This month the “Book Club” is taking up classic books that we’ve somehow managed never to read before. Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children is the one you and I came up with, a novel that received poor reviews when it was published in l940, went out of print, and was revived by Randall Jarrell, whose indispensable l955 appreciation serves as an introduction to the widely available paperback edition from Owl Books. I’ve spent decades actively refusing to read this book because it is about a totally mad, miserable family headed by an idealistic egomaniac and his wretched, resentful wife. But for a final “t,” they have my last name, and without going into details, that’s not the only trait the Pollit family shares with my own. They even live in Georgetown during the Depression, as my own father did. For years I would see the book in the store and say to myself: I don’t want to know. I just don’t want to know.
How happy I am, then, that thanks to the Book Club I have finally ventured beyond the discouraging flap copy and plunged in. To think that I could easily have gone to my grave without having read this glorious novel, and for such a stupid reason! The Man Who Loved Children is a work of genius–large, bold, original. Complex and exciting. It’s one of those books you live inside while you’re reading it and never want to end, even though the story it tells is horrifying. All the marvelous things that have been said about it are true. Lillian Hellman called Stead “the best woman writer alive”–which as you know, Marjorie, is the kiss of death , the gold seal of mild approval, the patronizing wave of the hand that sends a book off packing to the used book shop of literary history along with Mrs. Humphrey Ward and Virgilia Peterson while the real great writers sit in shiny new editions in the front of the store. Nobody ever calls a man “the best male writer alive,” although that is sometimes the case. Christina Stead is a great writer, period.
When we first meet them, the Pollit family seems like one of those huge, rumbly-tumbly jolly households in Dickens–the sort of family that, from the outside, looks like paradise: They have their own customs, their own holidays, even their own comical language. Sam Pollit, the father, a naturalist who works for the Bureau of Fisheries, is full of grand dreams of universal brotherhood and the glorious future awaiting humanity, which seems to be a vague compound of world federalism and eugenics.
But mostly Sam is the man who loves children, of whom he and his wife, Henny, have six, including a daughter from Sam’s first marriage, Louie, whose coming into adolescence and rebellion and consciousness of her literary gifts is one of the main strands in the story. The book’s bitter joke, on which Stead rings dozens of brilliant changes, is that Sam, who loves children so much that his own six are not enough, who has to lure into his orbit all sorts of neighborhood children as well, and who wishes he could have a child of every race and color, does not take care of his children or protect them or understand them or put them first in any way. When his children cross or tease or challenge him, he shreds them:
“My system,” Sam continued,”which I invented myself, might be called Monoman or Manunity!” Evie laughed timidly, not knowing whether it was right or not. Louisa said, “You mean Monomania.”
Evie giggled and then lost all her color, became a stainless olive, appalled at her mistake.
Sam said coolly, “You look like a gutter rat, Looloo, with that expression. Monoman would only be the condition of the world after we had weeded out the misfits and degenerates.” There was a threat in the way he said it.
Under the excitement that he is constantly churning up around himself–the nature projects and wild pets, the scientific experiments, the improving lectures on social and moral themes, the songs and maxims and bits of poems he constantly spouts, the Sunday-Fundays–he’s a monster of selfishness and irresponsibility. His children are allowed no privacy, no thoughts or will of their own because the real child is himself. If this were a contemporary novel, he would be secretly raping his daughters and maybe his sons as well. Stead is not so literal-minded, but she shows the reader how weirdly sexualized his relations with his daughters are: Every morning, for example, he wakes his younger daughter, Evie (whom he calls “Little-Womey” for Little Woman), and makes her massage his scalp while he lies in bed.
As Jarrell points out, Sam Pollit is essentially a comic figure; life swirls around him but has no effect upon him: No matter what happens, he stays the same. Henny, his wife, is his tragic opposite, whose downward course spurs the novel’s action. Sam and Henny are opposites in every way, of which his being a man and her being a woman are the most obvious and most important. He comes from the striving working class; she is a spoiled heiress who has married beneath her. He is the fun parent, constantly summoning “his” womenfolk to bring treats and clean up the messes he has made and totally oblivious to the daily round of chores that keep the household going; she does all the actual work, bitterly hating every bit of it, with the help of her daughters and Sam’s young sister, whose youth is being sacrificed to her brother’s hyperfertility. He sees the children through the mists of his golden, nonsensical fantasies about progress; she sees them as actual people who much of the time she can’t stand to have around her. He thinks money is beneath him; she scrounges from relatives, friends, a lover, and more–to keep the house going and to pay for her own secret splurges–a bargain basement hat, a movie matinee. When we meet them, Sam and Henny are already fighting constantly– viciously,violently–and as the family fortunes go downhill, these scenes become more and more appalling. From early on you just know that something dreadful is going to happen, but you don’t know what it will be: Murder? Suicide? The squashing of Louie’s budding literary genius? The accidental death of one these too many, harum-scarum, obsessed-over, neglected children? I don’t want to give away the plot, which is very exciting and becomes almost unbearably so in the last 60 pages, but as Jarrell points out, Stead foreshadows the climax repeatedly from the book’s earliest pages, and when it comes, you’re still shocked.
I’m afraid I’ve made the book sound rather grim and deterministic and Ibsenlike when it is actually as exhilarating and open-spirited, as seemingly full of the whole wide world, as Tolstoy. Stead achieves this partly through humor–Sam Pollit is a monster, but his total misunderstanding of himself and everyone else, his extravagant falsity makes him an unending source of comedy. And the book isn’t just the doomed tale of Sam and Henny–it’s also the story of Louie, the ugly duckling determined to seek the great fate that awaits her, far away from the Pollits and their ravings and screamings and child-beatings. Finally, there is the incomparable freshness and energy and beauty and expansiveness of the prose, which creates so apparently effortlessly a world that stands out so sharply and distinctly in every particular that you feel you’ll remember the Pollits’ big tumble-down house and overgrown garden as if you had lived there yourself when you were a child.
I’m going out now to track down every other one of Christina Stead’s books. Did you love this one as much as I did, Marjorie?
Thanking my stars for that extra “t,”