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Father's Week 8 min read

Father's Week

Remembering fathers and those who've lost them, great big losses for American literature, the real Indiana Jones (?), orcas, and more.

By Cary Littlejohn

This weekend, I joined the ranks of those in the world without a father with whom they can celebrate Father’s Day.

It was a tough week. It had always been a tough week, leading up to Father’s Day, but for different reasons. My dad’s birthday was on Wednesday, and it was just two months to the day since we’d lost him to cancer. In all previous versions of this week, the struggle had been finding a gift for both (or a gift big enough to be stretched between the two, or when we were younger, for my siblings and I finding enough money to spend on a gift). Getting home and organized to make a fuss for someone who decidedly did not like fusses to be made on his account. Small struggles, if they could ever really be called that.

This week, it was just a crushing reminder of his absence. All these days that should have been (and still were, in their now muted way) his.

We lived the weekend in a way that honored so many of the things he loved: We played golf; we gathered together at our family home; we ate good food; we doted on his sweet granddaughter.

They were small things, but they stood for a lot more. More than we even realized in the moment, most likely.

Sending a happy Father’s Day to the dads out there, of course. But also sending much love to those who have to navigate a day meant for dad’s without one by their side. Some of us are new at that, still getting over the shock of the absence. Some have been honoring their dads’ memories for many years now. It’s a different sensation, this holiday now reimagined in my mind. And my heart goes out to those who’ve paved this road long before I arrived.

Ten Worth Your Time

1. In honor of Juneteenth, check out this story from ProPublica about how a graduate student discovered the existence of the largest known slave auction in U.S. history. It’s a great mixture of reporting and research, and a stark reminder of just how much there is still to learn about America’s original sin.

2. Last week saw some notable deaths in American letters. I was most struck by the death of Robert Gottlieb, one of the most important editors in the history of American publishing. Among his numerous contributions to the literary canon, he’s perhaps most closely associated with the work of Robert Caro, the foremost political biographer of our time. The duo teamed up when Caro was working on The Power Broker, his grand biography of Robert Moses, and by extension, the New York City he helped build; as published, it’s a book well over 1,000 pages, but it was Gottlieb who cut the book down to such a trim size, excising approximately 350,000 words. Our great loss is that they were still working together, as Caro rushes (as much as he can and will rush) to finish his fifth entry in what was supposed to be a three-book biography on Lyndon Baines Johnson. Gottlieb was 92 years old, and likely because he’d been a former New Yorker editor-in-chief, David Remnick wrote a lovely remembrance of him for the version of the esteemed magazine that exists now 30 years after Gottlieb’s tenure.

3. I came to adore Gottlieb not for the lore of his accomplishments so much as his presence and personality on display in his daughter Lizzie’s wonderful documentary about the working relationship between her father and Caro. It’s called Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb. When I heard the news of Gottlieb’s death, on my own father’s birthday no less, I bought the documentary to watch again, to have and keep, feeling as if I’d somehow lost out on something. Not just the completion of the LBJ project by the team that started it, but something deeper. And that was wholly a testament to the documentary, which was, among other things, a daughter’s loving tribute to her father.

4. The Paris Review dropped its paywall to share this 1994 Art of Editing piece after Gottlieb’s death. You can get a feel for the breadth of his contribution to literature from it’s opening passage:

Robert Gottlieb is a man of eclectic tastes, and it is difficult to make generalizations about the authors he has worked with or the hundreds of books he has edited. In his years at Simon & Schuster, where he became editor in chief, and as publisher and editor in chief of Knopf, he edited a number of big best-sellers, such as Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, Robert Crichton’s The Secret of Santa Vittoria, Charles Portis’s True Grit, Thomas Tryon’s The Other, and Nora Ephron’s Heartburn. He worked on several personal histories, such as Brooke Hayward’s Haywire, Barbara Goldsmith’s Little Gloria . . . Happy at Last, Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s Edie: An American Biography, and the autobiographies of Diana Vreeland, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Irene Selznick. He has edited historians and biographers including Barbara Tuchman, Antonia Fraser, Robert K. Massie, and Antony Lukas; dance books by Margot Fonteyn, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova, Paul Taylor, and Lincoln Kirstein; fiction writers such as John Cheever, Salman Rushdie, John Gardner, Len Deighton, Sybille Bedford, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Ray Bradbury, Elia Kazan, Margaret Drabble, Richard Adams, V. S. Naipaul, and Edna O’Brien; Hollywood figures Lauren Bacall, Liv Ullmann, Sidney Poitier, and Myrna Loy; musicians John Lennon, Paul Simon, and Bob Dylan; and thinkers such as Bruno Bettelheim, B. F. Skinner, Janet Malcolm, and Carl Schorske. He has helped to shape some of the most influential books of the last fifty years, but nonetheless finds it difficult to understand why anyone would be interested in the nitpicky complaints, the fights over punctuation, the informal therapy, and the reading and re-reading of manuscripts that make up his professional life.

5. American letters lost another figure, a giant bigger and with more name recognition than dear sweet Robert Gottlieb, in the person of Cormac McCarthy. His obituary from The New York Times was quite impressive, and I have long loved what felt like a tiny connection with the man: his time in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the university that calls it home. Also included in the was a guide to his books and film adaptations to check out.

