To recognize the day I wanted to reel off the Five Books of fatherhood, but I came up nearly empty. There just are not five books—at least not five books about good fathers. If I’d wanted to canonize the twentieth-century literature of bad fathers, ranging loosely from Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907) to “Daddy” (1962), Sylvia Plath’s appalling triumph of self-pity and self-aggrandizement, I could have kept banging away at it all day and still not have compiled an exhaustive list.
But books about good fathers? Far less common, and almost unheard of when written from a father’s perspective. The book everyone thinks of is To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel’s last words offer a strong and memorable image of the good father. After Bob Ewell injures Jem in an assault, Atticus Finch puts his son to bed: “He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” So important are these words to finishing the portrait of Atticus that Robert Mulligan also ends his 1962 film with them, spoken in voiceover by ten-year-old Mary Badham, who played Scout. Challenged to name a father in literature to rival Atticus Finch, though, most people can’t. At least my wife couldn’t. And the best I could come up with was The Chosen, in which the critical scholar David Malter and the Hasidic rabbi Isaac Saunders are both good fathers in their own ways. Indeed, The Chosen popularized the cultural practice among the Modern Orthodox, now widespread, of children’s calling their father “Abba” (Hebrew for Daddy).
Neither of these books is written from a father’s perspective, however. Scout is Harper Lee’s narrator, and her father is recollected in tranquility. Chaim Potok’s focus is on the sons. Don’t get me wrong. Most fathers would prefer to be known through their children. But the experience of fatherhood almost never makes it into the pages of literature. A notable exception is John Williams’s classic Stoner (1965), which I listed among the Five Books of professors. Williams explicitly connects his experience as a father to Stoner’s literary scholarship, suggesting that the two activities demand the same moral qualities—patience, concentration, responsibility, self-effacement, renunciation, authority, and a willingness to let someone else (a child, the author of a literary text) speak for himself.
The best novel ever written about fatherhood, though, is not even written about a father. Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) is probably the least read of George Orwell’s books. It was not even published in the U.S. until twenty years after the English edition, and then only because of the huge popular success achieved by Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. Orwell began his third novel when he was thirty-two and finished it almost exactly a year before he traveled to Spain to cover the Civil War and gather material for his first “major” work, Homage to Catalonia (1938). Critics have consistently misread and undervalued the earlier novel. They describe it as a thematic preview of the conformist ’fifties, a warning about the threat posed by middle-class respectability to individual freedom, a confession of the inner turmoils and obsessive fears of a young novelist struggling to support himself by literature.
Keep the Aspidistra Flying is none of these. It is a satire of the literary life, or at least the romantic conception of that life secretly banked up in every sad young literary man’s heart. Gordon Comstock is twenty-nine and “rather moth-eaten already.” On the strength of his first book of poetry (TLS said that Mice “showed exceptional promise”), he has chucked over a post as a copywriter for an advertising agency and signed on as a clerk in a used bookshop. The plan was to give himself the time and freedom to write London Pleasures, “two thousand lines or so, in rhyme royal, describing a day in London.” But what Gordon had not counted upon—what most young writers, dreaming of poetic glory, do not count upon—was money:
Gordon struggles to stay afloat financially, but only sinks deeper into the “slime of poverty.” He behaves atrociously and alienates most of his friends, but Rosemary stands by him for some reason that he cannot fathom. The sale of a poem to the Californian Review for fifty dollars bankrolls a night on the town, which ends with Gordon, drunk on chianti, shoving Rosemary back against a wall and thrusting his hand down the front of her dress. “You’re going to bed with me,” he commands her, but she flees from him instead. He fancies that he is a “damned soul in hell.” He latches on to a prostitute, who steals the last of his money after he blacks out. He awakens the next morning in a police cell. He loses his job, his lodgings, and what little is left of his dignity.
When she learns what has befallen him, Rosemary returns to Gordon—with some advice. Why not go back to the advertising firm, where he has a standing job offer? Gordon is aghast: “Go back to the New Albion! It had been the sole significant action of his life, leaving the New Albion. It was his religion, you might say, to keep out of that filthy money-world.” Rosemary does not understand his scruples, but accepts them because they are his. “You’re letting yourself go to pieces,” she says. “You don’t seem to want to make any effort. You want to sink—just sink!” “I don’t know,” Gordon replies—“perhaps. I’d sooner sink than rise.” He longs to sink “down, down into quiet worlds where money and effort and moral obligation did not exist.” There at least he would enjoy freedom: “No more blackmail to the gods of decency!”
Perhaps because she pities him, perhaps because she is finally prepared to admit that their romance is doomed, Rosemary goes to bed with Gordon at last. And a most awful thing happens (the words are hers). She gets pregnant. When the news is delivered, Gordon feels nothing except dismay: “He did not think of the baby as a living creature; it was a disaster pure and simple.” He is resigned to marrying her; there is no alternative, he says. But of course there is, and Rosemary reminds him what it is. She could have an abortion:
Becoming a father pulls a man up, up into the noisy world where money-earning and effort and moral obligation make him a man. No one has recorded the miracle better than Orwell in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. It should be on every man’s reading list for Father’s Day—to remind him, if nothing else, of what his own father had to become to become his father.
I love you, Dad.