Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Father Knows Best: Manhood in David Bradley and Philip Roth

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Father Knows Best: Manhood in David Bradley and Philip Roth

Article excerpt

Boldly claiming triumph for the masses of unacknowledged, underappreciated American fathers, Bryan E. Robinson and Robert L. Barret, in The Develop- ing Father (1986), proclaim: "During the 1970s the father was rediscovered" (5). Robinson and Barret announce, with apparent delight, that late twentieth century American fathers are no longer "dehumanized" (4) by society's strict gender roles and thereby eagerly grasp opportunities, newly available as a result of Second Wave Feminism's disruption of traditional gender roles, to nurture and care for their children. Although Robinson and Barret celebrate the "redis- covery" of the father's ability to excel in the aspects of parenting conventionally associated with mothers, David Popenoe, in Life Without Father (1996), argues that fathers who fulfill traditionally feminine parenting duties are "absent" because these men do not provide their children with a necessary example of manliness, ideally embodied in the breadwinner. Despite their very different perspectives on the role of paternal figures, Robinson, Barret, and Popenoe participate in a widespread late twentieth-century discourse on the fundamen- tal importance of fathers to the wellbeing of their children and the nation. Ultimately, social scientists, popular culture, and governmental studies agreed with Popenoe: most promoted the idea that the family is the foundation of the nation but that this foundation is only strong when embodied in the modern nuclear formation. This pervasive conversation about the societal benefits which accrue from the modern nuclear family represented a means of coping with a disruption in conventional gender roles and a perceived assault on mas- culinity caused by the social and economic transformation of the 1970s and 1980s. In imagining the restoration of the modern nuclear family as a balm for social ills, pundits positioned personal lifestyle, rather than governmental poli- cies and economic conditions, as the cause of a myriad of these social problems.

In this essay, I examine David Bradley's The Chaneysville Incident (1981) and Philip Roth's American Pastoral (1997), which offer an alternative assessment of changing family formations and the impact of these alterations on masculinity: the idealization of folk culture as the site in which fatherhood and, concomi- tantly, manhood, may be recuperated. In these novels, folk culture exists prior to the mid-twentieth century, inheres within the segregated ethnic communities which developed in response to racism and, importantly, generates strategies for its members to successfully navigate a bigoted society. The folk enclave, as imag- ined in The Chaneysville Incident and American Pastoral, enables men who were often denied access to the conventional signifiers of masculinity (breadwinner status and upward mobility) to successfully develop alternative definitions of fatherhood and manhood. As depicted in these novels, a segregated folk cul- ture inextricably links fatherhood with manhood in a variety of ways: the oral transference of family history from one generation to the next, assuring boys and men of their place and importance within history; the survival skills, passed between male kin members and boys, enabling them to outwit a discriminatory society and thereby achieve a sense of pride; and the feeling of accomplishment men derived from raising happy, successful children in spite of oppression.

Not only do The Chaneysville Incident and American Pastoral offer an unconventional site in which to salvage masculinity, but they also attribute the deterioration of fatherhood to very different conditions than those described by governmental publications, sociologists, and the popular press. In these novels, fatherhood is not undermined by an individual's departure from the role of breadwinner or housewife. Nor do they anticipate recent scholarly re- evaluations which position the transformation of paternal roles as a response to economic and social upheaval. …

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