After so much work and so much effort, it’s hard to believe that I am closing in on the end of my new book. As I come to the end, though, I have a few areas where I have to come to some decisions about how to present contradictory information. One particular question that keeps coming up revolves around the role that books played in James Dean’s life. I’ve mentioned this before, but the insistence in the literature that he didn’t actually read books sticks in my craw. I’m not sure why. It doesn’t really make a lot of difference, but the insistence against what seems to me to be plain fact bothers me. Since I can’t reconcile quite clearly opposed testimonials, I had to decide which to throw out.
Having now read just about all of the books ever written about Dean (excepting the weird 700-page fabricated sexual exposé), it is painfully evident that they all recycle the same handful of recollections, sometimes in startlingly similar language. I’m at the point where, reading a book, I can correctly predict the sources listed in the end notes from the authors’ poor paraphrasing. I look forward to forgetting enough of that bibliographic detail when this is over.
But anyway, the point is that all of the claims trace back, basically, to one guy. Back around 1953 or 1954—the exact date isn’t known—the composer Leonard Rosenman started reading Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, a longwinded meditation on Abraham’s thwarted sacrifice of Isaac. Dean had glommed on to Rosenman, seeing him as a guide toward avant-garde intellectual sophistication. So, he picked up Fear and Trembling, too, and struggled with its arguments. Rosenman described it this way to Rolling Stone cofounder David Dalton in 1974:
One night Jimmy was at my house reading Kierkegaard's gloomy Fear and Trembling. I noticed that after about five minutes he was still on the first page, painfully following every word with his finger and forming the words unconsciously with his lips. When I suggested that he might try a little lighter introduction to the subject, he slammed the book shut and stormed out in a rage.
This statement can’t literally be true, since the first page of Fear and Trembling is a fairly simple retelling of the Abraham and Isaac story. Nor could he be reading a book that he hadn’t actually started. Rosenman must have meant that he was still on the same page where he had picked up that night.
Nevertheless, Dalton took from this that Dean “rarely” read a book and that he saw them as “talismans” meant to call forth the spirit of his dead mother. Dalton was into occult-like Freudian nonsense, and we can dispense with this speculation.
When Rosenman told the same story to the gossip columnist Joe Hyams, he was only slightly more generous: “I am certain he never read it all the way through, but he had read enough to quote from certain sections, which gave the illusion that he had read it,” Rosenman concluded.
And thus began the legend.
It’s easy enough to trace the permutations across time. Dean’s college teacher spoke in 1974 of how she had asked him to read Hamlet and thought his reading perfect. Ten years later, after reading the other accounts, she amended her memory to claim that he couldn’t understand a word of Hamlet until she explained it line by line, and despite previously praising his dramatic reading of various short stories, she now alleged that he could barely read! Now, even if the Shakespeare claim were true, I’m not sure how much weight that ought to carry. I was a National Merit Scholar, and when I was young Shakespeare meant about nothing to me, not being fluent in Renaissance English in those days.
Each new biography made the allegation more extreme. In the 1980s, there were claims that he had a reading disability and could not actually read well. By the time of Donald Spoto’s 1995 biography, the claim had grown from Dean not finishing Fear and Trembling to the allegation that he had never read more than a couple of pages of any book. A 2005 title calls Dean a “dilettante” who only pretended to read. A more recent book assumes he carried books about in a nefarious attempt at imposture. Dean’s best friend and lover, William Bast, wrote in his 2006 memoir that Dean was “not much of a reader,” even though Bast had spent his own book writing of how their time together was literally spent reading their favorite books out loud to one another.
There was some truth to the claim, but not that much. Everyone who knew Dean as a teenager remembered him reading something or another, and his relatives told of a giant box of books he found and systematically worked through. His first live-in male lover recalled being unable to keep up with the number of books that Dean read the summer they lived together and which they discussed. The crew of his first Broadway play were amazed that he had memorized the entire script before the first rehearsal. Like most busy adults, though, he had less time for reading as he got older and almost certainly owned and skimmed many more books than he ever actually read. Dean preferred to read briefer works—poems, short stories, and essays—though he liked being seen with big heavy books on cosmology, philosophy, and history. He also spent a lot of time alone, which is presumably the time when he would have read, out of sight. Nevertheless, he gave a book report about a volume on Aztec history to a radio reporter which makes plain that he had, indeed, actually read it. Several of his friends recalled with bafflement several lines and allusions that they did not understand but which are direct quotations or close paraphrases of various books and stories. He spoke to Dennis Hopper about an obscure Mark Twain story that Hopper clearly did not understand but which Dean had referenced correctly in context. Bast recorded (with photographic evidence) Dean giving him a book of French literature, in which he highlighted a story he considered very important to him and asked Bast to read. As best I can tell from the literature, I am the first writer in seven decades, Bast included, to have bothered to read it. (One still-living modern writer, who did not read it, called Dean quoting from it “pathetic.” I won’t say more because we share a literary agent.) Since Dean’s friends didn’t understand the references, they weren’t interpolating.
So why did Rosenman’s view carry so much weight? I imagine it’s because he won Oscars and Emmys and gathered a reputation, in Hyams’s words, as a “true intellectual.” As he scored movies like Star Trek IV and Robocop 2, he gave pompous interviews about how tortured he was over selling out his avant-garde modernism to Hollywood. And it seems that he somewhat resented that he owed his Hollywood career to Dean, who got him his first movie jobs scoring East of Eden and Rebel without a Cause, and whom he considered an intellectual inferior. (To be fair, I know little about Rosenman in other contexts.) He spent the half-century after that none-too-subtly mocking Dean’s efforts to learn things, having two full years more college education than him. Dean wasn’t very good at picking friends.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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