On some fronts, of course, fatherhood takes a beating these days. Television for the last forty years has generally portrayed fathers as stupid and incompetent, Archie Bunker or Tim “the Toolman” Taylor. The days of “Andy of Mayberry” or “Father Knows Best” are long vanished. On most sitcoms, fathers are bores who are out of touch with their wives, their children, and their own emotions. Like television writers, advertisers also love to show fathers as inept or clumsy. The formula — Dumb Dad, Smart Mom, Brilliant Children — may sell cars and deodorant, but it’s also false and destructive (and hackneyed to boot).
Society extols motherhood; it has much less to say, good or bad, about fatherhood. We laud single moms for their sacrifices, but no one gives much thought to single dads. Divorced mothers we often proclaim victims; divorced fathers we attack for not paying their child support. Mother’s Day is rightfully an occasion for flowers, luncheons, celebrations in church, and heavy phone traffic; Father’s Day seems to have been invented as an afterthought — “Well, we’ve got a Mother’s Day. I suppose we have to do something for the Old Man too.”
In many homes, Father’s Day runs a distant second in the parental celebration department: ties at the top of the gift list, a goofy card, a backyard barbecue.
The very words father and fatherhood can evoke deep visceral reactions among certain feminists. These are words that for some bring to mind God the Father, the father as patriarch, as warrior, as stern and even abusive mentor. Fatherhood can summon up images of punishment, of puritanical standards, of rigorous expectations.
Fortunately, literature offers us a more complicated view of fatherhood. From “Iphigenia” to King Lear and Hamlet’s ghost, from the Old Testament to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, fathers appear to us in a myriad of guises and personalities. Among playwrights, Arthur Miller (“The Death of a Salesman”) and Eugene O’Neill (“Long Day’s Journey into Night”) stand out as American artists concerned with the meaning of fatherhood. Though less well-known, Robert Anderson’s “I Never Sang for my Father” — the film version with a young Gene Hackman is excellent — gives us a splendid depiction of the struggle between a father and his grown son; the father in the play is written with the same intensity as the mother in Tennessee Williams’ play “The Glass Menagerie.”
Fiction, too, contains many works that show us the complicated relationships between fathers and their children. Several authors in the last half-century have given us fine stories centered on fatherhood. In Dad, a greatly underrated novel, William Wharton shows us a man so unhappy in his family life that he creates in his mind an alternative world in which he is appreciated and loved. In The Great Santini, Pat Conroy gives us Bull Meecham, Marine Corps pilot, alcoholic, and a husband and father who knows how to love only through domination and fear. In several of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories and in his novels For Whom the Bell Tolls and Islands in the Stream we find a the author mediating at length on the meaning of fatherhood, on the suicide of his own father and on his failures toward his own children.
In poetry, fathers are sometimes obsessions; Sylvia Plath’s powerful but hysterical “Daddy” comes immediately to mind. Yet we also meet poets from Homer and Virgil to Dylan Thomas and Theodore Roethke who give us loving images of fathers. Here in its entirety is Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays:”
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering,
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
That poem is for you, Dad, and for Mike and Jake.