Dinty W. Moore’s “Son of Mr. Green Jeans: A Meditation on Fathers”–Charles Green

The public secret of the alphabet is that it’s arbitrary. The vowels are kept separate from one another; similar sounds, like the plosives p, b, t, d, g, and k, appear at random. Yet the alphabet seems as authoritative as any knowledge we have. It’s one of the first scholastic things we learn, reinforced on laminated borders in countless classrooms. In song, it’s joined by the unarbitrary 1, 2, 3 (filed under: “easy as”). Encyclopedias, our repositories of knowledge for a couple-thousand years, follow the alphabet’s easy authority.

But if the alphabet is arbitrary, what about our knowledge? If I’m any model of how people think (unlikely), then few of us, if any, walk around with a clear, coherent catalog of what we know. Song lyrics hibernate with moth-eaten and re-stitched memories of the time we stole the Mary-and-Jesus statue from someone’s front porch, and the first time we sat in a sauna, with multiplication tables and the knowledge of how to change a tire somewhere in there.

Enter Dinty W. Moore’s essay “Son of Mr. Green Jeans: A Meditation on Fathers.” Organized encyclopedically, the essay caroms off images of television fathers (especially those of the 1950s), animal fathers (emperor penguins, carp, bees), Moore’s desire for a father other than the alcoholic who caused “the family’s embarrassment,” and Moore’s own hesitancy to become a father and pass on the worst characteristics of his patrimony. The headings for the first several sections suggest the disjunctive structure of the essay: Allen, Tim; Bees; Carp; Divorce.

Disjunction startles many of my students. They love the conversational, winding structure of so many personal essays, yet less conventionally structured essays startle them at first. The challenge of an essay in an alternative form, so radically disjunctive, is the need for some signal of coherence. The encyclopedic form of Moore’s “Son of Mr. Green Jeans” and the arbitrary certainty of the alphabet provides one signal. Early in the essay, Moore bolsters those links—Tim Allen appears in both the first and second sections; the bees, inessential as fathers, give way to another animal, the carp of the third section, a fiercely protective father. As the essay continues, the explicit links from one section to the next fall away by and large, but successive sections echo previous ones.

MV5BMTI3OTM0MzY3M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzY3NzQyMw@@._V1._CR28,1,298,465_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_The other signal of coherence is suggested by the title: television. Moore confesses that, to cope with his father’s alcoholism, he stayed “glued to the television.” I know Leave it to Beaver from Nick-at-Nite, which I associate with the dusty smell of my grandmother’s brown sofa, the one that left the tiny squares of its gridded upholstery in the backs of my legs. So the words “Aw, shucks, Beav” accompany that smell. It’s not Proust’s Madeleine, but it’s something.

But how do students who don’t know Mr. Green Jeans, Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, or even the more recent Home Improvement, connect to an essay that relies on basic knowledge of those shows? How can they understand the empathic connection between a child-turned-adult who sees himself as raised by those shows?

indexBefore they read the essay, I show them clips from the shows—the syrupy Father Knows Best, the aw-shucks chucklefest of Leave It to Beaver (according to actor Tony Dow, who played Wally, the show’s producers only wanted the jokes to evoke chuckles and would cut lines that generated big laughs), and the down-home sweetness of Mr. Green Jeans. But clips can’t replicate familiarity.

So the form draws them in. Most of the sections are short, no more than a paragraph, but one, “Inheritance,” anchors the essay, depicting Moore’s father and showing how television fathers became idealized surrogates. In turn, later in the essay, the distance between the real and idealized fathers becomes his own terror of becoming a father, a terror he happily overcomes.

I teach the essay in the last section of my introductory personal-essay course, when students read hermit-crab essays and other essays in alternative forms, then write their own essays in an alternative form. They can adapt forms of their choice, including those from essays we have read. Their forms vary widely, wildly, and wonderfully, but the form that gets borrowed the most is Moore’s encyclopedia. They adapt it to tell stories about gender expectations and women’s shoes; the stories of typefaces and their (sometimes destructive) creators; and their own whimsical interests in animals. Their essays mix complex self-reflection and their arrays of knowledge, allowing their understandings of the world to grow from the alphabet’s arbitrariness into a new authority.

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head shot 2016Charles Green lives in Central New York and teaches writing at Cornell University. His writing has appeared in The Southeast Review, Salt Hill, and Fiction International, among other venues.

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