Edmund Gosse’s “Father and Son”: A Road-map for Disbelievers

The kind of fundamentalist school I went to churns out two kinds of individuals: super-Christians—with gleaming smiles surgically implanted on their faces—and drug addicts. I’m exaggerating, of course, but only slightly.

Kids growing up in isolated subcultures are aware of the outside world. Their knowledge of it, though, is so second-hand and distorted that, should they seek to cross-over, they run a high chance of getting beat back down and cast off as damaged goods. Self-exiled from their community, and unable to fit into the secular world, they get stuck in anomic limbo, strangers to all. The passage out of fundamentalism tends to feel like an unexampled excruciation. Too many in this struggle assume they must go it alone. They never have the luxury of an exemplar to guide them—never hear a voice that whispers (or cheers): “What you’re doing is okay.” Edmund Gosse was one of the numberless unmentored questers who have come up and out of Fundamentalism, but the miracle of Gosse was that he emerged from his youth-in-contention a perfectly normal human being.

Father and Son is Gosse’s account of his orthodox Puritan childhood. He was born in England in 1849 to parents whose fundamentalist religious beliefs sharply set them off from the more lax Victorian society around them. His father, Philip Henry Gosse, won renown in his day as a naturalist. He first became famous (in scientific circles) for his coining of the word “aquarium” and for the remarkable illustrations [1] in his books on marine biology. Emily, Edmund’s mother, wrote religious tracts which made her something like a paragon for scattered communities of likeminded fundamentalist Puritans. These communities of “saints” disdained more worldly forms of religion. Church services were seen as a distant second in importance to private worship. Gosse reported that his family, though by most measures severely isolated, enjoyed contentment and occasional light moments, stemming in part from their assurance of Divine Providence. Emily died of breast cancer when Edmund was seven years old, but she and Phillip had already foreseen for Edmund a special “election” in God’s work. After his wife’s death, Phillip moved the family of two from London to a small town on the sea. Here Phillip was able to devote himself to God, his son, his work as a naturalist, and occasional pastoral pursuits.

Throughout his book, Gosse resists the urge to wax analytical. He defines his memoir as a history of “struggle between two temperaments, consciences, and almost epochs,” but notwithstanding that rather grand statement of intent he mostly allows the humble domestic scenes between father and son to speak for themselves. The details of their dailiness make Father and Son a permanent primary source for historians of Victorian religious sects, but this book isn’t only for specialists. Gosse’s artful naturalism seems to have saved his text from the wearing of time. His photorealist approach to familial things enable common readers to empathize with his coming of age a century and a half after.

Nowadays, most kids raised in fundamentalism are embedded in a web that’s bigger than family. Along with their pious parents, they’re often at the mercy of a patchwork of pastors, youth groups, and private religious schools. A typical autobiography of a contemporary American raised in fundamentalism would have to limn a myriad of personages with differing functions to accurately depict the communal surround. One of Father and Son’s great advantages as a narrative, however, is that its drama of faith vs. mindfulness centers on the solitary figure of Philip Henry Gosse. Thanks to this tight focus, Gosse’s interactions with his father attain a broader resonance.

Father and Son’s title is revealing. Edmund’s budding disbelief is always placed in contrast to his father’s temperament and religious anxieties. The equal weight given to both is not always easy on the reader. As an escaped fundamentalist myself, I wanted more of Gosse’s brief account of his initial months at boarding school–his first taste of life outside his familial dyad. Surrounded by boys his own age, Gosse finds himself in a state of numbed stupefaction. So used to social and spiritual quarantine, he goes through school “unbrightened and unrefreshed by commerce with a single friend.” In the next paragraph, however, Gosse insists: “This is not an autobiography, and with the details of my uninteresting school life I will not fatigue my reader.” Gosse probably can’t be faulted for assuming readers who grew up in secular environments would not be intrigued by the socially awkward school days of a weird religious kid. But those who’ve been there can be excused if they’re eager for some stray word or phrase to make sense of those social growing pains. Still, Gosse was right to do it his way. His determination to maintain the balance between father and son—to hold them in equal regard—allowed him to cast a critical, though not cold eye on the world he left behind. That he granted the spiritual Other a degree of autonomy seems like a supreme act of Christian charity—one which was never afforded the infant Gosse.

