The Abominable Mr Seabrook
Drawn & Quarterly, 2017, pg 296
Passion projects don’t always succeed. They can bog down in details that are only interesting to the idiosyncrasies of the author. Fortunately, Joe Ollmann’s The Abominable Mr Seabrook is the opposite: a well written and sensitive exploration of a forgotten writer from the 1920’s and 30’s.
William Seabrook was a travel writer, adventure journalist, and a best selling author during the 20’s. He was also a self destructive man who drank too much, was in and out of asylums, and ultimately committed suicide. The Abominable is at times a sad story, but it is an endlessly fascinating one, too. Seabrook’s adventures were impressive. He showed Crusoe around Atlanta. He was an ambulance driver during WWI. He lived with the Bedouins for a couple years, which he wrote about in his book Adventures in Arabia (27). He went to Haiti and studied the rites of Voodoo, the Magic Island (29). It was the book that introduced zombie to Americans. He traveled through West Africa and supposedly ate with the cannibals. Jungle Ways (30).
While those feats might be interesting on themselves, what makes Seabrook interesting is his chaotic life. He was friends with many of the writers and artists of the Lost Generation: Gertrude Stien, the Manns, Man Ray. He was famous and moved amongst some of the famous people of the 20’s and 30’s. Seabrook both enjoyed the fame and let it ruin him. He was constantly at parties and was a raging alcoholic. On top of all this, Seabrook was a sexual sadist. He derived pleasure from tying women up and though he was married several times, he never gave up his practices. At one point he and Man Ray worked on a project about bondage together.
Ollmann weaves all these threads together with skill and sympathy. While the entry point to Seabrook might be his adventures, its the exploration of his personal life that really makes the story stand out. This is where Ollmann’s extensive research and affection for his subject comes through. While this is not a scholarly biography. Ollmann is clear on his sources and as he narrates Seabrook’s life, he is also narrating the construction of a biography, showing us how each source viewed Seabrooks descent into alcoholism. Ollmann isn’t afraid to call out some of Seabrook’s lies of omission. Seabrook was a complex man and Ollmann shows him as such. It is what makes The Abominable Mr Seabrook such a good book.
My favorite part of the book, the one that shows Ollmann’s dedication to his subject, is at the end. It’s a two page spread. On one side is a photo of a stack of Seabrook’s books that Ollmann has bought over the years. The other is a little one to two sentence description of each. It captures the beauty of a well written passion project and celebrates the world of books. It’s also a bibliophile’s book: Ollmann mentions he has “spent thousands on out of print books and magazines.” A good book indeed.