You think you’re busy? Meet Galileo, Darwin, and Marx, who fathered schools of thought in between fathering children.
Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Jack Rakove’s new “history of the invention of America,” Revolutionaries (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30), is not for the faint of heart—I defy anyone to find a book with a 26-page prologue that is. (Twenty-six much shorter pages into The Big Sleep, by comparison, Philip Marlowe has already been hired to find a blackmailer, met two dames, and stumbled onto a pornography ring.)
Rakove also boldly devotes his first hundred or so pages after the prologue—you can almost hear his publisher sweating—to a comprehensive account of the intricacies and quirks of colonial politics leading up to 1776, which, though admirable, ain’t exactly the stuff of an HBO mini-series.
Slog through those dry preliminaries, though, and you’ll get to what all his other reviewers praise without qualification, and with good reason: his “marvellous vignettes” and “richly drawn portraits” of the men behind so much historical legend. Far from the firebrands and visionaries we know from the National Treasure movies, Adams, Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin were all Joe Q. Publics in pre-Revolution times and, for the most part, just ended up in the right place at the right time.
“The Revolution made them,” Rakove notes, “as much as they made the Revolution,” and his fine-grained portraits demonstrate just that: Thomas Jefferson was a stalwart family man who refused several early overseas assignments so that he might remain with his wife and daughters; James Madison was a navel-gazing hypochondriac who, in another time and place, would have ended up living in his parents’ basement; and John Adams and Benjamin Franklin once had to share a bed during a business trip, where the latter put the former to sleep with a lecture about why one ought to leave the windows open at night.
It’s stories like these that help deliver on Rakove’s promise in Revolutionaries to show us the men behind the Men. It’s fascinating to see how the personal fears and concerns of a few floundering fathers shaped the views of those who would eventually become America’s Founding Fathers—but this approach is hardly a new one in the world of biography.
Over the last decade or so, several books have set out to illustrate how Fathers of entire fields of thought and action have been fathers of boys and girls first, and since it is Father’s Day this weekend, a quick overview of a few of them is in order.
The most obvious place to start is Galileo’s Daughter (Penguin, $17) by Dava Sobel. Sobel explicitly makes Galileo’s fatherhood its guiding theme—though it arguably dwells at greater length on his status as the Father of Modern Science—and in any case it received so much critical acclaim upon its release in 1999 that to omit it would be a mistake. But while Galileo’s Daughter makes much of theFlorentine’s eldest, Suor Maria Celeste, and does so elegantly, she feels less like an integral part of his life than a neat historical coincidence. (“Hey, he had a daughter, too!”)
As Sobel tells us, of course, Galileo’s letters to Suor Maria Celeste were destroyed, and so, by necessity, their relationship appears here as somewhat one-sided—but without much in the way of primary sources to demonstrate any reciprocal affection on Galileo’s part, we’re forced to take Sobel’s word for it, and his daughter ends up feeling more like a secretary who could have been conveniently substituted with another at a moment’s notice.
Indeed, Sobel’s otherwise fascinating and accomplished biography gives the impression that Galileo’s life and work would have been largely the same even if Suor Maria Celeste had never existed.
This is not the case with two other splendid biographies, which deal respectively with the Father of Communism and the Father of Evolution, both of which give a convincing picture of how the tribulations of fatherhood helped shape some of the most transformative ideas of the modern world.
The first, Randal Keynes’s Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution (Riverhead, $15)—also available last year in a movie edition as Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin (Riverhead, $16)—flings Darwin’s eldest daughter Annie just as forcefully into the limelight as Sobel does with Suor Maria Celeste. Keynes, though, is more assiduous in teasing out the consequences of that central father-daughter relationship, focusing on how Annie’s death from consumption, at age 10, was a decisive turning point in Darwin’s course from faithful Christian to infamous schismatic.
It’s a provocative point, made well, and there is an indisputable heartbreak in Keynes’s rendering of Annie’s final days (Charles, by her bedside in a spa town, writes almost hourly updates to his wife, who is still at their home in Downe, too pregnant to travel).
Still, the importance of Charles’s fatherhood to his thinking on evolution goes beyond his grief at Annie’s death that Keynes so doggedly focuses on; his children affected his work in countless other ways, too, from the direct (his daughter Etty assisted him with the manuscript for Descent of Man) to the fleeting (his copious observations of his children as infants provided a comparison with other primates, and informed many of his ideas about common ancestors and the expression of emotion)—and Keynes leans on Annie for her emotional resonance just a little too heavily.
Among the book’s accomplishments, though, is an intimate portrait of Darwin’s life and daily struggles that complicates the standard Father of Evolution narrative, in which the naturalist just hopped on the Beagle one day and then wrote the Origin of Species without much else worthy of note.
What Keynes does for Darwin, British historian Francis Wheen does for Karl Marx, in Karl Marx: A Life (W. W. Norton, $16.95). Wheen gives us a leisurely, wide-angle view of the major aspects of Marx’s life—his childhood and university years, his lifelong correspondence and dependence on collaborator Friedrich Engels, his ongoing petty feuds with a who’s who of European intellectuals, his eventual decline and death, and much more—and though he doesn’t connect the dots for the reader the way Sobel and Keynes do, his descriptions of Marx’s day-to-day life, both moving and hilarious, nevertheless begin to show us how the man’s vitriolic crusade against capitalism had its roots in his life as a father.
Despite generous assistance from Engels, Wheen tells us, Marx spent much of his life running from creditors, who were chasing him to collect on the huge debts he’d incurred providing for his family. Those debts ran far beyond simple food and clothing: Marx splurged constantly to give his kids the bourgeois lifestyle that he would ruthlessly vilify later, insisting on expensive educations for his daughters, taking a series of living quarters far above his means, and frequently sending the family on lavish vacations to the English seaside even as he was writing Engels begging for another loan.
Anything other than such fineries, he once wrote his friend, “could hardly be suitable for growing girls”—the same growing girls who sat on his shoulders every weekend while he galumphed around the garden pretending to be their horse.
If that sense of paternal needing-to-provide was the root of some of Marx’s resentment towards the capitalist way of life, though, it could hardly compare to the indignities he suffered when he simply couldn’t pay for what his family needed—perhaps most wrenchingly when his daughter Franziska died of bronchitis at one year old, and he had to borrow £2 from a neighbor to buy a coffin.
Confronted with money’s power to leave him impotent, as a father and husband as much as a citizen or writer, I wonder whether he could have devoted his life’s work to anything other than capitalism’s downfall.
No one would seriously pretend that the ideas of Galileo or Darwin or Marx would never have come about if the men hadn’t had children (or likewise that the Revolution would never have come about if Adams and Jefferson and Washington had all been ascetic hermits). But that’s part of my point: these ideas and deeds are used so interchangeably with their progenitors’ names that it’s easy to think about them without remembering the full and exquisitely ordinary lives that happened first.
And though that’s at most an academic loss as far as these historical figures themselves are concerned, I think it’s a very tangible loss for fathers everywhere today; fatherhood isn’t easy, and for men who struggle to balance their personal goals with their familial responsibilities, it must be discouraging to be surrounded by so many Great Men who apparently arrived at their enormous legacies with almost no effort whatsoever.
For this Father’s Day, at the same time as honoring, as fathers, the great men who have helped shape our history and our life, we ought, more importantly, to take a moment to honor as great men all the fathers alive today—the ones who will keep on shaping us, for better or for worse, for many more centuries to come.