The fundamentalist Puritanism Gosse was born into held its reference points in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century religious writings. Gosse explains how this religious temperament was founded on denial of developing notions of modernity and scientific progress. In fact, one of Gosse’s latent themes is contrasting the “Hebraic” temperament of morbid religiosity (his father) with the “Greco”-Romantic spirit Gosse finds in the poets that eventually allowed him to join the modern world. Gosse was right about the archaic nature of his father’s beliefs, yet he wasn’t contemptuous of this anachronistic mentality and we shouldn’t be either. I felt a strange envy while reading about his parents’ religious and intellectual influences. In contrast to my own upbringing, the fact that Emily and Philip Henry Gosse read tomes of ancient Puritan devotionals make them seem almost a model of intellectual curiosity. On the other hand, the boredom young Gosse felt when trying to peruse his parents’ favorite texts probably isn’t too far off from the disgust I felt as a kid watching children’s programming by Focus on the Family. But there is a key difference. The fundamentalism of Gosse’s age had an authentic back story—a living, breathing past, even if that past had forfeited its utility. My postmodern, Evangelical brand of fundamentalism seemed to be informed by a wish to exist outside of time. While it insisted on the historical nature of Biblical events, it held a profound disdain for actual history. My Evangelicals lacked curiosity even about Christian culture and tradition. Gosse’s sect no longer exists in recognizable form. It seems to me modern Evangelicalism positions itself in a sort of vacuum that insures itself a kind of half-life–at the expense of millions of little intellectual and spiritual deaths in the hearts of its followers.

If Gosse’s account was a straight autobiography, Saved by Shakespeare might be an intriguingly apt title. For Gosse’s contact with a higher, humanist culture is what ultimately allows him to cast off the narrow confines of his faith-based youth. It was Shakespeare, along with English Romantic poets and other European culture-heroes like Ibsen (whom Gosse later introduced to English audiences) who opened him up to possibilities beyond Puritanism. Without them Gosse would probably still have found his way to a life outside the Bible. What humanist culture provided, though, was a sort of tightrope to carry him over the abysses that lie on all sides for anyone discarding a childhood creed.

Sadly though, for kids in struggle with fundamentalism today, the chances of making a connection to a humane past seem vanishingly small. Let’s be real—as our society becomes more secular, fundamentalism has become more than ever a phenomena of the white working and lower-middle class—the downtrodden and the barely-made-its. And the lower you go down the social ladder, the more it seems society actively conspires against providing access to higher culture. I don’t say High Culture—what I mean is not art made for the upper class (why would the oppressed want that?), but art that speaks in a genuine way to the soul. So, for a lot of ex-fundie kids, including myself, rock music was the first sign of a way out. I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but for recovering fundamentalists, balls-to-the-wall rock ‘n’ roll can be something of a mixed blessing. Oftentimes kids replace literal interpretations of the Scriptures with literal interpretations of the rock ‘n’ roll fast life. Rock’s celebration of the id, liberating for kids of a secular background, can become fodder for antisocial tendencies in those with a morbidly religious temperament. The fault in that, admittedly, lies less in the music than in the kid.  What I’m suggesting is that in general pop culture rarely provides roots that are desperately needed by anyone recovering from fundamentalism. Not that it’s pop culture’s function to resist deracination. Ex-fundies trying to come into the world must recover from black-and-white thinking and mad literalism. Finding community in a circle of accepting non-believers is the surest bet. But secular youth subcultures are rarely centered on art-experiences that provide the richest antithesis to fundamentalist verities. Rock ‘n’ roll saved me from Christianity, but it took writers like George Elliot and Ralph Emerson to save me from the salvation. Figures like that are around in pop culture (R.I.P. Jonathan Demme), but often they’re hard to find. Gosse’s literary bridge back to the world might not be completely replicable, but it is instructive. Ex-fundamentalist kids need to hook up with humanists as a way to get back to this sweet old world.

Having gotten over, Gosse looks back with a sense of humor. He reveals that the fall from fundamentalist grace is rarely heroic. More often it’s just embarrassingly human. Gosse relates how his first act of outward disobedience came after hearing his father rail against idolatry of objects made from wood and stone. “Such idolatry can only bring on the wrath of God” said Father Gosse. With the diligence of a rogue scholar, young Edmund proceeds to worship in private the prized family chair. When no thunderbolt descends from on high, Gosse experiences with relief his first hit of disbelief. He knows his father’s commands come from a place of concern over his spiritual well-being, but now realizes the Father (both heavenly and terrestrial) isn’t omniscient. Gosse’s spiritual quest hinges on knowledge (repressed by his father) that our spiritual beliefs are more alarmingly human than we’re apt to admit.

