By: Maria Popova
“It is our knowledge — the things we are sure of — that makes the world go wrong and keeps us from seeing and learning.”
Legendary muckraker Lincoln Steffens (April 6, 1866–August 9, 1936) is one of the greatest journalists who ever lived, his trailblazing exposés on government corruption having pioneered investigative reporting. His passion for social justice and his unflinching dedication to speaking truth to power extended beyond politics and into every realm of life. He had particularly little patience for limiting stereotypes, and frequently took it upon himself to offer an antidote in his writing.
In 1925, while living in Italy with his wife — the Australian-British journalist, activist, and intellectual Ella Winter, of whom Steffens thought the world — the 58-year-old journalist was given the surprising and at first utterly disorienting gift of fatherhood. He captured the experience and its many dimensions in an infinitely wonderful essay titled “Radiant Fatherhood: An Old Father’s Confession of Superiority.” (The title winks at Radiant Motherhood — a groundbreaking book by palaeobotanist, activist, and birth control pioneer Marie Stopes, published five years earlier.) It was eventually included in the anthology Lincoln Steffens Speaking (public library), published the year Steffens died, and reveals Steffens to be not only a warm, wholehearted, genial man with just the right amount of irreverence, but also the kind of father who was the very opposite of Kafka’s.
The essay, at once playful and profound, is without exaggeration one of the most delightful things I’ve ever read — the kind that makes you smile at the page, again and again, wholly unconcerned with how this might appear to your fellow subway passengers. But what makes it triply delightful is that I found out about it from the very product of this radiance — Steffens’s grandson Daneet, who reached out after I wrote about his grandfather’s magnificent letter to that surprise-child, his father, and recommended this long-forgotten gem of a book.
A baby was coming, the doctor said, and he smiled when he saw how shocked I was. I did not want a baby. Did I? Fifty-odd years I had lived without one, without a conscious wish for one. Anyhow I had long ago made up my mind that I would not, probably could not have a child of my own and I was not only resigned — as I saw my friends staked out on a home — I had come to appreciate my singular liberty.
For Steffens, a baby had always been “a muling, puling, bawling tyrant” that would stand in the way of happiness. And yet something strange happened the day the doctor delivered the news:
Best of all I remember my surprise at the discovery that I wanted that baby… The doctor, an Italian old in practice and wise in the ways of men, looked at my wife and laughed quietly with her at me. I did not care how weak and ridiculous I appeared.
It was days before I confessed, it was hours before I knew that I wanted that child for its own sake and mine… It was not pride, it was not possession, it wasn’t any of the sentiments that I had heard attributed to fatherhood. I don’t know yet why I wanted what I wanted, but I believe that, in my bones, all my life I have wanted what I have now — a child.
Nearly a century before contemporary standards of equal parenting, and long before even Margaret Mead’s prescient case for it, Steffens offers a spirited rebuttal of cultural norms and the self-appointed authorities (capital-T “They”) policing them:
They say that the father has nothing to do with child-bearing. He is a negligible, ridiculous figure, and they neglect and laugh at him. They set him aside, him and all men. Child-bearing is women’s business: the mother’s, the nurses’, the women-neighbors’. Even the doctor is called in only to stand around ready to act as surgeon in an emergency at the actual birth. The woman nurse delivers the child normally. And, as for the father, from the first kick to the final weaning and beyond, he is out of it, of no use, a hindrance, whose duty is to vanish.
Well, like so many of the things They say, this is bunk. It is an item in the Great Lie that They tell and live and fight for. They have put it over on young husbands for centuries. I am not a young husband, I am an old father, and so I have something to put over on Them. I repeat:
I, the father, first gave my baby love; and I, not the mother, gave him Life, a soul, personality.
Steffens, of course — being a kind and just man — means this not as an insult to the mother but as a literal and rather self-derisive comment on the sweetly sheepish ways in which he projected his hopes on the child-to-be:
I gave [the baby] the wrong sex. I thought I wanted a girl. My theory was that, as a father who cared not a whoop for what They say and do, I could give a girl a chance for once. To a boy I could offer only the opportunities many boys have, but I could give a girl of mine everything that They waste now only upon the most favored boys. That was my great idea and it still hangs over as an idea. Ideas, however, are the products of intellectualism. They cannot rise higher than their source, the mind. Having been a feminist in theory, I said that I believe I preferred a girl baby and, since the wish is father to the thought, I thought of my coming child as a girl.
