When it comes to our parents, we are all the memoirists of writers

Writing in last week’s New Yorker about the memoirs of children of famous writers, James Wood raises a question that has been asked before: “Can a man or a woman fulfill a sacred devotion to thought, or music, or art or literature, while fulfilling a proper devotion to spouse or children?”

As Wood points out, George Steiner entertained a similar proposition some 20 years ago, also in The New Yorker. (Steiner had been moved to this suspicion by the prod of Louis Althusser’s strangling of his wife. Of course. It wouldn’t be Steinerian if weren’t just a touch Wagnerian.) And Cynthia Ozick wrestled with it in the 1970s or maybe early 80s in a pair of reviews: one of Quentin Bell’s biography of his aunt Virginia Woolf, the other of R.W.B. Lewis’s biography of Edith Wharton.

In Wood’s and Ozick’s case—I don’t have access to Steiner’s piece, so I don’t know—the supposition is the same: the writer lives her life in her work. Her external life—the parties she attends, children she raises, drinks she downs, meals she arranges, bills she pays—is not her real life. It is a shadow of the inner flame that lights every page, every sentence, of her work.

For Ozick and Wood, this is true whether the writer is a woman or a man. It’s also true whether the writer about the writer—Wood considers the children of Saul Bellow, William Styron, John Cheever, and Bernard Malamud—is a woman or a man.

Interestingly, Wood and Ozick find the male progeny of these writers to be less successful memoirists of their parents (or, in Bell’s case, aunt) than the female progeny. Alexandra Styron, Susan Cheever, and Janna Malamud Smith seem to understand and accept what Greg Bellow and Quentin Bell miss or refuse to come to terms with: that their fathers’ and aunts’ most sacred cause was the word, that their first true love was for the work they were creating. (Ozick remarks that Wharton’s most passionate affair occurred in bed: not because of the love she made there but because that was where she composed The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence.)

The successful memoirist needs to grant the writer the holy mystery of his interiority, says Wood, to “bestow” on her  subject his “independence.” The only trace of the writer’s self that the memoirist, like the biographer, will ever find is in the writing.

Saul Bellow’s most private self was expressed in writing, not in paternity. For any serious writer, the private self is the writing self. That closed study door, which Greg Bellow imagines as a symbolic frontier between “writing” and “living,” was no such thing; for Saul Bellow, the writing was the living. And to write means turning privacy outward. Writing fiction is a kind of publicized privacy; you feel, in the greatest novels, the ghost of the author’s soul rustle into life.

Let’s set aside the question of gender (it strikes me as perhaps not coincidental that it is women rather than men who are able to know these truths, if they are indeed truths, about their fathers). Let’s also set aside the question of whether or not this claim about the writer’s life is even true.

What strikes me in reading these pieces is that they are less about the children (or nephews) of writers than they are about children as such. Do we not, all of us, have to come to terms with the mystery of our parents, to acknowledge that their inner life is neither exhausted nor consumed by the life we know, by the care and devotion they bestow or don’t bestow upon us? That their real life may be the life they lead elsewhere, which may also be on a page, whether a diary, a letter, a legal brief, a memo? Are not all of our parents mysterious writers, composing their poems behind closed doors? And do we not, all of us, have to bestow that independence upon them if we are to have our own?

That, at some level, is the basic conceit of Mad Men, as Daniel Mendelsohn pointed out in a much noticed review from two years back:

It’s only when you realize that the most important “eye”—and “I”—in Mad Men belong to the watchful if often uncomprehending children, rather than to the badly behaved and often caricatured adults, that the show’s special appeal comes into focus. In the same Times article, [Mad Men creator Matthew] Weiner tried to describe the impulses that lay at the core of his creation, acknowledging that

part of the show is trying to figure out—this sounds really ineloquent—trying to figure out what is the deal with my parents. Am I them? Because you know you are…. The truth is it’s such a trope to sit around and bash your parents. I don’t want it to be like that. They are my inspiration, let’s not pretend.

This, more than anything, explains why the greatest part of the audience for Mad Men is made up not, as you might have imagined at one point, by people of the generation it depicts—people who were in their twenties and thirties and forties in the 1960s, and are now in their sixties and seventies and eighties—but by viewers in their forties and early fifties today, which is to say of an age with those characters’ children. The point of identification is, in the end, not Don but Sally, not Betty but Glen: the watching, hopeful, and so often disillusioned children who would grow up to be this program’s audience, watching their younger selves watch their parents screw up.

