Blog #78: Beyond Memoir and Biography–Edmund Gosse and the Patremoir (4 of 4)

Gosse’s fame and authority as a literary critic, and his close connection with many of the leading literary figures of the day, ensured wide dissemination of his ideas. On publication of Father and Son, he received numerous letters warmly praising his book. As he had on the publication of The Life of Philip Henry Gosse, Henry James wrote of his admiration. He had read Father and Son with “deep entrancement,” he praised the book’s “vivacity and intensity,” the “frankness and objectivity,” and he called it “the best thing you have ever written.” H. G. Wells wrote, saying among other things, “This is a book I would ill-spare as any book, and I perceive I only begin to know you.” Rudyard Kipling wrote, “It’s extraordinarily interesting—more interesting than David Copperfield because it’s true.” As late as 1928, at Thomas Hardy’s funeral, George Bernard Shaw told Gosse about recently rereading Father and Son: “I read it when it first appeared; but this second time was the test; for I could not lay it down until I had been right through it again… It is one of the immortal pages of English Literature.”

I would argue that Father and Son’s success made possible a rich, varied, and rewarding progeny. Father memoirs such as Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude (1982), Augusten Burrough’s A Wolf at the Table (2007), Philip Roth’s Patrimony (1991), and Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception (1979), all follow in the tradition of Father and Son—as, indeed, do such recent mother memoirs as Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? and Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? There are now hundreds of personal memoirs about parents and the number is growing monthly.

Patremoirs and matremoirs are also catching the critical attention of writers and scholars. In The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (2001), Vivian Gornick, herself the author of a powerful matremoir, uses the father writings of J.R. Ackerley, James Baldwin, Edmund Gosse, and Geoffrey Woolf to illustrate some of her ideas about writerly voice and self-definition. More recently, Roger Porter published Bureau of Missing Persons: Writing the Secret Lives of Fathers (2011), a critical study of fourteen father memoirs; and Thomas Couser, author of Memoir: An Introduction (2011), is currently working on a book about American father memoirs. Couser, incidentally, proposes that such books be called patriographies.

Patriography or patremoir, the important thing is to recognize father memoirs as a distinct literary genre, a genre based on using the father as raw material for constructing or defining a separate self. It’s all about how we create ourselves. Father memoirs offer rich fodder for psychologists, family therapists, and literary critics. Rich fodder for fathers and children. Rich fodder for all of us. Imagine comparing Edmund Gosse to Virginia Woolf, Angela Carter to Doris Lessing, Franz Kafka to Philip Roth; comparing the ways in which such writers fashioned or refashioned their inner lives by exploring their father (or mother) as a fallible human being.

Recognizing and acknowledging Edmund Gosse’s accomplishment in moving beyond memoir and biography offers fresh possibilities for studying the fashioning of self.

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