English 2013: Introduction to American Literature
Assignment Eight-- Maturation: Fathers and Children



Sylvia Plath at 18

The thematic focus of the literature that we are examining in the seventh and eighth assignments is the relationship between parents and children.

This eighth assignment asks you to read short works written by one eighteenth-century poet -- Edward Taylor -- four twentieth-century poets -- Theodore Roethke, Robert Hayden, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath -- and one twentieth-century fiction writer --F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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Three of these authors (Roethke, Hayden, and Plath) write from the perspective of a child and each focuses on the difficult relationship that exists between the child and his or her father, examining and revising views of parental authority and responsibility.

Three of these authors (Taylor, Fitzgerald, and Sexton) write from the perspecitve of parents, expresing differing insights to the deep emotional connection of parent to child.

Edward Taylor emigrated to Masschusetts Bay Colony in 1668 and after graduating from Harvard became a physician and pastor in the remote village of Westfield, Massachusetts. His poem "Upon wedlock, and the Death of Children" demonstrates his effort to reconcile his faith with his parental anguish over the death of his children.Karen Rowe's Edward Taylor page places this particular poem in the context of Taylor's body of writing.


F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Babylon Revisited" is set in the sober and constricted world that followed the great stock market crash of 1929, the start of the Great Depression. In the story this period is contrasted with the carefree days of the "Roaring Twenties." Belatedly the protagonist Charlie has realized that his daughter Honoria is the one thing that has value, but his former indiscretions haunt him and prevent his being reunited with his daughter. Unlike Eliza, Charlie doesn't get to run off with his daughter in an heroic escape. He must wait patiently and forlornly as time and his daughter's childhood pass him by. The University of South Carolina put together a Fitzgerald Centenary site for the 100th anniversary of the author's birth.

 

Theodore Roethke was raised by German immigrant parents in remote rural Michigan. His poem "My Papa's Waltz" from the 1948 collection The Lost Son describes the tension between the anxiety created by the rough, raucous behavior of the drunken father and the child's desperate love for his parent. Your reading of the attitude this poem expresses toward the father may be conditioned by your own experiences and beliefs.

Theodore Roethke

Robert Hayden

Robert Hayden, one of the most significant African-American poets of the middle of the twentieth century, grew up in a poor ethnically mixed neighborhood in Detroit. His parents separated when he was young and he was raised in a foster home. In remembering his teenage years when terrible conflict arose between his biological mother and his foster family Hayden wrote "I lived in the midst of so much turmoil all the time I didn't know if I loved or hated" Vol. II (p.1192). In the poem "Those Winter Sundays" (click the title to hear Hayden read the poem) Hayden expresses how impossible it is for a child to appreciate the "austere and lonely offices" of a parent's love. The Modern American Poetry pages maintained by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provide much useful information at Robert Hayden (1913-1980).

Sylvia Plath was 8 years old when her entomologist father Otto died and her mother Aurelia went to work full-time as an instructor of secretarial skills to support the family. Sylvia won scholarships to attend prestigious Smith College, but during the summer vacation following her junior year, she attempted suicide, an event that is central to her novel The Bell Jar. While studying as a graduate student in England she met and married the poet Ted Hughes with whom she had two children. Not long after they separated, Plath killed herself. Her poem "Daddy" explores the ways in which even non-abusive relationships between parent and child can be limiting. In particular, her poem addresses the common desire for children to become independent from the determining influence of the parents and the particularly stifling influence of patriarchal authority on girls.


Sylvia Plath and her children, Frieda and Nicholas, less than a year before she killed herself

Anne Sexton


Anne Sexton began writing poetry at the suggestion of a therapist when she was in her twenties and battled mental illness throughout her life. She committed suicide in 1974 at the age of 52, having won many prestigious awards for her poetry, including the Pulitizer Prize. Her poem "Little Girl, My String Bean, My Lovely Woman" is written as advice by a mother to a daughter approaching puberty.

updated: June 15, 2018