Where do you begin when you want to talk about something you’ve read, but you can’t go on endlessly for fear of spoiling the wonder?
This is how I feel about Leonard Michaels’ essay, ‘My Father’. It is a peculiar conundrum.
Leonard Michaels is one of my favourite writers. I’ve read a number of his short stories and essays, some of his diaries (published under the title Time Out of Mind: The Diaries of Leonard Michaels, 1961-1995 (1999)), his most famous work, The Men’s Club (1981) and his fictionalised memoir about his chaotic and tumultuous first marriage, Sylvia (1992). Sylvia is marvellous and something I intend to re-read soon and write about – but the single piece of his which stands out most to me is his five-and-a-half-page essay about his father.
According to The Essays of Leonard Michaels, edited by his widow, Katharine Ogden Michaels, there is more than one incarnation of the essay.
“This essay was originally published as “My Father’s Life” in Esquire, October 1981; then in The Granta Book of the Family, edited by Bill Buford (Granta Books, 1995); and later in its current form as “My Father” in Shuffle (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990).”
This latter version I have read many times, and it just might be my all-time favourite piece of writing. I will read it many, many more times throughout my life.
It is a beautifully-crafted essay. The anecdotes and attributes we are offered of his father, whilst varied, fit together seamlessly; and it is the graceful flow of Michaels’ writing which suggests that each detail was picked carefully and lovingly, like only one’s offspring could. So effortless is the transition from one anecdote to another, and so easily do they read, that the piece possesses a clarity and warmth that I hope to come within at least a thousand yards of when writing about loved ones.
I hesitate to quote any part of this brief essay; it should be read afresh. It seems slightly odd, though, not to quote the text at all in what is, technically, I suppose, literary criticism. Thus, I will offer a little over a dozen words, wherein Michaels describes himself:
“My winter coat was open, flying with my stride. … I was nineteen-years old-terrific.”
There is nothing else to say: ‘My Father’ by Leonard Michaels – please read it.
Leonard Michaels, ‘My Father’ in Katharine Ogden Michaels (ed.) The Essays of Leonard Michaels (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), pp. 123-128.