The Fan Who Knew Too Much: Aretha Franklin, the Rise of the Soap Opera, Children of the Gospel Church, and Other Meditations (Hardcover)
A dazzling exploration of American culture—from high pop to highbrow—by acclaimed music authority, cultural historian, and biographer Anthony Heilbut, author of the now classic The Gospel Sound (“Definitive” —Rolling Stone), Exiled in Paradise, and Thomas Mann (“Electric”—Harold Brodkey).
In The Fan Who Knew Too Much, Heilbut writes about art and obsession, from country blues singers and male sopranos to European intellectuals and the originators of radio soap opera—figures transfixed and transformed who helped to change the American cultural landscape.
Heilbut writes about Aretha Franklin, the longest-lasting female star of our time, who changed performing for women of all races. He writes about Aretha’s evolution as a singer and performer (she came out of the tradition of Mahalia Jackson); before Aretha, there were only two blues-singing gospel women—Dinah Washington, who told it like it was, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who specialized, like Aretha, in ambivalence, erotic gospel, and holy blues.
We see the influence of Aretha’s father, C. L. Franklin, famous pastor of Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church. Franklin’s albums preached a theology of liberation and racial pride that sold millions and helped prepare the way for Martin Luther King Jr. Reverend Franklin was considered royalty and, Heilbut writes, it was inevitable that his daughter would become the Queen of Soul.
In “The Children and Their Secret Closet,” Heilbut writes about gays in the Pentecostal church, the black church’s rock and shield for more than a hundred years, its true heroes, and among its most faithful members and vivid celebrants. And he explores, as well, the influential role of gays in the white Pentecostal church.
In “Somebody Else’s Paradise,” Heilbut writes about the German exiles who fled Hitler—Einstein, Hannah Arendt, Marlene Dietrich, and others—and their long reach into the world of American science, art, politics, and literature. He contemplates the continued relevance of the émigré Joseph Roth, a Galician Jew, who died an impoverished alcoholic and is now considered the peer of Kafka and Thomas Mann.
And in “Brave Tomorrows for Bachelor’s Children,” Heilbut explores the evolution of the soap opera. He writes about the form itself and how it catered to social outcasts and have-nots; the writers insisting its values were traditional, conservative; their critics seeing soap operas as the secret saboteurs of traditional marriage—the women as castrating wives; their husbands as emasculated men. Heilbut writes that soaps went beyond melodrama, deep into the perverse and the surreal, domesticating Freud and making sibling rivalry, transference, and Oedipal and Electra complexes the stuff of daily life.
And he writes of the “daytime serial’s unwed mother,” Irna Phillips, a Chicago wannabe actress (a Margaret Hamilton of the shtetl) who created radio’s most seminal soap operas—Today’s Children, The Road of Life among them—and for television, As the World Turns, Guiding Light, etc., and who became known as the “queen of the soaps.” Hers, Heilbut writes, was the proud perspective of someone who didn’t fit anywhere, the stray no one loved.
The Fan Who Knew Too Much is a revelatory look at some of our American icons and iconic institutions, high, low, and exalted.
About the Author
Anthony Heilbut received his Ph.D. in English from Harvard University. He has taught at New York University and Hunter College and is the author of Exiled in Paradise, The Gospel Sound, and Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature. Heilbut is also a record producer specializing in gospel music and has won both a Grammy Award and a Grand Prix du Disque.
Praise for The Fan Who Knew Too Much: Aretha Franklin, the Rise of the Soap Opera, Children of the Gospel Church, and Other Meditations…
“Dazzling . . . Can a real fan actually know too much? The fulsomeness and jesuitical detail of Heilbut's essays argue no, and his arguments frequently spin off in serendipitous digressions, down whatever path it seems his enthusiasms lead.”
—Eric Banks, The Chicago Tribune
“Leapt off my desk and refused to be put down . . . Everything I know about gospel music I’ve learned from Anthony Heilbut’s compilations and writings; thanks to his crazy compendium The Fan Who Knew Too Much, he has now, also, taught me everything I know about radio soap operas, Aretha Franklin, and homosexuality in the black church.”
—Lorin Stein, Yahoo! News
"What Do You Give a Book Lover"
“Gloriously detailed . . . absorbing . . . Heilbut’s fandom and sharp critical eye allow for an enthusiastic but well-balanced analysis . . . searing and valid.”
“Profiles with verve and opinionated flamboyance gospel and blues vocalists, European writers and intellectuals, radio soap opera actors and network moguls . . . powerful . . . stunning . . . a delight.”
