One of my favorite songs-that-nobody-knows is John Hiatt’s “Your Dad Did,” from his masterpiece of an album Bring the Family (1987). It’s a great song for many reasons—it’s funny, it rocks, its second-person perspective and emotional themes evolve significantly over its four verses—but I’ll freely admit that my love for it has a lot to do with how much it taps into one of the archetypal American stories with which I’ve long been obsessed; the story, which has two stages, is I’m sure broadly human, speaking to many of our deep-seated psychological issues, but I think it does also tap into particular American narratives very fully and meaningfully. The first stage entails the sense of one’s past, and perhaps especially for a guy one’s Dad, as a limiting influence from which we should escape; and then the second comprises the gradual but vital recognition that he, like our parents and heritage and past more generally, are instead not only inescapable but usually very positive influences and presences.
Very briefly, here are five great American texts that, despite their many differences, all prominently feature versions of this story; each is well worth its own post (and a few have already gotten such), so this is just an appetizer:
1) Robert Penn Warren, All The King’s Men (1946): Penn Warren’s novel is usually described as a fictionalized account of Louisiana Governor Huey Long, and certainly the character of Willie Stark parallels Long in many ways. But what makes ATKM great is its narrator, Jack Burden—and Jack’s story, rich and complex and multi-part as it is, is in many ways the Dad story.
2) Gore Vidal, Burr (1973): Burr is many things, including the first (chronologically) in Vidal’s sweeping American Chronicle and a very biting, smart, and funny portrait of the Founding Fathers and Revolutionary and Early Republic Eras. But at its core, yup, the Dad story.
3) David Bradley, The Chaneysville Incident (1981): Bradley’s novel is a more powerful and complex portrait of slavery and its aftermath than Beloved (and I love Morrison’s book), and deserves to be more widely read for that reason alone. But there are plenty of other reasons, including a particularly impressive rewriting of, you guessed it, the Dad story.
4) John Sayles, Lone Star (1996): As I wrote in my long-ago post on my two favorite Sayles films (this one and City of Hope), both feature literally a dozen or more main characters and plotlines. So it wouldn’t be accurate to say that everybody in Lone Star is experiencing the Dad story. Only that the two main male characters are; and oh yeah, the main female character is going through a very parallel Mom story of her own.
5) Barack Obama, Dreams From My Father (1995/2004): Between this space and my recent book, I’ve said all I can say about Obama’s first and best book. But at the risk of over-psychoanalyzing people I don’t know, let me just add that a comparison of George W. Bush’s Dad story with Obama’s can help us understand just how much more Obama really represents the complex, often dark and difficult, but almost always influential and inspiring role that our fathers and heritages, our families and pasts, play in American lives.
Five great works, all much more than the Dad story, but all deeply connected to it as well. Is it a coincidence that I love all of them almost as much as I love my Dad? Probably not. More tomorrow,
PS. Many links to start with:
1) Great live version of Hiatt’s song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GG-iVJpJXkc
2) Google book of Penn Warren’s novel: http://books.google.com/books?id=9DlMur3pg2gC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
3) A few excerpts from Vidal’s novel: http://www.gorevidalpages.com/1973/10/index.html
4) Browse inside Bradley’s novel: http://www.harpercollins.com/browseinside/index.aspx?isbn13=9780060916817
5) Great mini-essay on Sayles’ film: http://www.ericenders.com/lonestar.htm
6) Google book of Obama’s book: http://books.google.com/books?id=HRCHJp-V0QUC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
7) OPEN: Happy Father’s Day! Any texts to add?
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