Spokane, Wash., 1909, Mother’s Day: Sonora Smart Dodd, a young parent, artist, and poet, sits in church, listening to the sermon. It’s a real stemwinder on the virtues of motherhood. The words are laudable but, still, something’s nettling her. Her own mother died in childbirth when Dodd was 16, the oldest of six. Her father raised the family alone.
This was a time when patriarchs were seen as harsh, aloof, or deadbeat (popular song back then: “Everybody Works But Father”). But William Jackson Smart, a farmer and Civil War veteran on the Union side, was “a Golden Rule type of father,” she has been quoted as saying, a “kind and loving parent who kept us together and happy.”
He’d also raised his daughter to speak her mind. And so, after church, Dodd sweetly praised the pastor on his sermon, but then suggested that fathers, too, deserved a day of honor. As she reportedly put it: “Do you not think it would be fair and fine to give father a place in the sun?”
Dodd spent her life lobbying for Father’s Day, and is the holiday’s recognized founder. But it took until 1972 — at age 90, she lived to see it happen — for Father’s Day to become official. In contrast, Mother’s Day became official in 1914. The ambivalence behind that lag time, the arc of our shifting assumptions of what a father is or should be, all of it seeps through today’s books on fathers. They are heartening, painful, perplexed, and beautiful.
“The Book of Dads: Essays on the Joys, Perils, and Humiliations of Fatherhood” (Harper Perennial, 2009), edited by Ben George, is truly one for our time. (Hard to imagine the word “humiliations” in a fatherhood title a generation ago.) In one piece, novelist Charles Baxter gets things cracking when he cites Gertrude Stein’s line that the 20th century was “the era of bad fathers.” She meant both within the family and nationally, as in the case of bad political dads (like Hitler and Stalin). God the Father was pronounced dead in the 19th century, she said, so tyrants filled the void in the 20th.
How things have changed. Here, in the 21st century, Baxter admits his own fathering style “lacks a certain authority” and he cedes the last word by having his twentysomething son add footnotes to his essay, which amusingly contradict his dad. Very endearing; and who wouldn’t love a kid whose rock band was named Grätüïtöüs Ümläüt?.
Refreshing, really, how these dads almost all admit they’re making it up as they go along: Father Knows Least. And the collection just rocks with feeling. Several writers confess to crying, for instance: Novelist Brock Clarke tears up while reading Cormac McCarthy’s dystopian father-son book, “The Road.” You want a good cry? Read Sven Birkerts’s exquisite essay on family vacations and near loss.
This next brace of essays, first posted in Slate, come from Michael Lewis, author of “The Blind Side.” His “Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood” (Norton, 2010) is quite the time capsule. In his faux-puzzled observances of family life, you can watch how one man blunders through our transitional epoch from hands-off fathering to hands-on. He’s funny. But glib.
Indeed, Lewis compares the modern American father to “Gorbachev after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Having shocked the world by doing the decent thing and ceding power without bloodshed for the sake of principle, he is viewed mainly with disdain. The world looks at him schlepping and fetching and sagging and moaning beneath his new burdens and thinks: OH...YOU... POOR... BASTARD.”
That curmudgeon-with-a-big-heart tone can also be found in Calvin Trillin’s memoir “Messages from My Father” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996). Abe Trilinsky, later Trillin, was born near Kiev and raised in Missouri. He was a grocer, a restaurant owner — and a real mensch. A natural with kids, he cheerfully used Yiddishisms, had a boisterous sense of humor, believed that “proper behavior is modest behavior” and that folks who put on airs were “big k’nockers.”
And he changed his son’s life. “It was a given in our family that my father was a grocer so that I wouldn’t have to be,” writes Trillin. Abe never got to college but read “Stover at Yale,” a 1911 novel about a young man who navigates the university’s social hierarchies. Before Calvin was born, Abe started saving for his college. He wasn’t pushy, but he didn’t waver — and Calvin vaulted from the Yale Daily News to Time to the New Yorker. You’ll find Abe great company.
Not so much Ed Cooper, though, the subject of “The Bill from My Father’’ (Simon & Schuster, 2006) by novelist Bernard Cooper, who writes like a dream about a nightmare. Ed is now elderly and, as Bernard writes, “The time had come for me to father my father.” Not an easy thing to pull off with an extremely independent, angry, difficult, paranoid, Cadillac-driving, philandering, former Hollywood divorce lawyer.
Even so, you feel for the man in spite of yourself. The author’s three brothers all died in young adulthood (Bernard’s the only surviving son). Ed is utterly brokenhearted. But, ever the litigator, he “replaced grief with a full-time vendetta,” writes Bernard. “Shapeless rage was divided into files.” In plain terms, Ed sues everyone in sight, including his daughters-in-law for the money he’d lent his late sons.
But you don’t read “The Bill from My Father” for conventional inspiration, for a Father’s Day buzz. You read it to watch a son strive for compassion against all odds. I find this heroic. I feel much the same way about “Reading My Father’’ (Scribner, 2011) by Alexandra Styron, youngest child of William Styron, author of “Sophie’s Choice” and “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness,” about the author’s clinical depression.
Everyone tiptoed around Bill, and Alexandra herself was wincingly neglected. (Her mom traveled a lot; her dad was AWOL). And here, too, the rage: “A toy left in his path, a pencil with no point, a departure delayed by some bit of domestic business. These were the kinds of catalysts that could suddenly pull the pin on my father’s temper.”
Again, though, there’s that compassion, an adult child trying to understand the remarkable man who gave her life. Attention must be paid. Sonora Smart Dodd thought “it would be fair and fine to give father a place in the sun.” These fair and fine books, at least, bring him out of the shadows.
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at email@example.com.