Blog #75: Beyond Memoir and Biography–Edmund Gosse and the Patremoir (1 of 4)

The talk went over very well, even if the audience was smaller than I hoped. Other talks were very interesting, too, especially the ones on Native American literature by Lindsey Hursh from U of Cental Oklahoma, Jamie Korsmo from Georgia State U, and an exciting co-presentation by Brenda Brown and Jamie Deer from U of Science and Arts Oklahoma. The most interesting paper of the day, though, was “Lyric Memoir: Aging Poetically in the Poems of Derek Walcott,” a paper given by Page Richards from the University of Hong Kong. Richards sees a new kind of biographical lyric emerging, poems not epic or confessional, but lyric, overtly biographical, expressions of self. As well as Walcott, Richards referenced Rita Dove as someone writing that kind of poetry. Indeed, many of the poets included in Fathers: A Literary Anthology write that kind of poetry. Hence, of course, my interest in Richards’ ideas.

Today I am playing hookey from the conference. This morning I spent a couple of hours in District Court 137 watching Raymond Angellini, the presiding judge, work his way through a very busy docket. Charles Dickens would have been stretched to make sense of it all. I was very lucky to catch the address to the jury and the jury verdict in an assault case. Low drama, but not the less savoury for that. This afternoon, I’m off to the San Diego Museum of Art, and then, if I’m lucky enough to get in, I’ll go watch Ray Wylie Hubbard sing blues-based ballads at Sam’s Burger Joint.

Enough diarizing. What follows is the first part of my MLA talk. To save eyes and to provide myself with future copy, I’m chunking the talk into three or four parts. Stay tuned for subsequent installments as I set out to examine the merits and the history of the patremoir.

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“Beyond Memoir and Biography: Edmund Gosse and the Patremoir”

Ever since Edmund Gosse published Father and Son in 1907, father memoirs have caused a kind of Linnean unease. In talking about Gosse’s book in The Development of English Biography (1927), Harold Nicholson said it is not “a conventional biography; still less is it an autobiography. It is something entirely original; it is a triumphant experiment in an entirely new form.” Almost seventy years later, Mary Gordon, at work on The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for Her Father (1996), wondered if she wasn’t writing “some non-fiction genre whose proper name has not yet been found.” More recently, Michael Frayn, speaking of My Father’s Fortune (2010), said that “it’s not really autobiography; it’s a memoir of my father.”

This talk will argue that personal father writing is distinct enough, numerous enough and good enough to merit genre status. Neither memoir nor biography, personal father writing is a unique hybrid, a hybrid worthy of scholarly attention, a hybrid for which I propose the name of patremoir. In the following discussion, I will also consider why the patremoir emerged when it did, and why Gosse should be given credit for originating it.

Biographical books about fathers were being written long before Gosse. In fact, Gosse probably knew about Puritan biographies of the father, encomium books such as Increase Mather’s The Life and Death of That Reverend Man of God, Mr. Richard Mather (1670) and Cotton Mather’s Parentator (1724). Such biographies were Puritan ‘plain style’ documents of religious instruction, doctrinal pieces which portrayed the father as a religious exemplum rather than as an individual. Gosse certainly knew of the Reverend Cotton Mather, and in an essay titled “American Folk-song” he referred to him as a “surly watch-dog of old times.” Gosse may well also have known that for over 38 years Cotton Mather served under his father as minister of Boston’s prestigious Second Church. In Gosse’s struggles to break free of the influences of his powerful father and of his father’s religion, Cotton Mather would have provided a powerful cautionary figure.

What distinguishes Father and Son from Puritan biographies and from all previous father biographies is its critical nature, and the way it combines memoir and biography. Open personal writing about one’s own father did not appear until the end of the 19th century. To write about the father was 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 often rigid paternalism of the age and the attendant psychological pressures—critical father writing is a product of the Victorian era.

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