The Father of All Memoirs
What Edmund Gosse could teach today's memoirists.
I want to tell you about a memoir I read not long ago. It's about how this guy grows up in a family on the far fringes of Protestant evangelism. His mother dies of cancer when the kid, an only child, is 7, and after that his father, a scientist whose view of all things becomes warped by his religious fanaticism, single-handedly tries to mold him into a sort of pint-sized holy man. The kid is bright and interested in the world around him, but the father essentially barricades him—not letting him read anything secular, and keeping him away from all other kids, and pretty much all human contact outside the church, till the age of 10 or 11. Eventually the boy, in a moving and heroic decision, realizes he has to make a break with his father, who is not only his whole family but pretty much his whole world.
Anyway, it's a swell book—certainly one of the best of '07.
1907, that is.
The book is Father and Son, by Edmund Gosse. Gosse was a fairly prominent English man of letters in the late-Victorian and post-Victorian periods, but to say that he is little-known today would be a fairly capacious understatement. Even the authors he wrote books about are mainly forgotten: Algernon Charles Swinburne, Jeremy Taylor, Coventry Patmore. Among the titles of Gosse's essays collections were Aspects and Impressions, Gossip in a Library, and Critical Kit-Kats, which tells you most of what you need to know about the literary world he inhabited and chronicled.
Just one of Gosse's dozens of books is still in print: Father and Son. One hundred years after it appeared, it stands as both a literary tour de force and the progenitor of the modern memoir: that is, the narrative of a beleaguered, constricted, abusive, or otherwise troubled childhood, in the manner of Angela's Ashes, Running With Scissors, The Glass Castle, and dozens of new additions every year.
To be sure, the idea of writing a book about your life was hardly a new thing in Gosse's time. Since the days of Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin, roughly a century earlier, it had become common for prominent writers, politicians, clergymen, and so forth to issue their memoirs. But with very few exceptions (most notably, Rousseau's Confessions), these books covered outer, not inner, life and were maddeningly discreet. The memoirs of Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope spent a great deal of space on the policies of his longtime employer, the post office, and very little space on his marriage—a ratio for which he made no apology: "My marriage was like the marriage of other people and of no special interest to any one except my wife and me."
At the turn of the 20th century, the banishment of so much human experience from autobiography pressured the genre close to the breaking point. Writers Samuel Butler and William Hale White felt empowered to give a candid account of their difficult lives only by presenting them in novels, The Way of All Flesh and The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford, respectively. Butler stipulated that his self-portrait be published only after his death—as did philosopher John Stuart Mill, whose autobiography detailed the weird and borderline-abusive Doogie-Howser-gets-home-schooled number his father did on him.
Gosse was willing to let Father and Son appear in his lifetime, without any novelistic veneer. But he did take the rather absurd measure of initially publishing the book anonymously. Absurd, because any educated person of the time would recognize "my Father" as Philip Gosse. Gosse the elder is a great character, as memorable and strange as Geoffrey Wolff's Duke of Deception or Angela McCourt. He developed an early reputation as a naturalist but ran into a major roadblock when Darwin's early publications and the emerging geologic and fossil evidence demonstrated that the world was much, much older than any literal reading of the Bible would allow. The central challenge of Philip Gosse's life was to reconcile his fundamentalist religious beliefs with his scientist's values.
As challenges go, this was a beaut, and some of the best passages of Father and Son describe Philip Gosse's effort to meet it in a sort of cockamamie beta version of intelligent design. His 1857 book, Omphalos: An Attempt To Untie the Geological Knot (the title is the ancient Greek word for navel), argued that just as Adam showed up with a superfluous bellybutton, so too, when God created the Earth, he furnished it ancient fossils and rocks that were brand-new but had the appearance of being millions of years old. Gosse felt his hypothesis would reconcile science and religion. "He offered it," his son writes, "with a glowing gesture, to atheists and Christians alike. This was to be the universal panacea; this the system of intellectual therapeutics which could not but heal all the maladies of the age. But, alas! Atheists and Christians alike looked at it, and laughed, and threw it away."
