10 April 2023

A literary guide to family values

Playwrights see their job as delving into the most fraught and tragic aspects of life.

Ever since Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus, they have mostly achieved this by focusing on the epicenter of human experience.

The family.

In modern times, we have Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neil and Arthur Miller, to name a few. 

Their dominant subjects could have been war, politics, farming, urban development, ballet, the internal combustion engine, snack foods – but what did they focus on?  The family. That oft paraphrased quote from Willy Sutton applies here.  If you want drama, go to where it’s most plentiful. 

One of my favorite cartoon captions reads, “I’ve decided to run for office so I can spend less time with my family.” 

I think everything that’s ever been written about families is true.  The bonds, the love, the mutual support, the enrichment, home cooking and tag football.  It’s also the crucible of selfishness, brutality, oppression, rape, sadism and deprivation.  The best and the worst. 

Politicians who campaign on the first, neglect to point out the second, for good reasons. 

But this contributes to a norm within the general culture that declares the family as the highest achievable constituent of the social order, when in fact, it’s often the most degraded.  The finest playwrights in history have pointed this out, though you won’t ever find a passage from Eugene O’Neil in the State of the Union Address.

Despite its shortcomings, few would argue that a healthy, love-filled traditional family is a priceless thing.

The harm is in denigrating other forms of intimate arrangements, or classifying them as sup-par.  Military units in combat zones, successful athletic teams, long-surviving rock bands and AA meetings know this not to be true.  As do countless same-sex families and collections of vagabonds who fall in together and never leave.  Often these groupings are bulwarks against what was missing in the traditional family, and those involved are generally grateful for it.

Knopf family
Photo: My Knopf family, circa 1890s. Great grandfather lower right,
great-great grandfather next to him. Clearly a fun-loving bunch of folks.

Blood is indeed thicker than water, but often diluted into thin gruel. 

Even so, conventional family is nearly irresistible in great part because of biological imperatives.  Winston Churchill was utterly neglected by his parents, but never once expressed a single word of criticism.  This is why abused children often want to be returned to their family perpetrators, and cops chasing escaped prisoners first check the addresses of their moms and dads.   So it takes some mighty forces to cleave these attachments, thus the power of countless novels and plays. 

And yet, who but our biographers and creative writers will date the launch of a successful life to the moment their heroes left home?  Huck Finn’s real father was nothing if not an evil scoundrel, from whom Huck escapes into a relationship with a surrogate father not even of the same race, and certainly not social standing, even for a hardscrabble white kid like Huck.  Huck also flees from other, wealthier family structures that threaten his freedom and personal sense of self.  Which family values was Mark Twain celebrating here?

A completely unscientific examination of the family lives of mystery novel protagonists would reveal a litany of sadness and disfunction that would make Freud hang up his cigar and examination couch. 

Most are alcoholics or recovering alcoholics, few are not divorced with estranged children, usually daughters.  Parents are rarely mentioned, unless they’re abusive, in nursing homes or dead at a young age.  Siblings are usually no good, or too good, cousins get the hero in trouble with the mob, or worse, a fair percentage have been the victims of a serial killer or an unsolved disappearance. Can an uncle be anything other than a flaming screwball or picaresque bon vivant?  

Mystery writers are no different from playwrights. 

They go to where the best material is just sitting there waiting for exploitation.

Literature postulates that our blood relatives get the first claim on our hearts, but that title is revocable, even if persistently haunting our moods and dreams.  Like inherited wealth, it can assure generations of comfort and security, or be squandered by the reckless, cruel, vindictive and ungrateful.


  1. Thoughtful article, Chris. Familly is usually the one organization we're in for life.

    The photo is terrific. I want to know the woman in the middle. God love her, while everyone else is sternly frowning, she looks like she can barely contain bursting into laughter.

    1. Thanks. I think her name is Emma, and she actually had a very tragic, but interest story involving the kidnapping of two daughters by their ne're-do-well father, and subsequent rescue (by another uncle). I'll try to dig it out and let you know. BTW, the woman to her right was Claire, and she was actually very pretty and was always the most cheerful in other photos. She never married, but not drawing any conclusions.

  2. Families are so easy to sentimentalize, and most people do it, even if they grew up in a little hell of their own. But they love reading / watching dysfunctional families, because even the Waltons had their bad days.

  3. Great post, Chris. Family, can't live with them, can't kill them. Having grown up in one, for better or worse, we know family best. That gives writers lots of material, especially crime writers.

    Major plays of O'Neil (Long Day's Journey into Night), Williams (The Glass Menagerie), and Miller (Death of a Salesman and The Price) are all very autobiographical and show the bent branches in the family tree.

    While you mention that most fictional sleuths have divorce or substance issues in the back story, let's remember that FOUR of the first six American authors to win the Nobel Prize for literature were recognized alcoholics: Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neil, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway. Steinbeck also drank heavily, but wasn't diagnosed as an alcoholic. And F. Scott Fitzgerald never won the Nobel, but he was another alcoholic, among other issues.

    I don't remember who said it first, but it's true for stories: Nice people aren't very interesting.

  4. Funny you should mention our Nobel Prize-winning alcoholic writers. I was once on a panel discussing writers and booze, and I pointed this out, for which I was excoriated by a few angry people in the crows. But facts are facts. I will address this in an upcoming blog which you can read in the Sandbox.

    1. Chris, years ago, I read a book that discussed the relationship many writers--not just American--had with alcohol, and found it fascinating, somewhat like watching a train wreck in slow motion. I just looked on Amazon and found four books on the subject, but didn't recognize any of them as the one I read. I don't remember who the non-American writers were, but John LeCarre may have been one of them. And Poe, of course, although a distant ancestor of mine may have been responsible for the belief that Poe was more addicted to Laudanum and Opium...

  5. My late hubby Darryl was close to his Mom, Sister and a couple of Aunts. Of the rest he said: "No one can screw you over like family."


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