Blog #3: Patremoir History

This blog is slightly scholarly in tone. Excerpted from the introduction to Fathers: A Literary Anthology, it examines the history of patremoir writing and makes a case for giving such writing genre status and a name. Don’t be misled by the scholarly aspect: patremoirs are anything but!

Since the beginnings of Western Literature, children have been looking for their fathers, trying to gather father stories, trying to make sense of their own lives by putting together the pieces of their fathers’ lives. It is often overlooked that the Odyssey is almost as much the story of Telemachus trying to learn about his father as it is an account of Odysseus’ trials. Athena in her wisdom sends Telemachus off to Pylos and Sparta to seek out news of his father. Only by coming to terms with his father can he become an adult and claim the kingdom that is rightfully his.

As Telemachus learns, “It’s a wise child who knows its own father,” and it’s a rare child indeed which hasn’t been troubled by trying to make sense of its father, in the flesh or in the spirit. We don’t, it would seem, have to be Hamlets to be troubled by the ghosts of our fathers, living or dead. With the possible exception of mother, father is the most burdened word in our language, containing within it a bewildering profusion of emotions, experiences, understandings, and misunderstandings. Fathers, as Atwood’s quotation suggests, are often Grendelian figures, figures of darkness and myth, figures to be fought and feared. The mother, in her ready availability, and with her nurturing warmth, is usually more accessible to us. The father, however–even today–is often more remote, more absent, and more authoritarian; and to judge by the following essays our interactions with him, whether physical or psychic, are often problematic.

Perhaps because of the problematic nature of father-child interactions, the father essay does not appear until the end of the 19th Confronting fathers directly and publicly is not, and never has been, easy: the patriarch should judge and not be judged. To write about the father is to sit in judgment upon him, and for most cultures this was a taboo too strong to be overcome. The Greeks, despite their searingly perceptive stories about father child interactions, did not attempt to do so—nor did the Romans, the Italians of the Renaissance, the Elizabethans, or even the Romantics. Paradoxically–but not surprisingly, given the rigid paternalism of the age and the attendant psychological pressures–the father essay, like radical feminism, is a product of the Victorian era.

In 1907, six years after the death of Queen Victoria, Edmund Gosse published Father and Son. As he suggests in his concluding sentence, the book was an attempt to throw off his father’s yoke and “to fashion his inner life for himself.” It was an act of revolt: it was an act of courage. In Victorian England the boundary between the personal and the public world was a formidable one, and Dickens’ portrayal of Wemmick in Great Expectations is an all too accurate caricature of how sharply those worlds were kept apart. To break down that boundary and to publicly reveal elements of your deepest private self was shocking. To speak intimately and publicly about the father was heretical. Small wonder that Father and Son was first published anonymously.

Though Father and Son almost certainly owes a debt to JS Mill’s Autobiography, Gosse’s importance in breaking down taboos cannot be overstated. In “The Art of Biography” Virginia Woolf acknowledges him as the first who “dared to say that his own father was a fallible human being,” thereby opening the way for Lytton Strachey, Harold Nicolson and the “new biographers.” Certainly, Eminent Victorians and Some People owe a lot to Gosse. Nicolson himself stated that Father and Son is not “a conventional biography; still less is it an autobiography. It is something entirely original; it is a triumphant experiment in a new formula.” In confronting the memory of the fanatical monomaniac who was his father and by relating the details of his suffocating childhood, Sir Edmund made it “possible to tell the truth about the dead,” and to publicly and honestly attempt to explore father child relationships.

Just over one hundred years after Father and Son’s publication, the writings in this anthology–along with such recent powerful and moving father tributes as Mary Gordon’s Shadow Man, Li-Young Lee’s Winged Seed, Philip Roth’s Patrimony, and Miriam Toews’ Swing Low–show what a great debt we owe Edmund Gosse. Although she meant to be disparaging, Virginia Woolf spoke truer than she knew when she said: “[w]here Boswell left us that profound and moving masterpiece, The Life of Johnson, Gosse left us the Father and Son.” Father and Son, in turn, has engendered and continues to engender a rich, varied and rewarding progeny. Mary Gordon, too, was right when she wondered if she wasn’t writing “some non-fiction genre whose proper name hasn’t yet been found?”

Edmund Gosse is the father of the “patremoir.”

Next week’s blog will take a closer look at the evolution of Fathers: A Literary Anthology, and at how Patremoir Press came up with its mission “to transform and change the world.”

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2 Comments

  1. In spite of our father’s absences, mother insisted that he be included in all family decisions. He would be away from home for weeks at a time with no means of communicating – not even by telephone. Nevertheless, mother diligently injected father’s supposed opinion into our discussions. We recognized the “father input” as being uncannily parallel to her biases. When he would come home, when we remembered to question his input, his ability to sidestep the sensitive issue could have been a manual for the Peace Corp.

  2. [...] Andre Gerard, who identified and named the new publishing term patremoir an “essay, poem, play or film built around memories of the author’s father,” has [...]

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