Hence both the show’s serious failings and its strong appeal. If so much of Mad Men is curiously opaque, all inexplicable exteriors and posturing, it occurs to you that this is, after all, how the adult world often looks to children; whatever its blankness, that world, as recreated in the show, feels somehow real to those of us who were kids back then. As for the appeal: Who, after all, can resist the fantasy of seeing what your parents were like before you were born, or when you were still little—too little to understand what the deal was with them, something we can only do now, in hindsight? And who, after having that privileged view, would want to dismiss the lives they led and world they inhabited as trivial—as passing fads, moments of madness? Who would still want to bash them, instead of telling them that we know they were bad but that now we forgive them?

The only amendment I would add to Mendelsohn’s analysis is that the life of her father that little Sally Draper is not privy to is not only to be found in Don’s serial affairs or his mysterious upbringing. It may also be found—perhaps even most fully—in those brilliant ad campaigns he crafts, in those heartbreaking speeches about the “carousel” that he makes to the executives of Kodak, in those brilliant little edits he performs on Peggy’s prose.

When it comes to our parents, are we not, all of us, to varying degrees of success, the memoirists of writers?

Update (12:20 pm)

Read this from Laura Tanenbaum:

I love things like this, pieces of diaries, pieces of other lives. When I’m on the subway and I see someone writing in a Moleskin, I have to stop myself from looking over their shoulders. In that moment of writing, squeezing in a few lines before school or work, it seems everything they had to say would be of the utmost fascination. When you see something like this, one little fragment for a day of grief, you think of the hours squeezed into that sentence. At one point, he says “I don’t want to talk about it, for fear of making literature out of it- or without being sure of not doing so – although as a matter of fact literature originates within these truths.”

Of course, it’s even harder for the mothers to tell their stories. Back in A Room of One’s Own, Woolf goes through the names and says, the thing these women all have in common is that they are not mothers. More now can find some insufficient solution to the need for time and solitude, but the ethics of saying what they know remain vexed. A friend told me recently of finding the diary of a great-grandmother, who described not only her desperate unhappiness, but contained detailed portraits of her husband and children in meticulous and unflattering detail. I asked her what she did with it and she said, I got rid of it, of course. There is the responsibility, there are feelings, also. But there is also the urge to record, always equal parts hope and despair.


  1. Freddie deBoer July 22, 2013 at 10:56 am | #

    I’m sure you’ve seen this before, but…

    ““When it’s all added up, papa, it will be: he wrote a few good stories, had a novel and fresh approach to reality and he destroyed five persons — Hadley, Pauline, Marty, Patrick and possibly myself. Which do you think is the most important, your self-centered shit, the stories or the people?” – Gregory Hemingway

    • Corey Robin July 22, 2013 at 11:00 am | #

      I haven’t, Freddie, thanks!

      On Mon, Jul 22, 2013 at 10:56 AM, Corey Rob

  2. Jesus Madrigal July 22, 2013 at 2:22 pm | #

    Alas, I am not as cultured as most of your readers, so I am unfamiliar with the people you discuss in your post. But I appreciate the way you brought something that seemed reserved for the cultural elite down to the ground floor, where anyone can participate. I thought I’d add something that speaks (with an immigrant accent) to your post.

    My parents were Sally and Bobby’s age during the show’s era, and in any case, were born and raised in a small village in central Mexico. So, it is Don Draper’s memory of his upbringing that connects me to Mad Men. My parents carried within them memories of extreme hardship and destitution, but rarely communicated it to me or others. Starting a new life in America meant changing from Dick to Don; adopting a new identity that was, in a way, a rejection of their past. But as we see with Don, the past is inescapable. Everyone knows that Don “came from nothing”, but Don doesn’t want to tell anyone what that “nothing” actually is. Is he willing to show these wounds to his children? Would they understand? Should they? After all, isn’t the point to move forward and have children unencumbered by such memories?

    A sad truth is that many of us are not left with masterful works of fiction or brilliant ad campaigns to probe for the secrets of our parents. Some fathers and mothers leave behind as much as they entered the world with: nothing.

    • Jamie July 24, 2013 at 12:13 pm | #

      This is a beautiful comment. Perhaps sometimes it’s left to the children to transform their suffering into art?

      • Jamie July 24, 2013 at 12:14 pm | #

        should read, “their parents suffering”

  3. paul July 28, 2013 at 12:57 pm | #

    Being a male, my recollection of non famous parents is probably inaccurate and incomplete. However, it has changed over the years. Memories of parents and friends from an earlier time are no less significant if they were more accurate or complete. Each has left an impression and desire that certain moments be recreated, both for the pleasure they brought and a wish that the relationship in a moment of time could be altered. At my late age these frequent recollections merge into my daily thinking and actions. It was only yesterday, but more than ever before, the memories affect today and tomorrow. thank goodness that dementia is moving slowly.

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