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‘Totempole’ by Sanford Friedman

‘Totempole’ by Sanford Friedman

Author: Steven Cordova

December 7, 2014

Everything seems to be coming up Sanford Friedman this year. Hot off the press from New York Review Books are a reprint of Friedman’s 1961 bildungsroman, Totempole, and a first-time-ever posthumous printing of Friedman’s Conversations with Beethoven. Totempole comes complete with an afterword by novelist Peter Cameron, while Conversations is introduced by poet and translator Richard Howard (Pulitzer Prize-winning Howard was Friedman’s lover for 19 years). Events centered around Totempole and Conversations followed at Barnes & Noble in New York City, where the panel consisted of Howard and New Yorker editor Leo Carey, and at BGSQD, where Cameron and novelist/memoirist Benjamin Taylor took the hot seats.

Does Totempole live up to the expectation the hype has created? The answer, happily, is yes!—a qualified yes, but a yes all the same.

Our hero in the case of this “lost novel” is Stephen Wolfe, whom we follow from his queer and Jewish boyhood in and around New York City, to his queer young adulthood as an acting student in college, and, in the final section, to his life as a soldier who has an affair with a Korean prisoner of war. It is in Korea where, conflicted queer or not, Stephen achieves full-fledged heroic manhood. Indeed, Stephen is a hero in the all-around sense of the word. He comes to accept himself and he steers himself, morally and with great intelligence, to an un-tragic end. For these qualities alone, he will appeal to contemporary gay readers who, for better or worse, seek out role models in literature.

Also on the yes side is the quality of the writing in Totempole, the clever and inventive way in which the novel is structured, and the narrator’s many psychological insights.


The quality of the language and the psychological insights: Friedman started out as a playwright and theater producer, so much of Totempole is told through dialogue, for which Friedman clearly had an acute ear. The long passages of dialogue in the first section of Totempole, “Horsie,” could easily be adapted for the stage or screen. The action, the setting, and the subject matter, all contain many of the hallmarks of American theater from the period: a small squabbling cast of characters semi-imprisoned in a hothouse setting—in this case, Stephen’s unhappily married middle-class mother and father, and Stephen’s older brother Rogie, all of whom are on vacation with Stephen at a beach house during the Depression.

Skip ahead for a moment to the third section, “Salamander,” in which we find Stephen and family, still feuding, and back in their New York City apartment. Here Friedman conveys the dialect of the Wolfe family’s black maid, Clarry, with great respect and authenticity.

“Know why we have them awful dreams at night, sugar?”

“Why, Clarry?”

“So’s we learn to appreciate the daytime more …”

(The relationship between Stephen and Clarry has a contemporary parallel in Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s musical Caroline, or Change.)

As for the quality of the non-dialogue-driven prose in Totempole, there is this passage in which Stephen and Rogie are on a train bound for camp.

For the first time in his life Stephen realized how much he really loved his brother. After all, who else could he turn to, now that Clarry and Mommy were gone? Who else did he know in this black and endless tunnel? Roger, too, felt an intimation of the same sentiment. Daddy was gone, and with him all the recourse to higher authority. Roger himself had become the higher authority now, and this new status brought with it not only an increase in power but also a sense of protectiveness and compassion.

At times the language in Totempole, with phrases like “I’ll have to give you a licking,” can be a bit quaint, making it important to remember the time period in which the novel was written. And the quaintness is cut elsewhere by obscenity and by the frank discussions of sex (more on the sex later).

The title and the clever structure: A totem pole is a structure consisting of animals carved into wood one atop the other—thus the titles of each of Totempoles’s long sections—each of which is named after an animal or, in the case of “Ocean,” an element in nature. That this is the source of Totempole’s title and structure is made clear in “Loons,” a section in which Stephen goes off to camp and falls in love with a camp leader named Uncle Hank, whom he helps to build a totem pole. The table of contents doesn’t read in exactly the same order as the animals carved into Stephen and Uncle Hank’s totem pole. And, as mentioned above, we have the pesky “Ocean,” which isn’t an animal at all.

But you get the idea: The structure of the novel is loosely based on the structure of a totem pole and, very importantly, it’s a structure that evokes the literary device of arcadia, a pastoral setting often used in gay literature to invoke the idea of an idyllic place where men coexist, sexually, lovingly, in the absence of women. At camp, for instance, Stephen can be alone with hunky Uncle Hank. Later in the all-male military setting, though it is not pastoral, Stephen has a love affair.  Thus the novel is bookended by the idea of arcadia, and that perhaps is why Friedman makes one word of “totem pole” in the title of the novel

The structure of Totempole also cleverly echoes the structure of a bildungsroman, a novel in which the central character learns one thing after another, incrementally. In “Ocean,” for instance, Stephen spends a lot of time at the ocean, learning what he can from the flotsam. Later, in “Loon,” when Stephen is off at camp, he muses on the differences between the sea and a pond.

In the ocean you were just a piece of driftwood carried on the crest of every swell, crushed beneath the weight of every wave. No matter how you strove against the tide, no mater how you kicked, the ocean always overwhelmed you …. But in this pond, you became the ocean; it was you who had the power and control and the pond had to submit.


The sex and sexuality: Totempole’s frank dealings with sex are not only notable but distinguish it from more well-known early gay novels like The City and the Pillar (1948) and Giovanni’s Room (1956). They also put Totempole more in line with Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story (1982). Here are some examples: Little Stephen is fascinated by his father’s naked body; pubescent Stephen struggles to learn about masturbation and eventually jerks off while calling up the mental image of his father’s body; college-age Stephen is seduced by his thespian roommate and gets crabs. But it is the last section of Totempole, “Rats,” in which Stephen learns about anal sex, that raised the biggest red flags. Lippincott & Co., in fact, asked Friedman to make changes to “Rats.” Friedman refused and, thankfully, we are left with this section intact.

But it is in the sexually loaded “Rats” that Friedman makes some missteps. While volunteering to teach prisoners of war English, Stephen has a love affair with Sun Bo. It is Sun Bo’s Zen-like acceptance of his own sexual variation (bisexuality) that allows Stephen to get past his own internalized homophobia. And it is Sun Bo’s love and lovemaking that gets Stephen past the shame he has always felt about his body. But while Stephen’s transformation is made clear by the action and dialogue, Friedman makes the somewhat sentimental misstep of spelling it out for us in the narration:

Despite his will to disembodiment, despite his history of self-estrangement, self-denial, self abuse, Stephen’s body understood what had happened in relation to Sun Bo, and through that understanding had emerged from its spectrality.

It’s a little corny, a little neat—ah, if only all our emotional problems were solved so easily, so magically, overnight!—and, worst of all, it recalls the language of a session with your therapist. It’s a good example of what we get when a literary author strives to provide us with a hero or role model. The misstep is repeated multiple times in “Rats.”

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the beauty and the historical significance of the remainder of Totempole stand as tall as its historical namesake. How appropriate, then, and long overdue, that everything is coming up Sanford Friedman this year.


By Sanford Friedman
NYRB Classics
Paperback, 9781590177617, 432 pp.
September 2014

Steven Cordova photo

About: Steven Cordova

Steven Cordova is the 2012 first-place winner of the International Reginald Shepherd Memorial Poetry Prize. His first full-length poetry collection, Long Distance, appeared in 2010 from Bilingual University Press. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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