Men at Home

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney at home with his two brothers, wife and children. Courtesy of Digital Commonwealth.org. Photo by Bobbie Harvey, Boston College, John Burns Library

In this issue about men’s rich and complex relationship with home, we consider the role of fathers as role models. Men who went to war and came home broken.  A Nigerian activist’s search for a home on two continents. The evolution of the man cave. And the legacy of fathers reading to their  children. 

We also visit Sherlock Holmes’s residence at 221b Baker Street, Samuel Butler’s sheep ranch in New Zealand, and Shelley’s Italian villa.

But before we start this wide-ranging tour, I’d like to share some love letters that literary men have written to the home.

The Lure of Home

While the house has largely been the domain of women, men have strong domestic leanings, too. For the 20th century Irish poet, Seamus Heaney,  home is the Good Mother who meets our daily needs, gives us our first memory of belonging and sets the stage for our intimate relationships.

If our childhood house is warm and welcoming, we will tend to perceive the world as such, having faith that our environment will comfort and console us. Heaney describes the precious hours he spent in the kitchen with his mother in his early years, and the unbreakable bond that springs from sharing household tasks.                                                   

When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes……                                                                                              her head bent towards my head,                                                                                                        Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives—                                                                       Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

In 1995, Heaney received the Nobel Prize for “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, that exalt every day miracles and the living past.”

His mantel has been taken up by the novelist Paul Auster.  In his memoir, Winter Journal, Auster recalls his sexual awakening in the privacy of his bedroom in the 1960s,  roughhousing with other boys on the lawn, and running from the stinging hornets in his yard. His book has been hailed as a history of the body, yet it is equally a story of how a writer’s sense of self is shaped by his childhood home. 

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers takes responsibility for the household,  after the tragic death of both parents.  We find him juggling work, school, parenting and household chores—trying to do the work of two middle-age adults.  Michiko Kakutani said, in The New York Times, Eggers tells “how he became a surrogate parent to his 8-year-old brother with such style and hyperventilated, self-conscious energy, such coy, Lettermanesque shtick and such genuine, heartfelt emotion, that the story is at once funny, tender, annoying and, yes, heartbreaking — an epic about family and how families fracture and fragment and somehow, through all the tumult and upset, manage to endure.”  

More recently, we have Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, by Michael Chabon, who refutes the myth of the male novelist unable to deal with the demands of domesticity.   Having produced 14 books since starting a family, he riffs on the challenges of raising a gender-fluid son who’s addicted to Paris fashion shows and of reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as a bedtime story, and the discomfort of explaining the N-word to his kids.  This is a primer in politically correct parenting without the sanctimony. Chabon makes parenting sound like learning how to drive—until we get the hang of it, we brake too hard, and find ourselves wandering all over the road. 

This is the new literature of men at home—serious and side-splitting, generous and down-to-earth.

An Anchor in Place and Time

Just when and how did men forsake the hearth and tumble out into the world?   And why is their relationship to home so different from that of women?  The 19th century novelist Thomas Hardy chronicled the process of industrialization that tore men from the land, putting them to work in soulless factories and chilly offices.  He showed how men were broken in the process, their sense of meaning lost in the whirr of commercialization and mass production.

A man’s primary task in life, Hardy felt, was to be a good craftsman and a good householder. And keeping a place in good repair was a way of paying homage to his ancestors.

I know not how it may be with others                                                                                            Who sit amid relics of householdry                                                                                                That date from the days of their mothers’ mothers,                                                                       But well I know how it is with me                                                                                  Continually.                                                                                                                                                I see the hands of the generations                                                                                                    That owned each shiny familiar thing                                                                                                   In play on its knobs and indentations,                                                                                           And with its ancient fashioning                                                                                                        Still dallying…                                                                                                                                            

Dallying:  Now there’s an old-fashioned word.  Hardy links it to the lingering presence of our forebears.  The word comes from the Old French dalier ‘to chat’ as if our ancestors were always there, waiting in the wings, hoping to speak with us. It’s a man’s duty, he says, to take over their time-worn tasks,  to honor them through daily acts of stewardship.   

