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Familiar promises

Peter Wicks | Thursday, April 6, 2006

At the age of 18 Samuel Rayburn told his father he wanted to go to college. His father said that he could not afford to send him, to which Rayburn replied that he was not asking for money, only for the permission to go. His father gave it.

Later, as he was about to climb aboard his train to depart, his father gave him something else. His father took his hand and pressed into it twenty-five dollars (this was in 1900; twenty-five dollars was a substantial sum). As Rayburn boarded the train his father’s parting words were “Sam, be a man.”

Rayburn arrived at East Texas Normal College (now part of Texas A&M University) carrying his clothes tied together with rope because he could not afford a suitcase. He worked at several part time jobs while at college, before graduating in 1903. Three years later he was elected to the Texas House of Representatives, and then to the United States House of Representatives six years after that. He was reelected 24 times, eventually becoming the longest serving Speaker of the House, and was an effective politician widely admired as a man of integrity and principle.

Rayburn never discovered how his father had managed to save the money, but he never forgot the generosity of his gift or the words that accompanied it. He told the story for the rest of his life.

It took me a long time to realize quite how much I owe to my parents. Now I don’t know how to express my gratitude. How do you say “Thanks for everything” when “everything” really does mean everything?

When I was younger I took their love too much for granted, but the fact that I could take it for granted is one of the things I am now so grateful for, now that it has finally dawned on me quite how many people were in no position to do the same.

Journalists and cultural commentators are altogether too fond of the language of crisis (part of the rhetorical inflation by which nothing that has not been declared an emergency seems to warrant our attention), but in talking about the crisis of manhood I think the term is fully justified. There really is a crisis of manhood and the unprecedented number of children who are growing up without fathers is both a cause and a consequence of this fact.

Fatherlessness itself is not new. In the Old Testament the fatherless are grouped with the widows because their vulnerability merits special care. One of the most moving passages of the Iliad comes when Andromache laments the death of her husband Hector and asks how their child can grow up to manhood now that his father has been slain.

What has never happened before on anything approaching the current scale is children growing up without fathers not because their fathers have died, but because they have left.

Unsurprisingly the dissolution of the family is a dominant theme in modern literature, so dominant it’s easy to forget how rapidly this has happened. That’s one of the reasons to read old books; it helps us to recognize what is modern in modern books.

The unnamed narrator of Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fight Club” describes himself as “a thirty-year-old boy” (Samuel Rayburn’s father didn’t mean “man” in contrast to “woman;” he meant it in contrast to “boy”). After rejecting as empty his earlier life of aimless consumerism, he founds a club in which men beat each other into submission. The club gradually transforms into a violent terrorist movement dedicated to the destruction of civilization. As he loses control the narrator returns obsessively to thoughts of the father he hardly knew. He reflects that “What you see at Fight Club is a generation of men raised by women,” a line that has, unsurprisingly, earned its author many angry rebukes. But strip away the satiric hyperbole and Palahniuk seems to be making a serious point about the way in which, in the absence of a credible model of adult manliness, increasing numbers of men will take refuge in an aggressive and destructive hyper-masculinity that prizes the very qualities which traditional manliness kept in check.

The absence of a father from whom a credible model of adult male behavior can be learned is just as damaging to girls. One of the most depressing pieces of testimony from those who work in pregnancy centers is how many young women get pregnant without any serious expectation that the father will play a role in the child’s life. Frequently these women grew up in homes in which their father or a series of surrogate fathers were an intermittent presence at best.

The sexual revolution has changed American life more profoundly than the American Revolution. Estimations of the gains and losses vary wildly, but one thing is increasingly clear; the highest price is being paid by those least able to afford it.

It’s hard to even talk about the changes that have so rapidly overtaken the family. “Family values” was the first term for which scare quotes became part of the official spelling, and it is true that the term is frequently abused. But we need to learn to talk about what is happening to the family for the very reason that makes it so difficult to do so; because this is the point at which our concern for the next generation (“Think of the children!”) collides with a culture addicted to choice and autonomy. We need to talk about this because it is becoming apparent that this is not a culture which is conducive to producing people who will limit their autonomy by making and keeping familiar promises like “Until death do us part.”

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the Philosophy Department. He has no plans to run for Congress. Peter can be contacted at pwicks@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.