Paradoxically — and prophetically, as it later turns out — he named his wished-for girl Pete. Steffens captures all the complexities of gender and personhood, of parental expectation and social reality, an absolutely delicious play on pronouns:
While the mother was still calling him (her) “it,” I was addressing her (him) as a human being.
His wife eventually began referring to the baby “as alive, to think of her as a person, as a little girl,” too. But in another charming bout of amicable contrariness, he writes:
“Pete is very active,” she would say, laying down her book to look up with wonder and a smile. She liked it. She was loving the baby almost as much as I.
Mother-love is a fact. I do not deny that… The love of the mother for her husband’s child is a big, a helpful, and a very beautiful natural phenomenon. I can understand Man’s wonder at it. But mother-love is not only late of birth and slow of growth, it is not so complete, unscrupulous, and not nearly so sympathetic as the father’s love for his child. Pete’s early stirrings, for example, were mere movements to his mother. I understood at once that he was trying to communicate with us.
“Pete’s kicking,” she would say, with maternal pride.
“What about?” I would ask with paternal concern.
“Oh, nothing; life,” she answered with the indifference of the practical sex.
Steffens weaves little-big remarks like this throughout the essay, as if to make sure it registers with the reader just how highly he thinks of women in general, and of his wife in particular, and how little he cares for his era’s gender stereotypes — particularly those concerned with reason and irrationality as masculine and feminine qualities respectively. (So prevalent and deep-seated were those stereotypes, in fact, that nearly two decades later Walt Disney made a sexist short film based on them.) He furthers this reversing of roles by relaying his delightfully excitable response to the baby’s kicking and his wife’s coolly rational dismissal of it:
Nonsense! Any man with the least gift of imagination would feel in his heart that the child wanted to tell us something, and so, to the mother’s amusement I set about arranging with the helpless baby a code of signals by which he and I could talk together, he knocking on the inside, I on the outside. This took time. It was a little like communicating with Mars, and she declared that to be impossible. But I declare that if Mars were inhabited by the children of men, devoted fatherhood would find a way to get in touch with the star.
And then, as one has already come to expect, the parents-to-be find out that Pete is a boy after all. In a passage that once again emanates Steffens’s progressive views on gender and his contempt for stereotypes, he writes:
Fortunately, in between her work on her novel and a translation she was making of a German tome, the mother hand-made some other garments, underpinnings that go beyond, below or above the sex line. And so in looking for a house to hold our growing family, I demanded a garden for Little Pete. The mother kept asking about the heating system and things like that. A warm, sanitary house with plenty of hot water was her ideal of a home. Mine was flowers and pretty walks, sunshine with shady, romantic corners, and views of hills and sea. Father-love has some sentiment, the mother’s is calculating and business-like. Both of us being obstinate, we got both: a villetta with modern conveniences and a lovely garden and views. And neighbors.
Art by Livia Signorini for 'Pictures from Italy' by Charles Dickens. Click image for more.
Steffens enthusiastically extols the virtues of Italy as a mecca for fatherhood:
Italy is the best place in the world for a father to have his children in. The Italians adore children. They are not polite to animals and women ordinarily. The men stare at every woman they meet, especially a married woman, especially if she is with her husband. And the women don’t look at a man (if he is old enough to be a father). But when the Italians see that a woman is carrying a child, they all look, men and women too — they look and smile and nod approvingly, and not only at the mother. The Italians take the father in also then. I advise any man about to become a father to go to Italy…
Among the neighbors that came with their new home was one extremely conscientious contessa — a Scot by birth, Italian countess by marriage. Shortly after they moved in, she introduced herself cautiously, mindful of the fact that not all people wish to befriend their neighbors, and offered her help should they need any on their journey to parenthood. She owned one particularly uncommon commodity that proved itself helpful indeed: a telephone. Steffens recounts the rather comical events of the birth itself:
About a week before the date fixed, the predicted “first signs” occurred. The doctor had warned me that “she,” the mother, would mistake the first for the final symptoms, so, when, after midnight one dark, cold night she awoke with pains, I got up, of course. I knew from the novels how to behave. She asked anxiously for the doctor.
