the house that is the setting for this reminiscence, I happened to discover, in a dusty basement that in the 1950s was supposed to be a bomb shelter, the long lost book of love in a carton of old children's books that was stacked together with other storage boxes of a childhood's jetsam, all ready to be picked up by the Salvation Army.

I recognized it immediately. On the tattered cover, in bold print superimposed over a washed-out black-and-white photograph of a statue of Cupid and Psyche, is the title: In the Beginning: A Children's Book about Grown-up Love. And below the white marble adolescent lovers is the author's name: Dr. Isaiah Miller, MD.

Dr. Miller had inscribed the book for my parents: "For the beautiful Noreen and Doctor Lee, in hopes that Little Lee, in coming to understand the wonder that is sex, will better appreciate the miracle that is love. Your friend as always, Izzie, April 1, 1950." Published in a limited edition by the Livingstone Press with a note of acknowledgment "to Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, Alfred Kinsey, and Ernest Grafenberg, comrades in the battle against sexual ignorance, repression, and hypocrisy," the children's book had been censured by church leaders, ladies' groups, and Republicans.

Dr. Miller, my mother's obstetrician and gynecologist, would deliver my brother into the world in 1950, just as he had me in 1945. His book begins with a creation myth:

In the beginning there was a tiny cell called a sperm. One night he met another cell, known as an ovum. He entered into her and, all at once, they became one-a fertilized cell! The one divided into two, and they divided again, and again, and again, remaining one while continuing to divide, to become a little embryo who began to grow into a fetus. And that fetus became you! This book is about you. It is about where you came from, how you were made, and why you are here.

Like this book, In the Beginning has five chapters: What Is Love?; The Birds and the Bees, Elephants and Fleas; Snaps and Snails and Puppy-dogs' Tails; Sugar and Spice and All That's Nice; Love, Marriage, and the Baby Carriage. Chapter 1 responded to its titular question by trying to convince me that I already knew the answer:

Everybody knows what love is! It can describe how you feel about your puppy or a kitten if you have one, or even a favorite doll if you are a little girl. It's how you feel about your Mommy and Daddy, and how they feel about you. Religions teach us that God is love. We can love so many things! We are born from love, to love and be loved. Love makes the world go round, as the poets say, and it is love that makes life worth living. There's a special kind of love that you will feel when you grow up and become an adult. This kind of love makes two people want to get married, have a baby, and be together forever. When you feel this kind of love, you will want to engage in something known as coitus or sexual intercourse or sometimes, less formally, just making love. That's what you'll have to do in order to have a baby! But it's also what you'll want to do just to be close to the one you love. We'll be learning all about that in Chapter Five.

One down, four to go, and, although I could hardly wait to get there, I had to be patient because, in order to understand the fifth chapter, a child supposedly had to master the basic ideas and fundamental vocabulary presented in the sections preceding it.

Some of the things in chapter 2, "The Birds and the Bees, Elephants and Fleas," were interesting in an academic sort of way-like the fact that although opossums are pregnant for only a little more than a week, elephants remain so for almost two years. I also learned that "the male Bonellia sea worm is so little that he must crawl up inside of the female's reproductive system to fertilize her eggs."

Things picked up in the third chapter, "Snaps and Snails and Puppy-dogs' Tails" (interrogatively subtitled "What Are Little Boys Made Of?"). When it came to elucidating the penis, I thought that Dr. Miller had hit the nail on the head:

The penis is what some boys sometimes call their weenie or wiener, weewee, peepee, peanut, pecker, willie, dickie, peter, and many other pet names. It's what they use to go number one, what is technically known as urination. Usually the penis is lazy and lax, hanging down soft and limp. Sometimes, however, when a boy wakes up in the morning, he will discover that his penis has become hard and stiff like a finger, but much bigger. This is called an erection. Some boys sometimes call it a "boner." But, don't worry, there isn't any bone in it! We'll be learning all about why boys have erections in Chapter Five.

There was a schematic line drawing that was labeled "Map of the Passages and Places in the Male Reproductive System." I discovered that, by turning the book upside-down, I could change the indolently pendulous penis into the most exuberant of boners. Although the illustration located the testicles on either side of the penis, the text put them back in their proper place:

Hanging beneath the penis, boys have a small sac in which there are two little ball-shaped organs known as testes. When a boy is young and still growing, his testes are very sleepy and so don't want to do very much. But when he's about thirteen or fourteen, his testes will wake up, ready to do an important job. At this time, the boy will notice that hair has begun to grow on the pubic region. Since the testes will then remain awake even while the boy is sleeping, the boy may begin to find a strange substance on his pajamas or sheets in the morning. This substance is called a seminal emission. The boy should not be disturbed, afraid, or ashamed of this. No, he should be proud of it! It means that he is becoming a healthy and virile man, capable of sexual reproduction. Some boys, discovering that seminal emissions are accompanied by a feeling of pleasure, will begin to purposefully try to cause those emissions by manipulating the penis with their hands. This is called masturbation. Boys who feel the desire to masturbate should not be ashamed or feel guilty. It is a natural urge, another healthy sign that a boy is growing up.