6. I enjoyed this piece by Brian Phillips on McCarthy for The Ringer, and remembered that McCarthy was the first author I read this year. I picked up The Road from a stack in my office, and I raced through it. At the time, I thought it seemed fitting because I was preparing for HBO’s The Last of Us and felt like I needed to be all in on post-apocalyptic thrillers. Now, it resonates with me more for the father-son aspect. "Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire,” McCarthy said of the father-son protagonists. I loved “each the other’s world entire,” the way it rolled off the tongue, the way it can feel for little boys and their dads. I also liked this quote from Phillips:

If I’ve given you the impression that McCarthy’s novels are arid, they’re not. They’re full of human feeling; they’re often very moving. I’m thinking of the sheriff confronting his fear of a changing world in No Country for Old Men (possibly the closest McCarthy ever gets to mournful remembrance) and of the father’s love for his son in The Road (possibly the closest he ever gets to sentimentality). But none of the novels are built, as most novels are—even grim, violent, challenging novels—to serve human feeling. Emotions are fragile byproducts in McCarthy’s world. They influence events only weakly. They may be wholly meaningless.

7. This summer marks the (probably ill-advised) return of Indiana Jones to the big screen. There’s a part of me that can’t contain my excitement (which is just what Hollywood bigwigs want and expect), but deep down, I know this isn’t a great thing. How could it be, with so much time now passed since Indy’s debut in 1980’s Raider’s of the Lost Ark? But a recent post from the Texas Monthly archives proposes an interesting question: What if the story of Indiana Jones and his quest for the Ark of the Covenant was inspired by a real person, a Texan who just also happened to have the last name of Jones? It’s a wild story from 1992, and it has just enough true-sounding bits to keep you reading (and wondering), but it also has the flavor of a fabulist (which if you recall from last week’s edition, I’m very much a sucker for).

8. In the absence of a true monoculture, it’s fun to see numerous people on my self-curated Twitter feed all dogpile on one thing, and this past week, it was an article in The Atlantic proclaiming that the orcas are not our friends. A finger-waving shaming to remind us that we should not be cheering the marauding band of orcas who are sinking boats seemingly for fun, and when I tell you people hated this take, well, that’s an understatement. Read the original article, and then this fiery, largely comic retort from Jezebel.

9. Oh, no. This has me worried. A critic I trust (plus more than a few others on Letterboxd) has said that Pixar’s new movie, Elemental, is not good. Pixar is a bit of an obsession of mine (see the archives of this newsletter for proof), and I really respected this review by Slate’s Dan Kois, to hold Pixar’s feet to the fire and not just give it a pass on feel-good emotional connections it can make for adults and children alike. That is Pixar’s secret sauce, but there’s a risk of reading it into an otherwise middling film and thereby rating it higher than it deserves. I’ve no doubt done that, and I could quite possibly do it with this one, given when I’ve read about the father-daughter storyline. But I want Pixar to remain a shining city on a hill for not just animated stories but original storytelling of any kind. There are already numerous sequels coming, and it’s just not evidence of Pixar operating at full strength. I’ll be seeing Elemental soon, and I’m hoping to report back my sincere disagreement with this review.

10. I don’t take any giddy enjoyment in saying the new DC film, The Flash is a turd of a movie. I don’t actually care that much, certainly not in a battle between Marvel and DC that has been so lopsided that it feels like DC’s not even in the game. To be fair, Marvel is trending downward as well, and maybe I’m over the hype of these types of movies in general. But this one was different because the hype was so outsized and fervent. The film’s star, Ezra Miller, had gotten into so much legal trouble that it threatened the film’s bottom line. There was a shake-up at the studio. Despite all of this, rumors had been circulating for a long while that this was not just one of the best superhero films ever made but one of the best films ever made. I knew, as a right-thinking person, that was not the case, but I was interested in whether the hype—any hype, really—was justified. Dear friends, I cannot begin to describe how not justified they were. Here’s a small collection of folks agreeing with me: The Big Picture podcast, The Ringer-verse podcast, Vulture (extra points for a brilliant headline: “The Flash in a Pan”), Slate (albeit from a Batman-centric angle), and the LA Times.

More From Me

Over on my blog , I’ve been writing about various topics of interest to me.

Blind Spots: The Rehearsal: I missed this utterly strange and surreal show when it first came out, but I’m glad I watched it. Still not sure what to make of it.

Happy Birthday, Dad: It was my dad’s birthday. He would have been 67.

U.S. Open and Golf’s Purest Moments: Golf is going through a tough moment, but the U.S. Open (and it’s Father’s Day finish) reminded me of the reasons I love the game.

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been consuming in the past week.

The legend for my list was stolen from Steven Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film, Italics is a book, and bold is a live performance or show. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

6/12: Justified, S1 (2); Make Me-Lee Child
6/13: Pronto-Elmore Leonard
6/14: Real Tigers (Slow Horses Book 3)-Mick Herron
6/15: THE FLASH; U.S. Open (Golf)
6/16: U.S. Open (Golf)
6/18: U.S. Open (Golf)