When I think about fathers, I go back to Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the play T.S. Eliot found deeply flawed by an insufficient pretext for the sort of wild transformation Hamlet takes in the course of five acts. There was no “objective correlative” there, he wrote in his essay, “Hamlet and His Problems,” and published in 1919 in his collection The Sacred Wood. Eliot could find no sufficient reason for anyone turning inside out over a father’s murder. For nearly a hundred years, Eliot may have raised a problem that wasn’t all that pertinent to the play, and distracted a lot of good critics since then from asking another question: What is Hamlet’s dilemma over father and son in this damp, echoing stone house perched on the crags of Elsinore, on the Danish east coast?
On the one hand, Hamlet contended with an old windbag of a father in Polonius, father of his girlfriend Ophelia and his future enemy, Laertes, who freely dispensed advice to everyone on any occasion, but was a toady, a schemer on behalf of the corrupt new king, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius. That was bad enough for a man in his twenties, studious, a bit overweight, sedentary by nature, someone Eliot might well have based J. Alfred Prufrock on without quite knowing it. Hamlet’s own father, King Hamlet, was an old warrior, a cold, aloof man who, like Lear, had lost his power to sense danger right under his feet. His own brother would be the one to pour poison “in the porches of his ear,” while his wife Gertrude looked the other way.
Clearly Eliot wanted to know more about Hamlet’s mind, and was thinking about this relationship between a distant father, all-powerful and yet vulnerable to the merest intrigues, and Eliot’s stern, aloof dad – a man who disowned him when he refused to come home and take up a teaching position at Harvard. Henry Ware Eliot was president of the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company and the association with brick walls couldn’t have been lost upon this sensitive, brooding son. He died in 1919, the same year the essay on Hamlet was published; they were not reconciled before the old man’s death. That left Tom Eliot with a ghost of a father to contend with, someone who demanded the son return home and who refused. When the younger Eliot’s first marriage failed, it seemed as if a kind of curse had been laid on him for filial disobedience. The parallels between Eliot and Hamlet are close enough that one can certainly see affinity, even identity between them.
But what intrigues me more is that Eliot was drafting his essay on Hamlet the year World War I was coming to a close. This may have been the bloodiest war in history, with over 37 million deaths in all, counting civilian and military casualties. “For an old bitch gone in the teeth, For a botched civilization,” Ezra Pound summarized in Hugh Selwyn Maublerly. A war to save “two hundred battered books,” while the age swept everyone into the mass-produced future. In other words, Eliot’s state of mind (he was suffering physical, even psychological collapse at the time), must have questioned not only the war’s purpose but the losses of life and culture that ensued, making any kind of violent act seem part of the absurd reality of the post-war era. The Waste Land would explore the war’s terrible erosion of faith and love in the aftermath, and plumb the depths of what sexuality could mean after such slaughter – and of course what paternity and fatherhood signified in such global chaos.
Adding to Eliot’s problems was his marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood in 1915; she was frail, even sickly, a woman so ghost-like in her photographs that you shudder to look at her. The marriage began to fail early, and after the discovery of an affair with the philosopher Bertrand Russell, Eliot withdrew from her. He tried having her committed to an asylum in 1935, but her brother eventually had her incarcerated in 1938, on the eve of World War II. Was she Gertrude in Eliot’s mind? Someone who betrayed a sacred trust, and who willingly crushed her husband’s spirit? Perhaps, but it was the marriage that precipitated Eliot’s father disowning him. It’s hard not to think that Eliot shredded Hamlet looking for answers to his own dilemma, and who found only ambiguity in place of a believable logic for how a son erupts and loses all sense. So we get the “objective correlative” as Eliot’s explanation for the failure of the play. But this so-called objective correlative is hokey, a theory that explains American advertising more than it does the play or any of the poetry of the 20th century. Take any set of ordinary objects and place them in a series of cause and effect and bingo, you have a TV ad for Brylcream, Advil, Preparation H. But not the murky depths of imagination to be found in Rilke, Rimbaud, or Eliot himself.
After 1925, Eliot turned to the Anglican faith to find some way out of his anguish. Was this a substitution of a theological father for the real one? If so, prayer was the form that his lyric would now adopt, making pleas directly or indirectly to a god who serves as the benevolent, understanding father, one who could presumably forgive the human race for murdering his son. And yet, the poems that follow The Waste Land, though fervent, driven, wracked with guilt and burning with religious ardor, are not convincing. Hamlet’s problem is not solved by this means. Eliot has displaced the relation of son to father by bringing down a hugely complex religious argument that he then thrusts outward as the cure-all for a grieving England, which, by his own measure, is falling apart for lack of anything nurturing to believe. He embraced fascism as a second strategy for holding culture and social order together. He was willing to suspend his better judgment if it meant applying some healing compress to wounds that were spiritual, not physical.
Eliot, like so many of Henry James’ protagonists, is a man who could not construct a meaningful relation to his father in order to become an adult himself. Much of American humor is based on just this crisis of manhood in America – from Huck Finn’s drunken father, who kidnaps him at the moment of his awakening and nearly kills him in a drunken rage, to Thomas Wolfe’s wandering heroes, to Woody Allen’s plaintive anti-heroes looking for love in women who cannot satisfy his profound loneliness. None have a meaningful father. One might say that American literature itself is wounded by the absence of this Moses figure, this powerful Zeus who could have instructed a son in the art of war and leadership, in love. Without such figures, the son is another Ishmael, an outcast in the desert, accompanied by his Hagar-mother, and banned from his father Abraham’s kingdom. If we look around, almost everything about America is fatherless, and all attempts to construct a national father in George Washington or Abraham Lincoln seem forced, a manufactured mythology that doesn’t come naturally to the average American.
As Leslie Fiedler remarks in Love and Death in the American Novel, there are no natural women anywhere , with the exception of Henry James’ middle novels. Instead, one finds either whores or saints. The reason is that a woman in America is viewed through the prism of the abandoned son, and whose willingness to be loved or married is distorted by the male protagonist’s inability to conceive of himself as a father. Either he will “steal” the woman’s virginity as a prize or end up abandoning the “mother” he has married. In any case, masculinity in America is based on the crippled emotion of a son who has been denied the positive wisdom of a father. Of all the possibilities of fatherhood I can think of, only Native American culture possesses images of the noble father, the benign warrior-monarch. The destruction of their civilization over the first two hundred years of American life made that one connection to virtue moot, or absent altogether.
Instead, we have Theodore Dreiser’s monsters as images of fatherhood; or the vicious egomania of tycoons and wealthy scions in Fitzgerald; or the distorted machismo of Hemingway’s male leads. Or consider Tennessee Williams' portrait of a belligerent, sadistic father in Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, based on his own drunken, abusive father Conrnelius. Faulkner hit upon Sam Fathers as his only truly positive father figure in Go Down, Moses. Sam is the son of a Chicasaw chief and a slave girl, a man capable of teaching the ten-year old Isaac McCaslin, a white youth, how to hunt, i.e., how to become an adult male with reverence for nature and for life. Perhaps Uncle Jim is such another father, a man who can teach Huck Finn virtue no matter how distorted slavery rendered American life. The fathers are few and hidden in literature, but in the culture beyond, the great mainstreams of movies, TV, drama, the broad stretches of ordinary literature, we live without. We worship youth above all things in this country out of fear of growing up, of having to become that dreaded and bankrupt role in society, the father.