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Milton’s Daughter

by Molly Moynahan

moynahans at party

Recently, I became the hired gun of the English department of an extremely wealthy, highly rated high school on the North Shore of Chicago. Teachers take maternity leave while I assume their classes, usually filled with nervous, pressured, motivated, yet, like all teenagers, ready-to-devour-any-hapless-adult-alive, charges. Last spring I was asked to teach Faulkner’s Go Down Moses in two sections of AP Literature.

Now, Faulkner is not my guy. I’m a Woolf, Joyce, Ellison, Hemingway, Cather and Alice Munro kind of woman. The south doesn’t knit into my bones. I get the lost immigrant thing from my native Irish grandmother, but not so much the horrendous irony of a country founded on freedom from oppression, while institutionalizing the worst form of human brutality that ever existed. In graduate school, I read The Sound and the Fury under the tutelage of an annoying Faulkner groupie professor. He was smug about his intuitive grasp of most of the metaphors in the novel, while I was petulant about my lack of skill with this particular style of writing. But, Faulkner took my breath away. Certain passages seemed to escape the actual page and appear fully realized as a personal memory. I was bitter, but impressed.

Once I understood what the hell he was talking about, I saw why Faulkner was categorized as essential to the education of a writer. But I avoided his novels like the plague until I taught As I Lay Dying, which has to be one of the funniest novels ever written. I mean, who tries to drive their mother’s body through floods and famine, after they’ve drilled holes into her face thinking the corpse needs air, while trying to navigate the original family of dysfunction, the Budrens?  Also, while an undergraduate at Rutgers, I had known a Deadhead that used to get wasted at parties and tell everyone his mother was a fish. I thought he was pretty lame until reading the chapter in As I Lay Dying consisting of five words: “My mother is a fish.”

Vardaman, the speaker of this sentence, creates the ultimate faulty syllogism: the fish is dead and his mother is dead, therefore, his mother is a fish. I made the mistake of sharing an edited version of this revelation to my class, hoping it might inspire a new level of discussion that avoided the phrase, “I don’t get it.” Unfortunately, this personal anecdote inspired persistent inquiries focused on my drug taking habits during the seventies.

But nothing prepared me for Go Down, Moses. I was thirty pages into the novel when I recognized I had no idea what Faulkner was talking about. My usual technique of appreciating confusion, welcoming stream-of-consciousness, and avoiding checking allusions with the naive belief that soon I would be cradled in the arms of a master storyteller simply did not work. I wasn’t just confused. I was enraged. So I called my father. Now, my father knows everything. Everything, except stupid stuff. He hasn’t a clue about Housewives, desperate or otherwise and he can’t use a computer. But he isn’t a Luddite. A Harvard PHD, professor at Amherst, Princeton and for thirty years at Rutgers, a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review, an author of a number of acclaimed critical works, an expert on Lawrence, Joyce, Hardy, Nabokov, and.


“Daddy, I have to teach Go Down, Moses. No one here has taught it and I’ve read thirty pages and I don’t understand it.”

I’m not going to lie; I can’t remember exactly what he said. It was something about slavery and something about miscegenation and something else about Faulkner’s reversing the names of the slaves with the masters and something that helped me crack the code of characters racing one another, circling the truth about their lineage, while returning to the same terrible quagmire that was slavery. He explained the Old Testament significance of Moses, understanding that my biblical education was sorely lacking.  We had a conversation that illuminated the darkness without making me feel stupid. He is a master teacher, my father, and I have quoted him often in my teaching for years. But I can rarely recall his words well enough to enclose them in quotes. What amazes me is the breadth of his knowledge. He may not admire Oates or Delilio or Carver or Beattie as much as I do, but he has read them, appreciates their contribution to modern literature and seldom fails to provide me with a new slant on their writing. Also, he is very funny. And he talks to me like an equal, which I am not


And what of our relationship as writers? Hmm, that landscape contains some landmines. Back in college, I wrote a self-important poem that cast the narrator as Milton’s daughter, who ends up holding his pens, his blindness requiring this assistance. Basically, Milton crushes his daughter by requiring all of her devotion while ignoring her. I was a little angry. Earlier still, maybe when I was ten, I recall writing a story that contained a cliché in every sentence. It began: “They were two ships passing in the night.” I had just discovered clichés and found them breathtakingly lovely. My heroine had “violet eyes” and hair as “black as night.” I demanded my parents’ attention and read this masterpiece aloud. I believe there was a lack of praise, if not outright derision. And then there was the time I presented my father with a complete manuscript and he highlighted a single passage, as “above average.”

When I decided to attend graduate school and obtain an MFA, he called me a loser. Why? I think he believed I was wasting my time and possibly that it would hurt and disappoint me. Even though I had a lousy job as an assistant to a famous drunken literary agent, he thought getting a degree in fiction writing was a fool’s game. My dad comes from that school of parenting where you hurt your kid worse than the world, to prepare said kid for the suffering to come. Anyway, I ignored him. A week later, Harper & Row bought my first novel. I had a good experience at Brooklyn College and wrote another novel that was rejected by my publisher but was bought in England and a bunch of other countries.

My father is an amazing writer. His first novel, Sisters and Brothers, was a stunning account of the experience of a young boy who spends a year in a terrible orphanage while his mother struggles to support the family after his alcoholic father has disappeared. It was painful to read, but even more painful to learn from my mother that his book was close to an autobiography. He had never told us anything about all that, and whatever he did to be a full scholarship student to Harvard remained unspoken, as well. I watched him work in the back house where his study was located, his silver hair framed by the window and I wished I had something interesting to tell him.

After my second novel was published, Miguel Algarin, the founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café on the lower east side, asked me to read because of my father. The Nuyorican Café was all things hip, and trust me, I wasn’t all that. Miguel introduced me as “Julian Moynahan’s daughter,” so I had to name my book and myself. Somehow, I didn’t feel slighted. The spectators that night were mainly my students from Rutgers and my reading was a success because, according to my mother, I did “a very good job.” When my third novel was published, my father contacted everyone he knew to tell them about the book, and when I did a hometown reading in Princeton, he introduced me. But it was what happened before we went to that reading that I will never forget. He had driven me over alone and we sat in the car together, parked across the street from where I had been born. I was very nervous, which is rare, as I love to read. But this was different. Most of the crowd had known me forever.

“I’m scared,” I said.  “That’s all right,” he said. “Don’t worry. It’s a good book.”

“Why isn’t this more fun?” I asked him.


“Because it’s stupid,” he said winking at me “but you are not.” He touched my shoulder. “You worked hard,” he said. “I’m very proud of you.”


And he meant it.

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