This reflection on literary fatherhood and the “blame game” comes to us from Mockingbird friend Sam Bush.
Legend has it that William Faulkner, in response to his 12-year old daughter’s pleading for him to give up drinking, sharply told the girl, “Nobody remembers Shakespeare’s children.” It’s a hard story to stomach, especially if your life has been eternally and wonderfully altered by The Sound and the Fury or Go Down, Moses. Faulkner’s books, of course, helped shape American literature and have touched the lives of millions of readers, but who’s to say that those millions of readers are more significant than little Jill Faulkner? The situation begs us to consider the competing relationship between work and family when both depend on whatever limited devotion we have to give them. And what better stage on which to set this drama than the homes of famous 20th century male authors? Last week’s issue of The New Yorker provided a fascinating glimpse into the domestic lives of several successful writers in James Wood’s flooring article, “Sins of the Father: Do great novelists make bad parents?”
Paraphrasing George Steiner on the conflicting nature of philosophy and domesticity, Wood writes the following opener: ”There is something vulgar and absurd…in the notion of a Mrs. Plato, a Madame Descartes. You cannot commit to taking out the garbage or doing the dishes while also solving the problem of the cogito or announcing the death of God… Up on Olympus you feel free, not in the kitchen or the faculty lounge.”
The article then brings us into the writer’s home, as seen from a child’s perspective, paying heed to three memoirs, each written by the son or daughter of a successful author – John Cheever, Bernard Mallamud and William Styron – all of them describing ”a household dominated by the needs of a male creator, and the costs to the women that enabled that creativity.” Surprisingly, every child casts their father in a sympathetic light. Rather than monstrous fiends, their fathers are seen as the captains of two sinking ships – one being American patriarchy and the other being the dying romantic notion of what it means to “be a writer.” Naturally, their fathers aimed to save whichever ship they could more easily control and it doesn’t take long to realize that books are easier to control than children (or at least books can’t talk back).
These memoirs also understand that the inner writer needs to be nurtured just as a child would be. After all, that fragile muse must be protected and defended at all costs should she ever decide to sing.
And it seems the only people that probably realize this notion as much as writers themselves are the families of writers. Alexandra Styron’s memoir of the late William Styron, Reading My Father, addresses the absolute devotion required of her father to his craft: ”If each creation is, in effect, an artist’s offspring, I think Daddy put his nonfiction in the category with his four, living, breathing children. There was affection for what he’d made and, frequently, pride. But the Novel owned his heart.”
Wood, an accomplished critic who has taught alongside many a successful writer, shares this sympathetic understanding: ”How, really, could the drama of paternity have competed with the drama of creativity? For a man, creating a child – though certainly not raising one – is almost accidental, where writing a book takes years of thought and effort. Or to put it another way: raising a child can seem as ordinary, as continuous, and as ‘easy’ as life itself, while writing a book is like staying up all night.”
Indeed, being a successful writer requires full engagement, a complete immersion in one’s work, and it’s admirable that these memoirs are written with that understanding. The Cheever, Mallamud and Styron offspring all realize that their fathers were not just bad fathers, but that they were also great writers, which miraculously allows them to let go of any entitlement or bitterness that one would expect. But what about a version that does involve a child’s backlash to his father’s neglect? Surely that seems a bit more realistic. Woods then introduces Greg Bellow’s memoir of his late father, Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Sons Memoir, which stands noticeably separate from the others. While the other books paint an honest picture of how exhausting it was “growing up in a household dominated by the needs of a male creator,” they also have an air of acceptance about the situation. Greg Bellow, on the other hand, is clearly and tragically still working things out. Even at 69, Bellow can only offer a steady list of gripes and anecdotes that are, according to Woods, just as painful to read as they were to experience. The angry son lashes out at the literary world for heralding Saul Bellow as a hero and for taking more ownership of his father than he ever had as a son. Rather than acknowledging Saul as a gifted writer, Greg limits him to a grouchy old man and discredits his father’s life work by focusing on the price he had to pay as his son. The beautiful stories that Saul created are far outweighed by the sacrifice that Greg made for their sake. Wood, literary critic that he is, clearly values the pains that are taken to write well and therefore will have none of Greg Bellow’s father issues: ”[The memoir] is a child’s complaint, with much unfinished business,” Woods writes. “It is less a memoir than a speaking wound… The literary assessments are so wrongheaded as to give the book a migraine of unreliability… Humanly, this is utterly forgivable. In literary terms, it is incoherent.”
Wood is clearly onto something in his assessment of Bellow’s memoir, but after hearing such harsh criticism of Bellow for not sorting out his daddy issues, it’s refreshing to remember that God, unlike a critic, does not see us in literary terms (or any terms that depend on our output), but as His children. He feels the pain that Bellow has undergone, He extends sympathy for the sacrifice Bellow was reluctantly forced to offer, and He has already paid the ultimate sacrifice that offers children like Bellow healing power.
In closing, James Wood turns the focus back to the authors themselves and boils their situation down to self-justification, explaining why it is the root of any famous author’s family strife: ”Each of these writers struggled to create something out of nothing, and had to justify that scandalous magic in conventional, unmagical, mid-century America. This justification expressed itself all too often as self-justification, and the storm of assertion cleared a brutal path.”
It is only after we realize that God’s compassion covers both culprit and victim when we are finally able to answer the “Literary World vs. Jill Faulkner” conundrum. Rather than having to decide if good art/music/literature can justify a ruined family on its own accord, we can admit that each of us is guilty for putting ourselves before each other (in some form or another) and that God’s grace covers the guilt and pain that result from such selfishness, offering forgiveness to the culprit and healing for the victim. God’s grace frees the writer/artist from having to justify himself enough for him to put down his pen/paintbrush and spend time loving his family. Likewise, God’s forgiveness allows the neglected children of narcissistic workaholics to accept their parents as human beings. Ideally, William Faulkner would have been both America’s Greatest Writer and World’s #1 Dad. Yet, God offers forgiveness to neglectful fathers and healing to neglected children which, thankfully, allows the rest of us to simply enjoy The Sound and the Fury – and maybe take a break from the strutting and fretting.