It is surprising to me now, given passages like that one, counseling boys as it does to take their penises in their own hands and to take pride in wet dreams, that Dr. Miller's book was not banned in more than thirteen of the states of the puritanical America of 1950.

Although I was too young at the time to have seminal emissions to be proud of (no matter how much or what manner of manipulation I might have tried), I was at least able to take pride in something I learned from In the Beginning about my somnolent testes. They were made of tiny tubes, which, if unraveled and stretched out in a straight line, would, according to Dr. Miller, be over a third of a mile long. This meant, I reflected, that one of my testes could reach from my house all the way down Maple Drive to the house near the corner where, I had noticed during a walk with my mother, a girl about my own age lived.

I thought about her as my mother read chapter 4, "Sugar and Spice and All That's Nice (What Are Little Girls Made Of?)," to me:

Girls have something called a vagina. It is what some girls sometimes call their peepee, weewee, or private. Girls don't have as many names for their sex organ as boys seem to have for theirs. Maybe that's because boys like to talk about theirs more. Or maybe it's because, at first glance, it doesn't look like very much is there. But there is, in fact, a lot more to a girl's reproductive system than meets the eye. While technically the term vagina refers only to the birth canal, less formally the word is often used to refer to the female sexual apparatus as a whole.

It was natural for me to hear the homonym when my mother said "whole."

Finally we got to chapter 5. At last it was elucidated-"coitus or sexual intercourse or sometimes, less formally, just making love"-the whole shebang, the nitty-gritty, the when, where, how, and why of who puts what in what. I learned that "Mother Nature sends blood to the penis to make it big and strong not only when there is a desire to have a baby but also when two people just want to be close to each other and show how much they love one another in a special way."

My mother was eager to proceed to the explanation of what was going on in her "workshop," of how the tiny embryo that, as illustrated in the book, looked no different than the embryo of a fish, turtle, chick, rabbit, pig, or calf, had developed into a human being inside what the book called her uterus or womb. But, as far as I was concerned, the climax of the book had already come: "Mother and Father will lie close together, arms about each other, feeling pleasure and happiness, while the erect penis moves in and out of the vagina with rapid motions until sperm-bearing fluid comes out of it."

In the Beginning had been given to me for Chanukah along with another book, Shalom, Shalom: A Child's Guide to Jewish Life, from which my father, seated in his customary spot at the bar in our library, had read aloud to me. The olive, with its red pimento stuffing, in his martini reminded me of the drawing of the ovum with its nucleus in In the Beginning. "God," according to the Judaic primer, "commanded our forefathers not to eat certain foods. These include ham, bacon, and pork." And this same God, I learned, also had an interest in my penis: "God commanded our forefathers to remove the foreskin from the penis of a newborn child. This is called circumcision." My father proudly informed me that, because I had been circumcised, my penis would look just like his, and like that of his father, and his father's before him, all the way back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Having been circumcised, my penis would, furthermore, be easier to keep clean than a non-Jewish penis. The book on religion, however, never got around to the good stuff about penises-erections, seminal emissions, or how they move in and out of vaginas with rapid motions.

I recall several of the other gifts I received that Chanukah: an unbreakable plastic miniature replica of a US Army "Big Shot" M551 Howitzer from my uncle Joe, Eskimo mukluks from my grandmother in Wenatchee, and, from my mother, a model of Noah's ark with lots of little plastic animals, two of each kind (oddly, in retrospect, including two cows and two bulls). Neezer, the man who came three times a week to clean our house and wash my father's Cadillac, gave me a gift-wrapped yellow plastic egg containing a blob of Silly Putty. When my father explained that Neezer had referred to the gift as a "Christmas present" because he wasn't Jewish, it occurred to me that it was a good thing that Neezer, since he had a non-Jewish penis, was so good at cleaning.


Excerpted from Who Wrote the Book of Love? by Lee Siegel Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Chapter One Says to Love Her,
You Love Her with All Your Heart
1950 - 1951
Chapter Two: You Tell Her
You're Never, Never, Never, Never, Never Gonna Part
1952 - 1953
In Chapter Three, Remember The Meaning of Romance
1954 - 1955
In Chapter Four, You Break Up,
But You Give Her Just One More Chance
1956 - 1957
By Chapter Five, She Loves You,
And All Your Dreams Come True
1958 - 1959

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