Two generations later, William Carlos Williams takes up this dialogue with a place. This time, we are in his native New Jersey, and the town of Paterson has become a living person. “Butterflies settle on his stone ear,” while “the blank faces of the houses, and cylindrical trees” bend forward, “into the body of light.” In this epic poem, the whole city comes alive and is ready to engage us.  The task of the writer, Williams said, was not to flood us with ideas, but to show us the vitality of things.

Still life by Kmetty Janos

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda continues in this vein, with his reverence for household objects, composing rapturous odes to his socks, his saltshaker and his scissors, and thanking them for bearing witness to his daily life.

Not only did they touch me,                                                                                                                   or my hand touched them:                                                                                                                they were                                                                                                                                                    so close                                                                                                                                                    that they were a part                                                                                                                                  of my being,                                                                                                                                          they were so alive with me                                                                                                                  that they lived half my life                                                                                                                    and will die half my death.    

These possessions gave Neruda a deep sense of continuity and connection. After he was forced into political exile, these few homely items served as his spiritual lifeline.

More recently, we have the work of Edward Dougherty, who, out of sympathy for homely things, writes odes to the bathtub and the welcome mat, hoping to assuage their loneliness.  

The tub tries                                                                                                                                                to let the world pass through                                                                                                                  without clinging, without                                                                                                          wanting more                                                                           

Then, at the front door:

Newspapers, dried mud, grass                                                                                                    clippings, dog shit scraped                                                                                                    painstakingly from sole,                                                                                                                  instep, and heel—                                                                                                                                        the welcome mat collects                                                                                                                      the detritus of the world.

It sees this task as weakness.                                                                                                                No initiative.                                                                                                                                          No ambition.                                                                                                                                        Worst of all, no                                                                                                                          backbone; everyone                                                                                                                         knows what happens                                                                                                                              to nice guys.

Home as Sanctuary

Innisfree by Oliver Dixon, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13686100

Throughout history, home has served as a sanctuary from the pressures of the outside world.   The Romans believed that a man needed a city home to do his business, and a country home, where he could be himself.  As Cicero  said, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

A country retreat allows a man to attain a rare ecstasy of being.  It provides a retreat from the world of politics and power, a place where a man can forget the intrigue and get back to the essentials.  

At the height of his fame, William Butler Yeats was walking down a busy London street when he was struck by a sudden memory of his childhood on the Isle of Innisfree in County Sligo, Ireland.   Tired of life in the city, and of days packed with lectures and commitments, Yeats found himself longing for the tranquility of this island home:  

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

Men are very much in need of that kind of refuge now.  Since the pandemic, urban professionals have been fleeing the cities and hightailing it to the country — in search of space to wander, spread out, and simply be. They are re-evaluating the whole formula of “consume, commute, and crank it out” at the core of male identity for the last hundred years.

 David Whyte, the poet who has brought creativity to the corporation, talks movingly about the process of homecoming.   After all his heroic efforts, he says,  a man must begin to appreciate the joys of ordinary life:  

This is the bright home                                                                                                                           in which I live,                                                                                                                                      this is where                                                                                                                                                I ask                                                                                                                                                           my friends                                                                                                                                                   to come                                                                                                                                                   this is where I want                                                                                                                                to love all the things                                                                                                                               it has taken me so long                                                                                                                          to learn to love.

When we started Reinventing Home, we hoped to create a magazine that would appeal to both men and women – and show how home serves as a haven of intimacy and self-renewal.  To our great surprise, we have succeeded.  With this issue, I am pleased to report that our readership is now 50 percent male.  How do we explain this new appeal of domesticity?  We can get a clue from the hashtags #equalinquarantine or #itakemyshare.

In these forums, men are sharing their photos and experiences of sheltering in place, cooking family meals, relaxing with loved ones, reading to their children—activities that usually get shoehorned into a busy weekend or even put off till vacation. In the process, men are learning how home shapes their sense of culture, creativity and character.   

To those men who are just now joining this long and venerable tradition of caring for the home, we say, “Welcome to the fold.”

—Valerie Andrews, Editor

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