Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 377
H. L. Mencken described Frank Harris as “happily free from the vanity of modesty.” Few who knew Harris would dispute that claim, and just as few who have read his controversial autobiography would attest to its factual accuracy. Harris spent much of his life constructing a persona. Although his birth date is variously recorded as 1854 and 1856, some scholars think he was born in 1855. It has been established convincingly that he was born in Galway, Ireland, although he at times claimed Tenby, Wales, as his birth place.
Educated at the University of Kansas, Harris spent a decade and a half as an editor—of the Evening News (1882-1886), Fortnightly Review (1886-1894), and Saturday Review (1894-1896). His writing career began in 1894 with the collection of Elder Conklin, and Other Stories. He also published five volumes of short stories, one play, four novels, three collections of essays, two volumes of literary criticism, a multi-volume autobiography as well as a fictionalized autobiography, and several biographical works, including the four-volume collection Contemporary Portraits (1915-1930).
Both as editor and author, Harris faced censorship throughout his life. He was a political activist who supported Oscar Wilde during the latter’s trial on sodomy charges. He also wrote The Bomb (1908), a muckraking novel about the Haymarket Riots of 1886, and he came to the defense of anarchist Emma Goldman, whose trial he attended during the Red Scare of 1917. Harris was quick to take unpopular stands and did so with a vigor and single-mindedness that generally alienated rather than persuaded people.
Harris’ best-known work is his notorious five-volume autobiography, My Life and Loves (1922-1926, 1958), which recounts his sexual exploits in such vivid detail that this sprawling work is still often classified as borderline pornography. Unable to find a publisher in England or the United States, Harris had the book printed in Germany and distributed early copies himself from his home in England.
Censors in England and the United States immediately seized the first volume of this book, which was already being pirated in foreign countries. Subsequent volumes suffered a similar fate, as the book was banned in the United States and Britain. In 1925, Harris’ New York agent was tried and sent to the workhouse for importing a volume of My Life and Loves into the United States.