“But you know, don’t you,” I said coolly, “that this will go on now for a week.”
She answered that she did, and she really did know about everything. An “intellectual,” a college lecturer, she had been making just such a study of child-bearing as she would have made for a course of lectures. Our house contained a complete library of Radiant Motherhood, with all the classics on biology, breeding, feeding — everything, all read, marked, and I noted well that the doctors conversed in technical terms with her, as with an insider; with a respect that they did not show to me. But science and art still differ. As the pains grew that night, she asked if I did not think we might risk a false alarm and summon the doctor and nurse.
And so they did:
Nurse and doctor came together, both cross, and — so sure were they that it was a false alarm — the doctor did not bring his instruments. The nurse saw or heard at once that it was “a case,” and she took command. Brushing rudely past me, she gave the Contessa one fierce look, stepped in between her and the patient. “Oh, I will go,” the Contessa said, and she did, advising me also to “get out.” The nurse bade the doctor scoot for his things, gave orders to me, to the mother, the servants. The doctor scooted, so did the rest of us, every man to his post, while the nurse whirled about her preparations. By the time the doctor got back, that nurse had everything ready and everybody at work and scared — the hateful, dominating, efficient thing.
She put me out of the room. The doctor soon followed, with a shrug. Women’s business. Bah!
Indeed, Steffens paints the Italian doctor as a rather detestable character — on the matter of what to do if the baby arrived “obviously defective,” the doctor offered some counsel “utterly without human feeling.” He goes on to describe the farcical unfolding of the situation:
I had a cigarette and I had also an ugly feeling against professionalism, especially in a doctor and more especially at child-birth. I went downstairs to the kitchen and swatted flies. I killed forty-three before I rejoined the doctor. We were standing there silent when the nurse stuck her British, red, professional face in the door.
“It’s peeping,” she said, and was gone, shutting the door firmly.
“What?” the doctor asked. “Peeping? I never heard that term.”
“It’s not a technical term,” I said. “I take it for a descriptive announcement that Pete is peeping out upon the world with a view to –”
“Oh!” he exclaimed, and throwing away his cigarette, he darted into the room, he likewise closing the door, pointedly.
Steffens, still harboring hope that the baby might be a girl after all, was eventually faced with the newborn reality:
A boy! Not a girl, a boy. They say I groaned. But it was over! I started in to the room. All I had time to see was the detestable nurse, rising with something in her arms and a face of fury for me. “Not yet!” she spat. I retreated out of sight, but not so far that I could not hear what was going on. A child was crying, people were bustling about, and the quiet voices of the doctor, nurse, and the mother were chatting pleasantly about how quick it had been, how easy and how extraordinarily successful.
In another amusing passage, which calls to mind Ann Friedman’s excellent essay on what it means for a woman to be a “badass,” Steffens writes:
Reviewing all these evidences laboriously, I arranged my mind to the amazing conclusion that the baby was born, the mother was all right and I had not suffered at all. It was nothing like in the novels. They say that the father suffers terribly, more than the mother. It is not so. I did not suffer, not so much even as the mother herself and I heard her say it was “not very much worse than the grippes.”
In a remark that the English would find particularly delightful, Steffens recounts disobeying the nurse’s suggestion that he take a walk while they “clear up”:
That nurse, being British, knew what is done; she knew the etiquette as she knew everything else about her business; and, being English, she was disgusted when I did what is not done. I went in and saw the mother and child.
But what he saw was a stark testament to the fact that the crucible of all love is fantasy — we imbue the object of our love, be that a lover or a newborn, with our own subjective ideas and needs and desires, heeding little the inherent presence or absence of the qualities we project. Steffens captures this perfectly:
The child was a thing by itself, stuck off in a corner on a cot. It did not look like Pete: not as I had imagined him; not in the least. And not only because he was not a girl. He looked like anybody’s new-born infant in everybody’s novel, red, ugly, and out for himself alone. There was no sign of recognition of me as the fellow that used to talk with him o’ nights. He was a sight, a sound, too, but his head was so elongated, so deformed that I was glad the doctor had forgotten, as I had, my instructions about “the obvious defective.” A stranger, he was still a human being and — well, as They say, I say live and let live.
