Literary history

Phil Ford

The first part of this story is here. The third part is here.

My parent split up when I was 17 and I didn’t talk to my Dad much for a few years. The summer I turned 18 I went to Orford and borrowed Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye from a friend. The book is about a woman returning to Toronto and seeing old friends and haunts, and much of the narrative is taken up with remembered episodes of an unhappy first marriage to a bohemian artist-type named Jon. Jon reminded me a lot of my Dad — not in every way, but in some ways, particularly his sense of humor. My Dad was a funny guy: he had an encyclopedic memory for jokes, and at his funeral his old friends remembered his prankish streak. The story I particularly remember had to do with a visiting professor from England who complained about a raccoon who kept knocking over his trash can. My Dad, without missing a beat, said “Well, you know, the thing about raccoons is they’re very intelligent. If you give them any sort of challenge they’ll keep coming back to figure it out, so what you want to do is make it easy for them. Just leave out a lot of food for the raccoons and they’ll get bored and will leave you alone.” And this English philosopher, with no prior experience of raccoons and not a lot of common sense, did exactly what my Dad told him. A couple of weeks later he came up to my Dad with a sour look on his face, saying “Jay, I don’t know where you got that idea about feeding the raccoons, but it doesn’t work. Now there’s a dozen of the damn things on my porch every night!”

Anyway, I mention this because there’s an episode in Cat’s Eye where the narrator finds Jon painting his apartment black. “Jon says this is to get back at the landlord, who is a prick. ‘When I move out, it’ll take him fifteen coats to cover that up,’ he says.” And this struck me as exactly the sort of thing my Dad would do. When I got back to my Mom’s apartment in Toronto at the end of the summer (shortly before going to IU for my freshman year as a piano student), I mentioned the book and how much the character of the ex-husband reminded me of Dad. “Well, it’s not very surprising, is it? Your Dad was engaged to Peggy Atwood, after all,” she said matter-of-factly. I was surprised by this, and surprised that everyone knew about it except me; I must not have been paying attention. When I asked my sister about it, she said, oh, yeah, I knew that. Somehow I had missed it, but apparently my grandparents never entirely got over the disappointment of my Dad failing to make a match with Canada’s foremost novelist and would every now and then make a point of it. Once, when my family was unpacking from a long drive from Sudbury to my grandparents’ house in Toronto, my Mom started yelling, “Goddam Peggy Atwood! Bloody Peggy Atwood!” My grandma had thoughtfully left a copy of Macleans magazine open on the dresser at the first page of an article on Atwood. But I was busy unpacking in the basement spare room and had no idea what was going on upstairs. Anyway, it was an interesting story, but I didn’t think much about it, and later, when my Dad and I became close again, I never asked him about it. He didn’t like talking about his early life anyway.

And then he died, and I couldn’t ask him. But one day just before Christmas of 1998, about four months after his death, I was buying presents at a Borders in Minneapolis and noticed, on the “new non-fiction” shelf, a new hardback biography of Atwood by Nathalie Cooke. So I think, huh, I wonder . . . and take it down from the shelf, and open it up. And you know how books often open to the place where the glossy photo plates have been stitched in? This was the first thing I saw:

dadatwood

My Dad, the photographer. He loved making pictures; it was where the best part of him went, the best part of his creativity, his pleasure in the things of this world. Here’s the self-portrait he took later in life:

dad002

My Dad, his face amused and intelligent and showing pride in his tools, capturing something of himself for posterity.

And here I am, in a mall bookstore, paging through a critical biography just as I’ve done a million times before (I mean, it’s what I do), only this time, there’s my Dad, a different part of him captured for posterity, a part I never knew about. Literary history.

I think my Dad would have enjoyed the irony of his picture appearing opposite the chapter titled “feminism.” Atwood and my Dad were engaged in summer 1963 and spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ Lake Simcoe summer cottage. And then they got un-engaged for vaguely described reasons. “But by Easter 1964 a strain had developed in their relationship, due partly to Ford’s workload at Massey [college] (he was teaching two courses and preparing for comprehensive exams), and the engagement was broken off.” (Cooke p. 118) But of course I know things Nathalie Cooke probably doesn’t; I think I know why they broke up.

But you can find out yourself: go read Edible Woman. Because, I’m reading in this biography, the character of “Peter” in this novel, a landmark of feminist fiction and the mainstay of a thousand women’s-studies courses, is based on my Dad. So I tuck the biography under my arm and walk over to the fiction section and pull Edible Woman off the shelf. And there he is again, my Dad, as real and present to me as the photo. Well, not exactly. It’s a dark funhouse image of my father; my Dad in parody, my Dad as a sexist would-be playboy, my Dad as The Bad Fiancé, my Dad as a negative archetype of the feminist literary imagination. But at the same time it’s an alarmingly, painfully accurate pen portrait. It’s hard to read. What must it have been like for my Dad to see himself laid out on the slab and dissected like this? To Cooke he said that he found it “immensely amusing,” but again, I suspect I know better. He was big about the whole thing to Cooke, but there’s probably a reason he didn’t ever mention this part of his life to me.

Flipping to another page in the biography, I discover that Atwood’s early cycle of love poems, Circle Game, is also inspired by, and dedicated to, my Dad. So I go over to the poetry section and look for that book.

I have a hard time expressing just how strange this felt.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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7 Responses to Literary history

  1. Jonathan says:

    This is compelling reading, Phil. I’m forwarding these links to a friend, an Atwood scholar on our campus.

  2. Scraps says:

    Wow. Atwood is one of my wife’s Crucial Writers. And I’ve forwarded this as well.

  3. PMG says:

    This is beautiful, Phil!

  4. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Um, WOW, Phil. I have also forwarded this around.

  5. Mark says:

    A fascinating read. Sometimes I’m glad that I don’t come from an intellectual family .. don’t have that baggage. On the other hand, maybe there’s an anxiety of influence thing that pushes one to achieve.
    Anyway, I especially liked the Borders part: the feeling must have been a mix of dread and weird elation.

  6. Aisha says:

    I cannot think of anything that would feel more odd than to look in a book at Borders and find my dad’s portrait looking up at me – freaky.

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