Review by Camille Paglia of The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein written by John Lauritsen
By Camille Paglia
Finally, I read a fabulous book last week -- John Lauritsen's "The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein," which will be published in May by the gay-themed Pagan Press, based in Dorchester, Mass. Lauritsen, who is known for his work in gay history and for his heterodox views of the AIDS epidemic, sent me an advance copy, which arrived as I was on my way to midterm exams. Its thesis is that the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and not his wife, the feminist idol, Mary Shelley, wrote "Frankenstein" and that the hidden theme of that book is male love.
As I sat there reading while proctoring exams, I tried unsuccessfully to stifle my chortles and guffaws of admiring laughter -- which were definitely distracting the students in the first rows. Lauritsen's book is important not only for its audacious theme but for the devastating portrait it draws of the insularity and turgidity of the current academy. As an independent scholar, Lauritsen is beholden to no one. As a consequence, he can fight openly with myopic professors and, without fear of retribution, condemn them for their inability to read and reason.
This book, which is a hybrid of mystery story, polemic and paean to poetic beauty, shows just how boring literary criticism has become over the past 40 years. I haven't been this exhilarated by a book about literature since I devoured Leslie Fiedler's iconoclastic essays in college back in the 1960s. All that crappy poststructuralism that poured out of universities for so long pretended to challenge power but was itself just the time-serving piety of a status-conscious new establishment. Lauritsen's book shows what true sedition and transgression are all about.
Lauritsen assembles an overwhelming case that Mary Shelley, as a badly educated teenager, could not possibly have written the soaring prose of "Frankenstein" (which has her husband's intensity of tone and headlong cadences all over it) and that the so-called manuscript in her hand is simply one example of the clerical work she did for many writers as a copyist. I was stunned to learn about the destruction of records undertaken by Mary for years after Percy's death in 1822 in a boating accident in Italy. Crucial pages covering the weeks when "Frankenstein" was composed were ripped out of a journal. And Percy Shelley's identity as the author seems to have been known in British literary circles, as illustrated by a Knights Quarterly review published in 1824 that Lauritsen reprints in the appendix.
The stupidity and invested self-interest of prominent literary scholars are lavishly on display here in exchanges reproduced from a Romanticism listserv or in dueling letters to the editor, which Lauritsen forcefully contradicts in acerbic footnotes. This is a funny, wonderful, revelatory book that I hope will inspire ambitious graduate students and young faculty to strike blows for truth in our mired profession, paralyzed by convention and fear.
About the writer
Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is "Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems."