Where Are Fathers in American Literature? Re-Visiting Fatherhood in U.S. Literary History

Article excerpt

"What is American about American literature?" One answer to that question is the limited use American writers seem to have made of fatherhood as a theme in their fictional works. Most canonical authors appear to avoid dealing with the issue of fatherhood, which thus remains largely absent from American literature. Several classic fictions do indeed seem to lend support to the view of fatherhood as absence in American literary history. If James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Novels (1823-41), for example, depict the friendship between Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook as deeper than any other family ties, Nathaniel Hawthorne's best-known novel, The Scarlet Letter (1850), focuses on the harsh life of a single mother and her daughter, who is neglected by her father. Fathers are also missing from much of Herman Melville's fiction, whose best-known protagonists, from Billy Budd to Bartleby to Ishmael to Queequeg, are men of unknown ancestry. In Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) Huck is "sivilized" by Aunt Sally, not his father, and in The Gilded Age (1873), by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, Laura Hawkins is adopted by the Hawkins family after her natural parents die in a steamboat wreck. Equally removed are natural parents in much of Henry James's fiction. If Nora Lambert in James's Watch and Ward (1871), for instance, is adopted by Roger Lawrence, who will eventually marry her, Miles and Flora, the orphan siblings in The Turn of the Screw (1898), are looked after by a governess, rather than their surrogate father, who lives away from Bly most of the time. While some best-known novels such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) or Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868) incorporate father-figures, they are then depicted as weak and dependent. For example, Little Women focuses on a female world in which men and fathers play a totally secondary role, just as Augustine St. Clare in Uncle Tom's Cabin is described as a weak paternal figure who is bored by his manly obligations as protector of his family and of his Louisiana plantation. Indeed, he delegates most of the plantation management responsibilities to Uncle Tom. Equally weak is the influence of the father-figure in Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900). Carrie's desire for upward mobility and professional independence as an actress involves the explicit rejection of paternal bounds. Paternal authority is undermined as soon as the novel begins, when the train carries her past "the flour mill where her father worked" (Dreiser, p. 7) and past the working-class masculinity he represents. Mr. Beeber, Carrie's father, and her whole family thus seem totally irrelevant, for "father, mother, and home," as David Leverenz (2003) has noted, "get discarded in the first paragraph" (p. 78). American novels like Little Women or Sister Carrie not only avoid the subject of fatherhood, but seem to establish a connection between the father-figure's lack and the daughter's progress. Such narratives usually show the young girl's ability to achieve a social status beyond the confines of paternity. As Leverenz himself has concluded, a large number of American novels "portray fathers who are either weak or dead, and daughters brimming with independent energies" (p. 49).

Paternal absence is a recurrent theme in twentieth-century American literature as well. In The Great Gatsby (1925), for example, F. S. Fitzgerald portrays his protagonist as a self-made man who leaves both of his parents behind to make his American Dream come true. Despising his working-class family origins, Gatsby prefers his new aristocratic friends to his own parents. (1) Shedding his former identity as Jay Gatz, he breaks with all familial ties and begins a new life as the "Great Gatsby." Self-made men like Gatsby, as Michael Kimmel (1997) notes, are orphans, alone in society, who create themselves (pp. 142-143). It is true that several American texts, including The Great Gatsby, depict a powerful, benevolent man who helps a young man out. …