—Ron Wynn, ArtsNash
“Sprawling and juicy; as gossipy and anecdotal as it is academic.”
“Goes where most are wary to tread . . . a masterful piece of writing, ranking among the author’s best work . . . revelatory and stirring.”
—Bob Marovich, The Black Gospel Blog
“Meditates evocatively on the place and plight of “the children” . . . Heilbut draws on a repertoire of vividly emblematic anecdotes, personal histories, and first-hand experiences that bear a deeply felt witness. . . by turns tragic, bawdy, transporting, and balefully beautiful . . . a dishy yet devotional guide to gay sense and sensibility that defined black gospel.”
—The Gay and Lesbian Review
“Fascinating . . . Heilbut knows his stuff [and] argues persuasively.”
—Greg Kot, The Chicago Tribune
“A must-read . . . weighty . . . a book of revelations, and an essential document of our times.”
“That all-too-rare thing: music writing that lays claim to the larger world.”
—R.J. Smith, NPR
“Holds nothing back . . . has up-to-the-minute implications beyond the pulpit . . . as Heilbut pivots from the historic music of the black church to its current politics, his point becomes clearer, and more forceful by the word . . . a must-read . . . intimate and informed.”
“There aren’t many fans like Heilbut, with his cataloguing ardor, his teeming frame of reference and his thirst for experience. . . . The people who fascinate him are the ones who walk the same tightrope he did, between old and new.”
—Louis Bayard, The Washington Post
“Anthony Heilbut has been a guide and a mentor to me. I know of no one who has the love and depth of knowledge of this extraordinary author.”
“Elegant . . . Heilbut's generous book demonstrates that no fan can know too much, or love too much.”
“Soul-searching . . . The 165-page centerpiece on [Aretha] Franklin is the most incisive and illuminating portrait yet drawn . . . about the wellsprings and inspirations of an American original.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“A fine collection . . . arguably, the highlight of Heilbut’s writing career . . . heartbreaking and angry . . . never afraid to express an opinion—loudly.”
—Michael Schaub, NPR
“Rousing and impassioned . . . likely to spark debate on both sides of the church door.”
—The Boston Globe
“[Heilbut’s] enthusiasms span a wide range . . . a glorious retelling of Aretha Franklin’s story . . . is worth the price of the book.”
—W. Kim Heron, Detroit Metro Times
“A brilliant, one-of-a-kind and immensely challenging book by a brilliant, one-of-a-kind, immensely challenging American writer . . . profound, personal and candid.”
—The Buffalo News
“Feels like a late Beethoven string quartet, drawing on a rich career’s obsessions and paying tribute to sources of inspiration.”
—The Daily Beast
“Fascinating, revelatory . . . [a] breathtaking trip through American culture . . . moves seamlessly (and stylishly) from music to literature and other historical reflections on popular culture.”
“The timing of Mr. Heilbut’s book, and the intensity of his argument, has thrust it from the dusty corners of arts criticism into the heat and light of the political arena in a presidential election year.”
—Samuel G. Freedman, The New York Times
“Blends biography with criticism and anecdotes to create marvelously zesty, erotically frank, assumption-blasting essays. . . . This vigorous collection . . . takes us on a guided tour unlike any other through the spirals of the psyche and the mazes of social and cultural convention and dissent.”
“Full of contagious enthusiasm, razor-sharp wit, and stunning insights . . . his musings on Aretha Franklin alone are worth the price of the book . . . The sensations of spending a few moments in Heilbut's company provide great bliss indeed.”
“Detailed, freewheeling and very personal cultural essays from an admitted obsessive and an amiable and intelligent rambler . . . A cook’s tour through the passions of an expert whose style is as eclectic as his subject matter.”
“Take in his witty, passionate prose, his uncanny blend of scholarship and reportage, his analytic brilliance and his joie de vivre. You will be stirred and delighted.”
—Margo Jefferson, author of On Michael Jackson
“Nothing new in the last year gave me as much pure reading pleasure . . . Heilbut ranges over the culture like a madman, but with a fierce sanity in his eye, debunking myths and erecting new ones. I finished The Fan Who Knew Too Much wondering how, without it, I'd ever thought I understood a thing about America in the twentieth century. Let me ask: are you familiar with the history of gays in gospel? Or with the early, radio roots of soap operas? Then you, too, are similarly benighted. Get with this.”
—John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead