The Best Novel You’ve Never Heard Of
When I came to New York in 1981, I asked every writer I came in contact with about his or her favorite novels.
Robert Christgau, then a senior editor and pop music critic for the Village Voice, recommended, without hesitation, The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead. I had never heard of the book or the author. Later, both Pauline Kael and Wilfrid Sheed told me it was one of their favorites.
Good enough for me, I thought and headed to the Strand. There was no Internet back them, but there was the Strand, in whose dark and endless chambers I determined to augment my education. Over the years I’ve returned the good karma of those writers by passing along every copy of The Man Who Loved Children I’ve found. The task is easier with the availability of the Picador edition, a reprint of the 1965 twenty-fifth anniversary edition with a gorgeous 37-page appreciation by Randall Jarrell.
TMWLC is one of those rare novels that leaves you both exhausted and exhilarated. No greater articulator of 20th-century family life exists. Sam Pollit, the head of the family, is so vivid and genial that you may be hundreds of pages into the book before perceiving what a monster he is. A minor official in the Roosevelt administration, he proclaims his love for humanity in the abstract at least once every few pages.
“What a gift he had been given,” Stead writes, “to love and understand so many races of man!” Every waking day, he “felt the great urge of love of man rise up in his throat.” Though he owns to no ideology, Sam is a Marxist at heart. Overseas, he is asked by his Indian secretary if he believes in God. “No,” says, “I do not need a God for I believe in the ultimate good.”
He is overcome by his own nobility. “I wish,” he says in a fervor, “I could go to jail for my ideas, and then scoffers—there are scoffers even at my patent sincerity—would see how deeply I feel these ideas.”
Chief scoffer is his wife, Henrietta—“Neurasthenic, worn-out, devious Henny,” wrote Jonathan Franzen for The New York Times in 2010, “given to black looks and even blacker moods.” Observers see Sam as saintly: “He is such a good young man, he is too good to understand people at all,” says one. Henny’s responds, “If you knew what he is to me, something filthy crawling in the sleeve of my dressing gown; something dirty, a splotch of blood or washing-up water on my skirts. That’s what he is, with his fine airs … The little tin Jesus!”
She tells a sometime lover, “The impulse to kill him becomes so strong sometimes, when I think of the way he’s taken my life and trampled all over it and then thinks it’s sufficient if he reads a few highbrow books … I punch my fists together to keep from rushing at his greasy yellow head …”
“I’d drink his blood,” she says, “but it would make me vomit.”
Sam is smug in his righteousness, blithely oblivious to his family’s miserable material conditions. “To Sam,” writes Jarrell, “everything … is a means to an end, and the end is Sam.”
Their huge, decaying house contains a furious ongoing battle with the large Pollit brood as pawns and prizes. Sam and Henny communicate through their children. From a genteel Southern family, “Henny was an old-fashioned woman. She had the calm of frequentation; she belonged in this house, and it to her. Though she was a prisoner in it, she possessed it. She and it were her marriage.”
She fights to drive Sam off. He will not give in: “You will never break up my house. I know that’s been your object for years, and the aim of all your secret maneuvers. I love my children as no man ever loved his before.”
Their war enervates her. “Are you sick today, Mother?” asks a daughter. “Mother’s always sick and tired,” she says gloomily.
“Henrietta screamed, and Samuel scolded,” writes Stead in a passage that 75 years later still gives off heat. “Henny daily revealed the hypocrisy of Sam, and Sam found it his painful duty to say Henny was a born liar. Each of them struggled to keep the children, not to deliver them into the hands of the enemy… ”
The oldest child, Louisa, Sam’s daughter from an earlier marriage, veers emotionally toward her stepmother, but Henny rejects her. Sam sees Louie as a kindred spirit and tries to pull her into his orbit. She withdraws, with a shudder.
The novel builds toward an inevitable tragedy that also serves as catharsis. This is one of the few novels with a truly great ending. Angela Carter, a great fan, wrote, “It is rare for a novel to have an ending as good as its middle and beginning: the sixty or seventy pages that sum up The Man Who Loved Children, [which] bring the action of the book to its real conclusion, are better than even the best things that have come before.”
Stead was born in 1902 near Sydney, Australia, where she died in 1983. She left home in 1928 for Paris, and later met and became involved with an economics professor named William J. Blake (they were married in 1952). In 1943-44 she taught writing at NYU.
Her most lucrative job was as a screenwriter in Hollywood. In a fascinating bit of literary trivia, she contributed to the script for John Ford’s film about a PT boat crew, They Were Expendable, starring John Wayne. She finally returned to her homeland after her husband’s death in 1968.
In between her various careers, she found time to write 12 books.
I’ve read three of her novels, including Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946), which was, according to an Australian newspaper, “banned because it was immoral and salacious”—it was and it is. It’s funny and observant, too, about a girl making her way in Manhattan in the 1940s, staying alive and getting ahead, flaunting the morals and conventions of polite society. It was the original Sex and the City at a time when working women had no leverage at all.
Jonathan Franzen deemed TMWLC’s predecessor, House of All Nations (1937), “gargantuan, impenetrable.” Right on the first (my copy, dug out of the Strand’s basement, clocks in at 787 pages), but wrong on the second. Far from impenetrable, the ocean of detail about the world of international banking in Paris in the mid-1930s (gleaned from five years of Stead’s personal experience) is fascinating, and the author’s narrative style, a series of short scenes meant to imitate a large bank’s communiqués, makes for swift reading.
Franzen described it as “Zolaesque.” I disagree. In its scope and in the way it unveils the avaricious and amoral vipers at the top of the food chain, it’s much closer to Balzac.
The way Stead’s characters speak to and about each other has a refreshing candor: “There’s only one rule in business. Anyone’s money is good … you’re crazy if you’re waiting for clean money. Did you ever hear of clean money?” (Balzac’s great dictum: “Behind every great fortune is a crime.”)
It was the only novel by Stead to achieve both commercial and critical success. But 78 years after its publication, it has faded into the twilight realm of the praised but unread. (Some of the praise came from Saul Bellow, who selected House of All Nations for Writer’s Choice: A Library of Rediscoveries in 1983.)
Why was The Man Who Loved Children a commercial flop? Some critics carped that Stead’s descriptions of the local geographies and idioms of speech was false. Others complained that she didn’t seem to know the land the way an American would. I would say that she simply didn’t describe it the way an American writer would.
TMWLC is set between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore in the backwaters of the Chesapeake Bay. Baltimore, Stead writes, in one of my favorite passages, “has many exiles, as near as Washington, as far as Heidelberg, who never cease reviling their native town with soft-tongued scurrility … Baltimore is multifarious; as the attractive dirt of a fishing town, the nightmare horizons of a great industrial town; it is very old, sordid, traditional, and proud. It despises no sort of traffic that can be conceived of … It is at the head of an inland sea and stands between natural sea-level parks and thick-wooded hills. It does not imprison … Baltimore sees the meeting of two cultures of man, Northern and Southern … ”
I know a little about Baltimore and Chesapeake Bay. I know more about writers from the area, such as Laura Lippman and Anne Tyler, and nothing I’ve found in their work indicates that anything in Stead’s passage was false. The difference between Stead and most Americans writing about Baltimore is that she got it from the inside and the outside as well. I don’t know how she did it. She must have spent time there after she and Blake moved to New York in 1935.
We do know that Sam, as Rowley makes clear, is drawn from Stead’s father, David George Stead, a marine biologist, conservationist, and a committed Fabianist Socialist/Marxist. Stead, pressured by her publicist to make her story more American, changed her central character and locale. (An intriguing question: Did David George Stead ever read TMWLC?)
It’s too simple to call TMWLC an Australian story transplanted to America, and calling it autobiographical fiction really doesn’t explain the book. Who was the model or models for Henny, the character in whom half the book’s power is contained? Stead never knew her own mother, who died when she was 2. Surely the emotional horrors suffered by Louie must have been experienced by Stead growing up in a house ruled by her stepmother. But how much of Henny could have been based on her stepmother? Nothing in Australian society equates to the cultural divide in America between North and South. How did Stead know of the sorrows of a disillusioned and disenchanted Southern belle that can make a stone of the heart?
Those who love The Man Who Loved Children insist, rightfully, that its lack of popular success isn’t important, that when a great book fails to find an audience the writer is free to follow their creative instincts without worrying about having to please a vast amorphous readership. It’s a moot question now as to how success would have altered the work Stead produced after 1940, but as Jarrell noted, one definite consequence of the world’s failure to appreciate it is that we have been “robbed forever of what could have come after The Man Who Loved Children.”
Stead has never been much appreciated by her countrymen. Gone for 40 years, she returned to Australia in 1968 after the death of her husband. She was denied the Britannica Australian Literary Award on the grounds that she had “ceased to be an Australian.”
If they don’t want Stead, then we do; we can then assign The Man Who Loved Children to one category where it has always belonged: a contender for the unofficial title of “The Great American Novel.”