Sunday, March 6, 2011

A personal note -- remembering my father

Amanda Sigler, a talented doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, has just written an insightful biographical study of my father's work on his biography of James Joyce. (Amanda Sigler, "Joyce's Ellmann," Joyce Studies Annual - 2010, at 3-70.) It's startling to see one's father made the subject of study, but also enlightening. (As a good biography should, this study also makes reference to other people in its subject's life -- including my father's parents, my mother, my sisters, and, yes, me. All of us emerge unscathed.)

I'd always felt that my father's biographies were not only lives of the great writers he studied, but also expressions of himself. As much as he cared about each of his subjects (he wrote biographies of Yeats and Wilde as well as Joyce), and as much as he devoted himself to describing the details and the flavor of their lives, at the same time what he cared about in them he cared about in life as well, and so his accounts reflected his own response to life.

I learned from Sigler's article that my father knew this. It turns out that as he was working on the Joyce biography in the early 1950s, another scholar proposed that the two of them write about Joyce together. My father decided not to, and wrote to a friend and colleague, Ellsworth Mason, "I think I must proceed by myself; my notion of biography is that it should be a portrait of the writer as well as the subject, and I can't see how [the other scholar] and I would work together to constitute some sort of portrait a trois." (Quoted by Sigler at 20.)

What hadn't occurred to me, but Sigler sees, is that the process would work both ways. And this has to be right: as we infuse ourselves into what we do, so we ourselves learn from what we encounter. I always felt that I'd been raised partly on life experiences of James Joyce, and now I see better why that was. Sigler comments, for instance, that "for Ellmann, the little people were the important people, the small details essential to the composite whole. He had learned this lesson from Joyce, who insisted upon making ordinary men and women the subjects of his famous works." (Sigler at 58.) Joyce, as I learned myself when I read my father's work, once said, "I never met a bore" -- meaning that everyone is interesting if you engage with them. My father must have agreed, and the fact that these words of Joyce's stuck with me suggests that the lesson was passed on to me as well.

What's cause and effect here is hard to tease out. You study what you value, and you value what you study. But you're not a fixed entity either: everything you learn shapes you, every commitment of effort becomes part of your lifetime of choices. My parents denied that I was named for Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, and I'm sure that denial was sincere. Sigler (at 46) tells a similar story about my sister Lucy's name, and I believe my parents also denied that my sister Maud's name came from literature. But all these denials may also have been mistaken, for how could my parents (English professors both) help but value personally the writers and the words that they engaged so deeply with professionally?

We are what we study. We shape what we study so that it incorporates something of us. And we incorporate something of it into ourselves.

No comments:

Post a Comment