Phillip Henry Gosse is nowadays known chiefly for Omphalos, perhaps the first book-length creationist defense against the Darwinian crisis that was shaking the Victorian world. Before taking in Philip Henry Gosse’s silly achievement, it’s important to underscore that Father and Son indicates the Saint-and-Scientist had a genuine sense of awe for the natural world. Philip approached that world with a mind eager to list and describe its wonders. Edmund tells how he and his father would collect water samples from rock-bound puddles against the stony English shore. Under a microscope, Philip and young Edmund would stare for hours into the phantasmagoric colors, searching for clues of as-yet undescribed species. Edmund says this rapt concentration was the closest he ever saw in his father to any sort of mystic communion. The crisis of conscience that impelled Philip to pen Omphalos and in effect become the laughing stock of the scientific world must have been deep-felt.

Modern critics have observed with amusement that the logic of Omphalos, taken on its own terms, is irrefutable. The vulgar version of the argument is that God left the dinosaur bones to test the faith of believers. And while Philip Gosse didn’t put it in exactly those terms, the over-simplification isn’t far from the truth. A worldview irrefutable but also incompatible with reality–it seems a self-assured yet terribly lonely place to reside. Omphalos merely requires that you overlook the finger of the author inserted with increasing desperation into the leaking dam. And to me that seems…not an act of faith, but a slavish acceptance of servitude.

Edmund’s desire for freedom became apparent once Philip began prying into his son’s spiritual state in the season after Edmund returned from his first year at university. When Edmund went back to school, Philip sent him an aggrieved letter of admonishment that fell just short of a total swearing-off. It provides insight into the fundamentalism psyche. After invoking the memory of Edmund’s lost mother Philip lays it all on the line:

If the written Word is not absolutely authoritative, what do we know of God? What more than we can infer, that is, guess,—as the thoughtful heathens guessed, from dim and mute surrounding phenomena? What do we know of Eternity? Of our relations to God? Especially of the relations of a sinner to God?… [For you], the Holy Scriptures had no longer any authority: you had taught yourself to evade their inspiration. Any particular Oracle of God which pressed you, you could easily explain away; even the very character of God you weighed in your balance of fallen reason, and fashioned it accordingly. You were thus sailing down the rapid tide of time towards Eternity, without a single authoritative guide (having cast your chart overboard), except what you might fashion and forge on your own anvil,—except what you might guess, in fact.

Despite the stilted language, the existential issue is still discernable. It’s not nothing.

In his youth, Philip Gosse traveled amongst the tropical regions of America while training to be a naturalist. The first non-Biblical book Edmund receives, in fact, is a light novel that Philip had enjoyed during his time in the Caribbean. One wonders though, what unspeakable terrors in Philip’s youth did he espy that compelled him towards fundamentalism? The shift towards fundamentalism is not a low or vulgar affair. In Philip’s experience and in those I’ve known I make out traces of a profound human tragedy. In the face of a terrifying and chaotic world, how many nameless multitudes have plucked out their eyes and plunged their souls into a millennia-old book? How many more are yet to come?

Such self-abnegation is sad—even if it leads to exaltation—but it becomes horrific when forced on a child.   A tight-thinking faith that provides consolation for the adult become a crown of thorns for the child. Many of those who grow up wearing that tight crown come to hate themselves and others once they cast it off. Meanwhile those who keep the faith have been forced to cast off some of their humanity just to survive. Sometimes, in my dreams, I see Edmund Gosse up there crossing the tight rope, with the sorrow of soundless masses reeling below and at his back.

__________________________

I’m recalling just now musings from the deep winter of my Christian adolescence. I remember one anarchistic fever-dream in which I made demands on society. In return for its demands on the individual, I insisted society should provide some place of exile to those who cannot in good conscience make peace with it. Nowadays I’m not so sure about my case for a safe space for marginals—that spot might become just as polluted as the mainstream. But I do know this: if the fundamentalist project was undertaken in good faith, and with less egotistical surety, the powers that be’d provide adolescents with copies of Father and Son—to let them know there is a way out.

 

Note

1 https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/philip-henry-gosse-victorian-naturalist-illustrations-wildlife-darwin

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