Here's what fathers are about, from a white, male perspective

August 22, 1993|By Diane Scharper


Edited by Irv Broughton

Ballantine Books

280 pages. $20

Virginia Woolf once said that a woman writing thinks back through her mothers. The observation may be true but only to an extent. A woman writing -- like a man writing -- thinks back through her mothers, her fathers, her sisters, her brothers, all her literary forebears.

"A Good Man: Fathers and Sons in Poetry and Prose" is predicated on a belief similar to Virginia Woolf's: that a man writing thinks back through his fathers. This belief, like Ms. Woolf's, is only partly true.

Editor Irv Broughton has collected close to 100 essays, poems and stories about fatherhood from a wide span of writers -- all male. There are the well-known writers, masters such as Shakespeare, represented with verse from "The Tempest" in "Full Fathom Five Thy Father Lies."

There are lesser-known authors, such as Mr. Broughton himself, and those authors he found in editing his literary magazine, the Mill Mountain Review. Keith Orchard writes a penetrating reminiscence about his father, who died when Mr. Orchard was a child. Later, seeing "Field of Dreams," he is moved by the realization that, unlike Kevin Costner, he will never get a second chance to say "I love you" to his father. This kind of gripping writing, both prose and poetry, sets the book's emotional tone.

The book had its genesis when Mr. Broughton's father died in 1990; the eulogy Mr. Broughton wrote became a poem in this collection, which is, in a sense, his attempt to immortalize his father. "I find my father everywhere across the pages of this book," he writes in the book's introduction. In a like spirit, the book is dedicated to Mr. Broughton's father.

He wants readers to find their own fathers in his book, whose overall subject, he says, is "what a father is and what the role of father means -- father from a man's perspective." (It's a white man's perspective, since there aren't any black viewpoints included). He hopes fathers and sons will find themselves here, "and that the women who share their lives, the mothers, wives, and daughters will find something herein too."

What these women will find is superb writing about fathers, none of it by women and none of it having much to say about mothers, wives and daughters. That's unfortunate. Some of the best writing about this subject concerns fathers and daughters.

One also wonders what Mr. Broughton's book would have been if he had included selections about fathers and daughters from some of the great classics: "Antigone," "King Lear," "Silas Marner," to name a few. Even though Mr. Broughton has `D unnecessarily narrowed his selections, the book is generous and loving. This is evident, even in the scope. It covers what fathers are like, from the outside and inside; how fathers feel about their sons; how fathers love their sons; what fathers stand for; how fathers feel about their fathers; how a son feels when he loses his father; how a father views some big moments in life; what sons and fathers say to each other.

What they say contains some of the strongest sentiments in literature. This isn't surprising. Some of the most powerful writers -- both past and present -- are represented. These include Sherwood Anderson, Thomas Wolfe, Guy de Maupassant, Ernest Hemingway, W. S. Merwin, Greg Kuzma, Philip Levine, John Updike. Many frequently anthologized poems are here: Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz," Ben Jonson's poem "On My First Son." Other poems, not as well known but equally strong are also here. Donald Justice's "Sonnet to My Father" is especially moving.

The book, Mr. Broughton explains, looks at fathers who put themselves on the line, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding. It deals with the decisions these fathers must make about the care of their families, their struggle to make a living, their need to express love.

Because these are fathers who aren't perfect, this book is also about forgiveness, about a son's need to forgive his father and himself.

Addressing this need, the son -- and by extension the daughter -- tries to re-create the dead father. The emotional impact of the book rests on their attempt.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University. She is the author of "The Laughing Ladies," a collection of poems.

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