His mother made up for him, for everything. She was Radiant Motherhood personified. A good phrase. She gave forth light. Still, pale, smiling (with surprise, she said afterwards) she really seemed to be illuminated from within.
Lincoln Steffens with his wife, Ella Winter, and young Pete
And yet in the ugliness of his newborn son Steffens finds the most beautiful thing in the world — the very thing he would later counsel Pete never to lose. He writes:
I turned again to the child, the ugliest but the latest and therefore, biologically, the most advanced human being on earth. What did he know? It is our knowledge — the things we are sure of — that makes the world go wrong and keeps us from seeing and learning from God’s everyday revelations of the truth. This “knowledge and belief” that is so false and so impious is said to be inborn. Is it? I asked my new-born baby boy and he answered; and his answer is the best news I, a veteran reporter, have ever had to report.
He did not know a thing.
In a passage reminiscent of Descartes’s view of animals as “automata,” Steffens adds:
He did not know how to eat. His sucking apparatus worked; his machine was a going concern, but the nurse put in two days of hard, patient work teaching him to take the breast. He did not know when he was tired. As his machine ran down, it squeaked and They said he cried for sleep. He did not. He resisted drowsiness as if he were in a fight for his life; as if he did not know the difference (if any) between sleep and death. He has not yet learned that he will wake up again.
Illustration by Øyvind Torseter from 'My Father's Arms Are a Boat' by Stein Erik Lunde. Click image for more.
So when “a kindly clergyman” shows up one day to christen the baby and “start the process of mind-fixing and standardization,” Steffens adamantly refuses, on account of “Pete’s superior ignorance and scientific open-mindedness” — something contemporary scientists would heartily commend. And therein lies Steffens’s most profound, most elevating point — his passionate case for the power of not-knowing, of keeping our “baby eyes (which are the eyes of genius)” and unlearning all the falsehoods our grownup compulsion for certitude inflicts on us. Decades before the great Rachel Carson argued that “for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel,“ Steffens writes:
And believe me, a father at last, it is true. There is hope for the race. Babies are born all right. They are not born with, they don’t know any of the bunk that makes us grown-ups make war and money, constitutions and best-sellers. They don’t know respect, they don’t know fear, they don’t know any of the evils we call virtues. They are clean-minded and clear-eyed and empty-headed; and curious. They are fit to go out and climb God’s tree of life, eat the fruit thereof and see (and see the beauty of) all things as they are. They have no convictions, no principles to blind them.
Anyhow my baby hasn’t, and I am going to try to save him from all such sure things. I don’t know what to teach him, but I do know what to keep him from learning. He will have to go to Their schools and a college and They will force him, with Their authority to — recite. But I can warn him against Their authority and Their worse than ignorance. But that is later. The damage is done earlier, in babyhood.
That hedge against absorbing society’s limiting beliefs and dogma of conformity, Steffens argues, is what the father can offer the child:
I am old enough to be through with that silly servitude. The father’s place is in the home and there I am and there I mean to stay — on guard — to protect my child from education… There I am all the time and always, as now, when the mother picks up Pete I join her.
He ends with a return — at once tongue-in-cheek and incredibly profound — to the urgency of undoing the damage of gender stereotypes:
I can afford to let the mother, with her brains, provide the science and the business side of my child’s up-bringing; I, the father, will furnish the love (which women call “spoiling”), the art, the sport, the doubt divine. She can impart knowledge, I the highly cultivated ignorance. As I explained to Pete one day when we lay back bloated and contemplative after a deep feed of mother’s milk, his dear mamma will make of him a strong, knowing, successful man, I will leave him a fine fellow, who, whether he is a poet or a politician, a businessman, a reporter or a lounge lizard, can play the game and win, without believing in it or in his own lies: a humorous man of the world, a true prophet of the beautiful life to come on this earth and, perhaps, if he is good, the father of a girl baby.
Lincoln Steffens Speaking is an immensely ennobling trove of wisdom on life and liberty from one of the noblest men who ever lived, and the fact that it has vanished out of print is nothing short of a cultural tragedy. Still, used copies are findable and well worth looking for. Complement it with Steffens’s spectacular letter of life-advice to two-year-old Pete, then revisit history’s greatest letters of fatherly advice and the Scandinavian treasure My Father’s Arms Are a Boat.
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