Children of the Lorn

August 11 is Sons and Daughters Day. Which is ludicrous. Any parent can tell you that every minute of every day is Sons and Daughters Day. Even Mother’s and Father’s Days are for the children so that, when we’ve gone to our reward, they can remember all those sweet lanyards and ties they’ve given us and console themselves that they were good children.

That said, being the child of a famous author can be challenging. You’ll often hear authors respond to a question about which book is their favorite with a demurring, “That’s like asking me which child is my favorite!” The subtext being: Please don’t ask me that. I’m not entirely sure I’ll remember their names. Writers’ heads are haunted with the uncreated imaginary casts of their works; they can’t be expected to keep all the details of mundanity at their fingertips.

So, to celebrate the day and those who have borne this particular burden, I give you:

1. What? The Dickens?

Dickensjunior-1874Everything about this photo tells the tale. The way he’s seated on the chair, his back to whatever useless endeavor had recently held his attention; the toothbrush mustache, styled to disguise a permanent frown; the wistful waiting for it all to be over. Poor Charles Dickens, Jr.

The unfortunate soul, having inexplicably failed to make a living selling tea in Victorian England, cleverly set up shop as a printer. Son of bestselling-author-just-about-ever buys a printing press. Can’t fail, eh? It did. So, his old Pop took him on as editor. Yes, imagine those conversations.

Still, young Charley had some success “in his own right” (as our Olympic announcers are wont to say), especially with Dickens’s Dictionary of London, 1888: An Unconventional Handbook. Had he been anyone else’s son, his life might have been just fine. RIP, Little Boz.

2. Dumassery


Here we have the very portrait of surly resignation: Alexandre Dumas…fils. His father penned a few ha’penny pulps—The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, &c.—and still made time to cheat on his wife with such devotion that, of his 40 or so mistresses, four actually bore him children (clearly, all actually bored him). Being a stand-up guy (despite rarely standing up, as we have established) the elder Dumas “legitimized” his son at the age of 6 and provided for an excellent education. In doing so, he also effectively terminated the parental rights of the boy’s mother, causing her such emotional agony that it became a theme in wee Alex’s writing. [You’re thinking I’m being hyperbolic, aren’t you? In which case, I invite you to peruse his play The Illegitimate Son. Whatever might that be about?] {NB: My efforts to find this for you on Amazon returned only the result for The Man in the Iron Mask. Quelle surprise!}

Education did its task, though, and the younger Dumas turned out to have a good career. His most famous work is The Lady of the Camellias, built around a charming neighbor with whom he may well have been besotted. The novel was rewritten for the stage and sparked the imagination of an Italian gent by the name of Verdi who turned it into La Traviata. If you’re not an opera fan, you may know the plot from Rent (just replace “AIDS” with “tuberculosis”) and the aria from a Heineken commercial.

In true life’s own operatic twist, AD fils is buried in Montmatre, just a stone’s throw away from the grave of that charming neighbor. The monument is considerably more dazzling than famous denizen Mssr James Morrison’s, if somewhat less trafficked.

3. Kingsley and Martin Amis

Kingsley, with what passed for an excuse in his day.

This is a truly remarkable duo for many countable reasons:

  1. Sheer quality. Kingsley had Lucky Jim and The Old Devils (which won the Booker); Martin had Money and London Fields.
  2. Astonishing breadth. Kingsley wrote novels, but also essays, criticism, science fiction (including New Maps of Hell, whence comes the title of a truly excellent Bad Religion CD), poetry, humor, and, just maybe, a few James Bond riffs. Martin is often mentioned alongside some of the leading literary lights of the age, has been dubbed the champion of a style the NYTimes calls “the new unpleasantness,” and churns out shorts and reviews. His voice is like a massage for the psyche and he looks for all
  3. Unimaginable holiday dinners. True to type, Kingsley had rather a hard time keeping the old pen in the right
    The ruthlessly competent Martin.

    inkwell. His wife complained of this in a short note she wrote in lipstick on his back as he napped on a beach—which note was made famous in a photo of same. (You’ll have to Google it; it’s more than a bit rude.)  Less typically, in his dotage, his two sons persuaded their mother to let him move back in with her—and her husband—because the great mind was losing purchase and his public comments were devolving into very unflattering portraits of Americans, Jewish persons, and “hicks.”

Of terrifying note: In 2007, Martin took a post teaching creative writing at Manchester University. Look at that face. Now, here is his own prediction, from the Guardian, of how he thought he might relate to students:

“I may be acerbic in how I write but I’m not how I live. And I would find it very difficult to say cruel things to people in such a vulnerable position. I imagine I’ll be surprisingly sweet and gentle with them.”

It’s nice to see he’s gotten his father’s sense of humor.

Writing may well have a genetic component, for there are many others. Joe Hill (NOS4A2) calls Stephen King “Dad,” for which some medal ought to be forged. (“Tell us a scary story, Daddy…”). I’ve already related (somewhat unsympathetically) the tale of Christopher Robin Milne. William F. spawned Christopher Buckley, John Updike’s son David writes some outstanding short stories, and John Steinbeck’s son (John IV) went to Vietnam to get some street cred. You can still find copies of his In Touch, but check out the author bio: Yep, it’s dad’s.

Good books allow an avid reader to live many lives. Often the price of this gift is the writer’s own life—not just the long and lonely hours of writing and rewriting, but the collateral damage of a well-honed sense of human motivation. So many of the daily courtesies that make human society civilized show false to the writer’s eye. We are reluctant to take “Good morning” and “Have a nice day” at face value and are loath to insult others with facile and farcical expressions. We try so hard to respect the truth in others that we invariably insult them. And then we have children, who have no hope of withstanding such treatment.

Spare a thought for the poor, toiling, well-meaning author next time you ask yourself “What should I read next?”