Saturday, 13 March 2010

Some Vintages Age Better Than Others

A few months ago I came across a copy of Especially Father, by Gladys Bagg Taber, in Value Village. The book, written in 1948, seemed to bear promise of being a type of book I quite like. Though I don’t know exactly how I should classify or even describe this kind of book. Probably the best description is that of “vintage memoir”. I’m thinking of books like Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough; We Shook the Family Tree by Hildegarde Dolson; and E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady, though Diary of a Provincial Lady is autobiographical fiction rather than a memoir. These books and the events they describe all belong to the first half of the twentieth century, and are all in a literary vein one doesn’t come across these days: erudite yet understated; delicately witty; self-deprecating yet dignified. And, if you can get your hands on an older edition, the yellowed pages with their well-aged scent and old-fashioned typeface adds to the feeling that one is stepping back in time.

Upon reading, Especially Father did prove to be this kind of book written by this kind of author. Taber penned more than fifty books, besides publishing a great deal of work in the periodicals of her day, and seems to be best known for her books about Stillmeadow, the seventeenth-century Connecticut farmhouse she bought and restored. I’ve made a note to myself to get my hands on one of these books sometime. But I expect to enjoy those books more than I liked Especially Father.

The book that Taber meant to commemorate her father, Rufus Bagg, does not do so in the way she intended. It’s evident that she loved her father and found that the excitement and hubbub he generated compensated for his shortcomings, but lacking her affection, and perhaps also her level of tolerance, I can’t agree. Good and even admirable characteristics her father had, yes. His level of physical energy seems to have been titanic. His knowledge of geology was profound and immense – as was to have been expected of a mining engineer and college geology professor – and he could discourse about it in a fascinating, poetic way. And he seems to have loved his wife and daughter deeply. But he also seems to have been an utterly unbearable man. Taber details his exploits: how she and her mother nearly starved in a rented room in Mexico because her father went off on an expedition to the mines in the mountains, supposedly for only a few days, and didn't return for a month (during which time Taber's mother ran out of money); how her father beat little Gladys black and blue for telling a neighbour where they hid their spare house key; how he left her in a store one morning and never remembered her until he returned home at suppertime; how he got up by six every morning and made such a racket no one else in the house could sleep; how he fought bitterly with the college librarian over a seventy-five-cent fine for months; how he browbeat his older brother into giving up his courtship of the girl who became Taber’s mother so he could court her himself; how he thought the only problem with Mexico was “all those foreigners” who lived in it; how he didn’t believe in red lights and never stopped for them; how he never understood any viewpoint that differed from his own and was convinced his own opinions were infallible.

Taber evidently wants her readers to admire her father as much as she did, but the really admirable character in this memoir is Taber’s mother. Without her mother’s sympathy, reason, and astute management, Taber’s childhood would have been a miserable experience. It would have taken a rare woman to put up with her father’s pigheadedness, and Grace Bagg seems to have had both the depth of sweetness and the strength of character to not only put up with him but to be happy with her lot – and to be the woman every other woman in town came to with her troubles. Taber writes that her father took her mother entirely for granted, that he expected her to do all the housekeeping, give the best parties of any wife on the faculty, feed six extra dinner guests at no notice, edit his papers, compose his speeches, find anything he had mislaid, and account for every penny he ever gave her. Many married women would have been expected to do the same at the turn of the twentieth century, but surely most would have received in return at least the occasional compliment or some consideration from their husbands. Grace Bagg did not, and she seems to have remained remarkably unresentful through it all, though Taber remembers how her mother would sew furiously late into the night when really perturbed. Grace Bagg did occasionally do battle with her husband to get what she really wanted – and win, too, because she had an understanding of his nature and therefore an ability to use his weaknesses to her advantage that he lacked – but generally she seems to have been able to take most of her husband’s behaviour in her stride and to see the never ending turmoil he caused as an adventure and a joke. But even while I marvelled at Grace Bagg’s spirit and fortitude, there was no getting away from the fact that she should not have been treated in such a way as to make such heights of self-abnegation necessary.

Taber does seem to have been fully aware of her mother’s worth (as she wrote, “Mamma was a genius”) and she is also cognizant of her father’s faults, but she could certainly have gone several steps further towards understanding the extent of his shortcomings. I found the pride not only Rufus Bagg but Taber herself showed over being a descendant of Cotton Mather to be appalling. Taber wrote:

I thought of the first ancestor, back there in 1632, setting his firm unfrightened foot on the new and terrible terrain.

It was his crest, and he was perfectly confident that he was virtuous and noble. And if the goodly man cheated the Indians, it was always for their own good, or for the glory of God. If he persecuted the witches, he was saving their souls or defending the innocent wretches they were casting spells upon. Sin was his mortal enemy, compromise a word he never knew.

Sure Mather treated the native people and their rights like nuisances to be swept aside, and presided over the cruel executions of innocent people, justifying it on the basis of an imaginary threat. But hey, he meant well, and compromising is for the weak and afraid!

Virtue, like everything else, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The blame or praise we attach to an action or characteristic is wholly dependent on its context. Compromise can be good or bad; persistence can be constructive or destructive. Good intentions need to be coupled with good judgment and competence if they are to lead to positive results. Anyone with a passing knowledge of history or politics knows what happens when those in power refuse to compromise or to be subject to checks and balances and ride roughshod over the rights and opinions of others to achieve their own ends.

Taber opens the book by telling us in a prologue that she came to write this book about her family because she did not want her memories, especially those about her father, to be lost, and ends it by describing a Bagg family reunion and commenting,

The sight of these, the last of the Puritans, standing there gave me an uneasy sense of weakness in my own generation…. If the time came for Communism to sweep the world, Father would face a firing squad still shouting, God bless the Republican Party.

This may have a fine rhetorical ring to it, but the truth is, far from sweeping the world, Communism was to collapse of its own accord, while the American Republican party has become a corrupted and destructive force. And none of Taber’s fond nostalgia about her father stands up to deconstruction much better than that example. Surely there’s no benefit in glorifying the kind of pig-headedness and complete lack of consideration for others that Rufus Bagg showed. We’ve seen what happened when the U.S. was governed for eight years by a man who prided himself on his own ignorance, who said that we were “with him or against him”, who said that dictatorship would be fine “if he was the dictator”.

Especially Father is a mildly enjoyable little memoir, but the reactionary, overly simplistic, and reverent tone of it did it no favours whatsoever.