About the Book by Patricia Gilman Titled “The Critic’s Daughter: A Memoir”

From a Wall Street Journal story by Rachel Shteir about the book by Patricia Gilman titled “The Critic’s Daughter: A Memoir”:

Thirty-six years later I can still recall exchanges with my teacher, the eminent, prickly critic Richard Gilman, who died, at 83, in 2006. My clearest memories are from a class known as Crit, short for Criticism, which I took while a first-year grad student at the Yale School of Drama. Each week, Gilman destroyed the short pieces we wrote for him, especially when we used adjectives that he considered hackneyed. He listed some of them in his 1961 essay “The Necessity for Destructive Criticism”: “haunting, striking, gripping, charming, powerful, stunning and refreshing.”

Could anything now be more out-of-fashion than Gilman’s ferocious precision about language? Back then, his pronouncements agitated and inspired me, and sometimes made students cry: “Your vocabulary is anemic!” But he was often right. These days, I frequently reflect on the distance between the hot-house world he inhabited and the grievance-filled, bureaucratic one I stumble through as a professor and critic.

The critics of Gilman’s heyday, from the 1960s through the ’80s, included Joan Didion, Elizabeth Hardwick and Janet Malcolm. If Gilman remains less known than these legends, it’s perhaps because he focused on ephemeral theater productions. His reviews, which appeared in Commonweal, Newsweek and the New Republic, were miniature masterpieces of sensibility. His seven books—including “The Making of Modern Drama” (1974), “Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet” (1979) and “Chekhov’s Plays: An Opening Into Eternity” (1995)—model verve and literary authority.

Some of his preoccupations were the stupidity of commercial theater and the irrepressible humanity of the individual. He had his blind spots—he rarely registered women playwrights—but his dazzling prose and keen insights compensated for those shortcomings, especially when he wrote about artists experimenting with form. Of the work of Bertolt Brecht he wrote: “[It] will never fail to exhibit a love, crafty, sober, theoretic, or impassioned as the case may be, for the human struggle to find a way through errors into a fullness of life.”

Anatole Broyard wrote affectionately of his literature-obsessed friend in his memoir “Kafka Was the Rage” (1993). The portrait of Gilman in “The Critic’s Daughter,” a memoir by Priscilla Gilman, is affectionate too, up to a point. “This book is an attempt at exorcism at the same time that it is a plea to be haunted,” the author writes. A tall order, especially given that these days, all difficult men are considered monsters.

Ms. Gilman, now 52, delivers to the reader many choice quotes from her father’s oeuvre and from family lore. In a feature published by the New York Times, he resists his interviewer’s efforts to pigeonhole him: “I don’t think of myself as a critic or teacher . . . but simply—and at the obvious risk of disingenuousness—as someone who teaches, writes drama criticism (and other things) and feels that the American compulsion to take your identity from your profession, with its corollary of only one trade to a practitioner, may be a convenience to society but is burdensome and constricting to yourself.” And she recalls the afternoon in the 1980s when, in the living room of the Gilman home on Central Park West, Harold Brodkey asked her father, “Am I not the greatest writer of the twentieth century including Proust?” He replied: “The short and the long answer to your question? No.”

In its early pages, the book lingers on Gilman’s tender side. The father-teacher holds his 5-year-old daughter up to a window to see the wonder of the stormy night sky as well as its terror. In his attic studio, he play-acts the circus ringmaster for her and her brother and sister. But like many an artistic parent, he is also sometimes selfish, forcing the teenage Priscilla into the role of a “mature, adult caregiver” who soothed him when he exploded in rage or anomie.

As Gilman’s marriage deteriorates, the explosions become more forceful. His wife—Ms. Gilman’s mother, the super-agent Lynn Nesbit—grows impatient with his habits. When the couple separates in 1980, he falls apart. Ms. Gilman portrays her father during this period as a fragile depressive. He is also clownishly out of touch. To protect her from the spectacle of an undulating Mick Jagger, he shouts “get this jackass off the screen” during the trailer for a Rolling Stones concert film. Ms. Gilman sets a number of weepy father-daughter scenes at midcentury movies like Elia Kazan’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” The critic has a heart!

Central to the divorce is what Gilman describes in “Faith, Sex, Mystery,” a 1987 memoir of his conversion from Judaism to Catholicism years earlier, as his sexual “perversion”—his longing to be “overpowered,” and humiliated, “by women stronger than he.” Even so, what upset Ms. Gilman most about the book, published when she was 16, is not the sex part or the scandal it created but her father’s flaunting his own unhappiness in prose. I’m sympathetic to her complaint. Yet I also hope that it will not sway people from reading “Faith, Sex, Mystery” (or Gilman’s work in general), as that book’s self-indicting character, like its radical belief in the attachment of the self to religion and art, is authentic and enduring.

Ms. Gilman grows up. She faces health crises, her own and those of people close to her. Her marriage ends; she leaves a teaching job at Vassar and becomes a writer. Meanwhile her father finds late-life happiness. He falls in love with a Japanese scholar and begins living part-time in Japan. He finishes his Chekhov book. He is then diagnosed with stage 4 cancer (he’s a chain smoker). Ms. Gilman again becomes his caretaker, or one of them. In a tragicomic scene, he complains that the doctors are “reviewing” him. But he also worries about his legacy, that he hadn’t done enough, written enough, or written the right things.

In class, Gilman could be imperious, avuncular or indifferent. Yet he could also display unexpected generosity. Once, trying to figure out things as a young writer, I asked him how he chose the subjects for his books. “There was an empty place in my shelf,” he said.

He was drawn to the unseen, to ghosts. “The Critic’s Daughter” ends with Gilman quoting Hamlet: “Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me . . .”

I still feel that way about my teacher too.

Rachel Shteir is the author of “Betty Friedan: Magnificent Disrupter,” forthcoming in the Yale Jewish Lives series.

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