The Balboan View

Kenneth Silverman

  • Alfred Kinsey: A Public/Private Life by James Jones
    Norton, 937 pp, £28.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 393 04086 0

The history of publishing records no unlikelier-looking candidate for bestsellerdom. Written by a professor of zoology at the University of Indiana, it appeared in 1948 under the imprint of a medical textbook house, the W.B. Saunders Company of Philadelphia. Weighing three pounds, its 804 pages confronted readers with 162 tables and 173 graphs. Yet it flooded out in a first printing of 100,000 copies, excited more than five hundred articles and reviews, and was declared by Time magazine to be the greatest bookselling event since Gone with the Wind.

The killer title was Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male, better known as the ‘Kinsey Report’. Its author, as portrayed in James Jones’s exasperating biography, was no less of a paradox than his book. On this side, the public figure – a sober scientist with an original, careful methodology; over there, the man: a switch-hitting exhibitionist, voyeur and sadomasochist.

The scientist’s life story is one of unbroken commitment and self-transcendence. Born in 1894, Kinsey spent the first ten years of his life in Hoboken, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York City – a drab working-class satellite of the metropolis, redeemed if at all as the birth-place of its other famous son, Frank Sinatra. Kinsey’s family were devoutly Methodist, his father an organiser of the Inter-Church Civic League, an organisation formed to monitor the closing time of saloons. No swearing, drinking, dancing or masturbation. A loner, young Alfred found some relief in piano lessons and the Boy Scouts. Here, as everywhere, he drove himself hard. He became skilled enough at the keyboard to consider a concert career, and rose to the rarely achieved grade of Eagle Scout.

Kinsey’s father wanted him to become a mechanical engineer, but after two years at a local technological school, Alfred resolved to transfer to Bowdoin College, a small liberal arts school in Maine. His father refused to finance an education of that sort, leaving him to pay for it on his own. Alfred also supported himself during graduate study at the Harvard School of Applied Biology, where he collected his first specimens of gall wasps – the insects whose classification occupied the next twenty years of his life. Taxonomy he viewed as akin to exploration. Discovering an undescribed insect, he said: ‘You might properly become as excited as though you were Columbus finding a new continent, or Balboa discovering the Pacific Ocean.’

Kinsey’s doctor’s degree and superlative field work earned him an assistant professorship at Indiana University, in agricultural Bloomington. He married one of the students, a boyish-looking girl named Clara McMillen. ‘Mac’ and ‘Prok’, as they called each other (‘Prok’ for Prof. K.), shared a love of the outdoors and of classical music. They had musical evenings at their house – cheerless events, it turned out, rather like exams. ‘Prok’ forced his guests to listen, one of them complained, ‘in complete silence and reverently stiff attention’. Not only guests: impatient with teaching Midwestern farm boys and girls, Kinsey impressed students and colleagues, too, as perfectionist and controlling.

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