A striking quality of Father and Son is the presence in it of two Edmund Gosses: the 58-year-old littérateur—he comes through clearly in the sentences quoted above—and the boy who went through it all and is presented via the grown man's memory, induction, and imagination. Throughout Father and Son, Gosse looks at himself looking at the strange stuff that transpired. The dual perspective deepens the sadness and our understanding. The household gloom over the Omphalos debacle, he writes, "thickened day by day, as hope and self-confidence evaporated in thin clouds of disappointment." Philip, no barrel of laughs to begin with, turned more morose; he assumed that his book had failed because he had offended God:
… in brooding tramps, round and round the garden, his soul was on his knees searching the corners of his conscience for some sin of omission or commission, and one by one every pleasure, every recreation, every trifle scraped out of the dust of past experience, was magnified into a huge offence, He thought that the smallest evidence of levity, the least unbending to human instinct, might be lead the weaker brethren into offence.
In a heartbreaking scene, Gosse records the last bit of his father's levity to go. Philip sometimes sang songs from his Dorsetshire youth. One day a workman heard him and made an approving comment; then, Gosse reports, "My Father, who was holding my hand loosely, clutched it, and looking up, I saw his eyes darken. He never sang a secular song again during the whole of his life."
In two sentences, Gosse moves from a freeze-frame moment to a span of decades: a heady move. Stepping back that way is risky. It can break the narrative mood and let the door open for banality and bathos. But if you can do it with a clear eye, as Gosse does, it suddenly raises the stakes of your narrative.
And indeed, reading Gosse today, you notice one big difference between him and the multitude of current-day tough-childhood memoirists: point of view. Gosse not only shifts back and forth between his current and former selves but spends a lot of time contemplating what his father must have been thinking; and because he's observing from a distance, his perspective can alternate among irony, pathos, humor, reflection, bemusement, and, once in a while, muted outrage. Today's memoirists, as varied and sophisticated as their writing sometimes is, work almost exclusively from a kid's-eye view.
The strategy has pluses and minuses. Take The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls' account of her childhood with an alcoholic and delusional father and a narcissistic mother. After a long time on the New York Times hardcover best-seller list, it's been on the paperback nonfiction list for 87 weeks, currently in the No. 3 position. Why? Well, it has a great first sentence: "I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster." But more important is that it's incredibly readable, and it's so readable in large part because it's presented exclusively from the young Jeannette's point of view. On Page 9, Walls flashes back to the age of 3, when, boiling hot dogs for herself as she normally did, she got badly scalded and had to go to the hospital:
The nurses and doctors kept asking me questions: How did you get burned? Have your parents ever hurt you? Why do you have all these bruises and cuts? My parents never hurt me, I said. I got the cuts and bruises playing outside and the burns from cooking hot dogs. They asked what I was doing cooking hot dogs by myself at the age of three. It was easy, I said. You just put the hot dogs in the water and boil them.
The vocabulary expands and the sentences get more complex as we reach her childhood and adolescent years. But Walls is always right there in the moment, never stepping back to reflect on what the heck was going on in her family. This approach helps generate drama, suspense, and empathy. In therapeutic terms, it could be seen as honoring what the victim went through. But it runs counter to traditional literary values of complexity, texture, depth: things that can make a book a classic.
The Glass Castle shows that the bad-childhood memoir is as commercially viable as ever, but the bar of badness is now so high as to barely be visible. At this point, for one of these babies to move off the shelves, there has to be weirdness on the level of alien abduction. Edmund Gosse, combining incident and character with wise and rueful meditation, suggests a possible way out. It isn't an easy feat to pull off, but for a modern memoirist looking to write a book that lasts 100 years, it's worth a shot.
Ben Yagoda is author of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made and the just-published How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them. He is a professor of English and journalism at the University of Delaware.