Commentary Magazine


So Fell the Angels, by Thomas G. Belden and Marva R. Belden

Father Fixation
So Fell the Angels
By Thomas G. Belden and Marva R. Belden
Little, Brown. 401 pp. $5.00.

 

Suddenly, and for no reason that makes any real sense, the pursuit of father by women who should know better has become almost a fad. Father is everywhere. In South Pacific and The Most Happy Fella, father’s gray hairs win the heart (the expression is a little old-fashioned, like father) of the ingenue. Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof defies cancer and sixty-odd years to draw his daughter-in-law from his son, whose unresolved Oedipus conflict has him hors de combat. In Baby Doll, according to Dean Pike, there is “infantilism and father fixation” and in The Middle of the Night, a more than middle-aged Edward G. Robinson wins out over a much younger rival who has, of all things, sex on his mind. Francoise Sagan has managed to parlay father into a novel-winning streak in the bestseller sweepstakes. Pamela Moore could have achieved the same happy result if she had shown only the rudiments of writing skill in her novel, Chocolates Before Breakfast, which is mainly about girls with too little father or the wrong kind of father. That father was not born yesterday was brought home to me the other night when I heard a calloused Lady Macbeth proclaim over the footlights that she would have killed King Duncan herself if, as he slept, he had not reminded her of her father.

What about father? He is a kind enough old guy in South Pacific and The Most Happy Fella: forgiving, tolerant, understanding, tender, and—spry. However, from the lines of Miss Moore’s novel, and between the lines of Mile. Sagan’s, father comes through as somewhat less appealing than in the musical comedy version—as fearsomely fascinating, repulsively attractive, and destructively life-sustaining. Traditionally, daughter loved father, baby loved sugar daddy, for mink and diamonds. More recently, however, the chain linking . father to daughter has been forged less of gold and more of neurosis. The golden chain to papa used to snap of its own accord when father could not afford another expensive link. Now a psychiatrist is required. The contemporary quest for father has transformed sin between father and daughter, depriving it of its cash nexus and making it very difficult to understand by old-fashioned folk trained in the school of economic determinism.

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That ladies who merrily chase father through novels and plays may be in for a difficult way of life is apparent from the Beldens’ brilliant and fascinating narrative of the interplay between Salmon P. Chase, the ambitious Ohio politician who became Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, and whom Lincoln later appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; Chase’s daughter Kate, who was Washington’s handsomest and most influential hostess; and Kate’s husband, William Sprague, millionaire Senator from Rhode Island. Here are the central figures in a modest American “Electra” situation.

The story is mainly Kate’s—a woman of passion and driving ambition whose destiny, as in the tragic pattern, was preordained. Kate was the child of Chase’s second wife and named after his first; her mother died shortly after her daughter was born, so that her childhood and girlhood were dominated by father. Chase’s overriding ambition was to be President. But he was also what the 19th century called a “man of conscience” who, throughout his lifetime, was troubled by an inability to reconcile behavior prompted by political ambition with precepts gleaned from daily Bible-reading. Kate read the Bible with her father but shared none of his moral scruples, hypocritical as these may have been. In fact, Kate gives the impression of being a woman with a highly defective conscience.

The Beldens’ treatment is not sufficiently analytical to reveal why this is so, and being good historians, they do not guess about what they have no documentary evidence for. It may well be, however, that Kate’s conscience was warped in the struggle that began when Chase cut short his close relationship with his young daughter by marrying a third time. Kate lost her murderous battle with her stepmother for father, and was sent, perhaps banished, to a fashionable boarding school. There, under the domination of Miss Henrietta B. Haines, “a tall, thin-lipped, aristocratic woman,” Kate developed that kind of inflexibility of character which is sometimes confused with poise.

Kate regained her father when his third wife died and, in dedicating herself to his Presidential ambitions, resolved never to be separated from him again. Her theater of operations became Washington during the Civil War; her technique, a series of receptions at which she shone in order that her father might shine brighter still. Chase’s ambitions required money, which was at first forthcoming from Jay Cooke, the banker, in exchange for favors that only a Secretary of the Treasury could grant. But Chase’s Sunday school conscience bothered him as he cashed the checks, and the solution was so obviously a rich marriage for Kate that when William Sprague came along, with a fortune of $25,000,000, Kate immediately stooped to accept him. Sprague’s fortune enabled him to buy the governorship of Rhode Island and led eventually to his election as Senator from that state, but he suffered from a secret feeling of inferiority—something Kate was just the woman to encourage.

However, Sprague’s money did the father-daughter team little good. In 1864, Lincoln shrewdly beat off Chase’s bid for the Republican nomination, and next year kicked him upstairs to the Supreme Court. Chase seemed contented, but Kate stormed about “this business of shelving papa. But never mind! I will defeat you all.” In 1868 and again in 1872, she tried, but in vain, to sell papa to the Democratic party. A year later he was dead.

Before his death Chase tried to loosen, if not break, his ties to his daughter. He urged her to stop her endless quarrels with Sprague and to recognize her husband’s authority in the household; he also tried to make her tone down her ambitions for himself. But Kate simply could not let go.

After Chase’s death, he was replaced in his daughter’s affections, flamboyantly, noisily, and in a way that the whole world had to know, by a red-haired New Yorker, Roscoe Conkling, who, by means of a fortunate marriage and Tammany machinations, had been elevated to the Senate. Between Kate in the Senate gallery and Conkling on the Senate floor, there flamed an adolescent romance the details of which were fully reported in the nation’s press. The Beldens correctly see Conkling as a crook, a fatuous egoist, and a political quack—but he did have the capacity, apparently, to make father-fixated Kate feel herself what she, in her heart of hearts, feared she was not—a woman. The compulsion to tell everyone that she was really a woman must have been irresistible.

The affair, certainly not Kate’s first (all apparently with married men), was too much for Sprague (who himself had a considerable reputation for philandering); he left her, taking his millions with him, Then Conkling, exhibitionist to the end, died publicly, his body sprawled in the entrance to the New York Club. Two years later Kate’s son killed himself, leaving a note which indicated that his act was the result of a conflict with his father, Sprague, whom Kate had kept him from. But the unkindest cut of all was delivered by her father from the grave. Reading his diary, Kate discovered that his great love had not been for her but for his first wife. Moreover, Chase’s conscience had impelled him before dying to turn over all his correspondence to a conscientious biographer, including the part of it covering his transactions with Jay Cooke. Kate moved heaven and earth to prevent publication of this incriminating evidence, but to no avail. Betrayed by all her fathers, she died povertystricken and alone.

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The Beldens’ portrayal of Kate is in the pattern of the current emphasis upon father-fixated women and the often discussed plight of the modern woman in pursuit of a career. The woman who prefers a career may well be inclined to father-fixation, which is not serious if the psychiatrist arrives on time. Kate, however, was not a modern woman, she was a sick one. She was not concerned with a career (nor did she display any interest in the contemporary movement for women’s rights). She wanted only to be a handmaiden to father, to maintain a perennial quarrel with mother, and to degrade men like Sprague who had a compulsive need for degradation. Call the psychiatrist for Kate and he would be of some help, but not very much.

The Beldens have written this altogether admirable book without overt reference to the Freudian framework into which the narrative so easily fits, and into which this review has compressed it. Their book stands on its own merits, regardless of whether one believes or disbelieves in the Electra complex. Like the psychiatrist, the Beldens refrain from passing moral judgment upon this unsavory trinity of father, daughter, and husband. It is possible that psychiatry and scientific history have helped diminish our capacity for moral indignation.

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