It feels appropriate to revive The Daily Sabbatical with a review of a book no one reads. The Man Who Loved Children dropped to a critical and commercial death soon after leaving the womb of its creator, Christina Stead, over seventy years ago. It was pushed back into print in 1965 by the intelligent and eloquent endorsement of critic Randall Jarrell, and has recently been championed by Jonathan Franzen. Still, few know of the book and fewer still actually turn all five hundred of its pages to see if the critical acclaim is justified. It is. But if Franzen and Jarrell can’t bring the book back from obscurity, my recommendation is likely to have less effect than that of a country librarian to an aging spinster destined to leave nothing behind but closets. But so be it. The prose ranks with the best of the language and the depiction of its theme is unmatched. Every additional reader of a book like this is a victory for serious writing.
Although to contemporary ears its title suggests a story about a man with unsavory predilections, The Man Who Loved Children is about the life of an American family. It deserves, in fact, that famous opening sentence more than Tolstoy’s dubious classic: “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The Pollits are, despite—or perhaps because of—their patriarch’s conviction to the contrary, a very unhappy family. And they are unique, as are all families. (The reader should feel free to supplement Tolstoy’s quote with this premise to draw the pessimistic conclusion.) Despite their uniqueness, I doubt any reader will fail to find some of the minerals of her own family life in the Pollit soil.
The Pollit household is a sprawling carnival of kids, seven in all, revolving around Sam and Hennie, a deeply problematic pair of parents. On the face of it, Hennie is simply poisonous. She’s sour at the world and bilious to the core, but the rest of the family, lead by the unflappably optimistic bandleader Sam, has learned to take her unhappiness in affectionate stride. The outlook of the two parents couldn’t be more different. While Sam delights in taking “Shank’s ponies…’into the world of marvels which lies around us, into the highways and byways, into the homes of rich and poor alike, seeking the doorstep of him who loves his fellow man,” Hennie would tell “how, in the streetcar, was ‘a dirty shrimp of a man with a fishy expression who purposefully leaned over me and pressed my bust, and a common vulgar woman beside him, an ogress, big as a hippopotamus, with her bottom sticking out, who grinned like a shark and tried to give him the eye,’ and how this wonderful adventure went on for hours, always with new characters of new horror.” Hennie’s worst foe, though, is Sam himself whom she hates so thoroughly that she will not speak to him directly and almost flinches from her children, the constant reminders of her marital mistake.
Meanwhile, the little children seem not to notice the misery of dear “Mothering” as they run around the lawns with neighboring kids, catching snakes, feeding racoons and chasing around the legs of their dear “Pad,” or “Tad,” or “Dad,” Sam. Old Tad illuminates everything with his humanitarian exuberance, his love of nature, and his nonsense songs and nicknames which send the children into giggles. Everything in Pollitry has at least one nickname, from the home—Tahoga House—to the kids (Louisa: Louie, Looloo-dirl, Loo; Evie: Little-Womey; the twins: Gemini; the infant: Megalops) to the yard’s animals (Procyon). “Sunday’s a funday!” for Sam, and if his dreams of a world of “monoman” or “manunity” seem disturbingly utopian, so much can be forgiven in the name of sanguinity.
Not all the kids are equally engaged in “Pad’s” antics. Louisa, his child from a more romantic—or at least romanticised—first marriage, is on the cusp of adolescence and shows the expected detachment. She bears the load of the housework, neglected by Hennie, and in her idle moments turns to books, from Darwin to Shelley. Unquestionably precocious, she expects one day to be great and waits for the moment she will transcend the mess she perceives at Tahoga house.
It is finally through Louisa’s eyes that we begin to see through the surface of the family. Sam is, in fact, a man who loves children, but not really because they are lovable. He loves them insofar as they love him, insofar as they are his followers, adoring worshipers whose enthusiasm is directed and shaped by his design. As soon as they become old enough to break ranks or to insist upon their own path—as Louisa has—Sam’s gibes turn cruel, and he musters all his cleverness and the earned loyalty of the children to express disdain for the dissident. Though it is never said so clearly, it is clear that Sam is merely a black hole of self-love who is all the more frustrating for thinking himself the sun.
As the book progresses, Sam travels to Singapore for a time—where his love of humanity begins to show its fascistic tinge—and returns to find his fortunes crumbling. With the death of his wealthy stepfather, his lontime benefactor, he must uproot Pollitry from Tahoga house and move it into the disappointing shanty “Spa House.” Lacking a wealthy champion, he loses his job and the respect of his co-workers, and becomes the ever present Father of the House. “Meanwhile, Sam, whistling and singing operas and popular hits, would be leaving his trail of sawdust and brickdust, cement pellets and putty crumbs, and never an experiment in chemistry or physics did he perform, nor ever work with them over a book, but only talked with tender abstraction of ‘great lives’ and ‘great chemists’ and of his own beautiful soul and sympathetic life story.” Nothing, of course, could be worse for Henny who, penniless, no longer has the escape of shopping. The two of them try to avoid each other, but trapped in the futility of their poverty they collide, and the fights worsen, and the rotten core of the family begins to spread. As the book reaches its tragic climax, Henny—the previously inscrutable harridan—gains our sympathy and though she is still a wreck, it is really she who keeps us from dismissing the adults of the family astoo self-involved to stand.
Among this great novel’s many feats is the way it shifts the readers feelings and sympathies so dramatically, but without manipulation. One does wind up loving Louisa and the children, and one does loathe their disastrous parents, but that loathing is not due to any particular bad deeds or mistreatment. Henny does occasionally raise her hand in anger, but that violence is nothing compared to the damage wrought by the oppressiveness of Sam’s personality or the mutually destructive nature of the parental dynamics. And that, in the end, is what the book does better than any book I have read. It conveys the most terrible fact about childhood: that as children, we are totally hostage to the world our parents create. Even at moments when that world seems perfect, it is still not ours, and it is frequently far short of perfect. These Pollit parents, bad as they are, are like most parents: they are flawed, but excusably so. Their personalities and domestic dreams are not really chosen, but they are theirs nonetheless. We can feel sympathy for them. But the world they create for their children is often filled with apparently arbitrary rules, gifts and punishments, unpredictably violent emotional weather, and inexplicable battles that send everyone scurrying to their foxholes. It is a world that resembles nothing so much as a world ruled by jealous and egocentric Greek Gods, a world without haven, where the only option is to hope for the best and occasionally bow in obeisance.