Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 17

I wasn’t looking forward to Godwin’s books—not at all. Reading thick volumes by a late eighteenth-century/early nineteenth-century philosopher—someone I’d never really heard of until the advent of my Shelley mania—did not appeal to me. I asked around. No one I knew had ever read anything by him. A few—liars?—professed to have heard of him. Not helpful were Sunstein’s unappealing words. In her Mary Shelley, his pale appeal approached translucence: Ordinary-looking except for a bold forehead and intellectual expression, slow-moving, dressed like a parson, Godwin was reserved, usually placid, even cold in manner, kept his hands in his pockets or his arms folded. Gloomy words. And the two illustrations of him that Sunstein provides are no encouragement, either. One shows Godwin as a younger man, in right profile, looking dark and dour. Sharp features, thinning hair. The other is a pencil sketch of him as an old man walking on the streets of London. We see him from the left side, now a bit portly, a bit bent, top hat, hands clasped behind his back. No smile. Looking as if he’s wondering where he can find a tavern with a good Early Bird Special, a place where he can narcotize the tapster with convoluted tales told in endless sentences festooned with archaicism.
But I knew I had no choice. I had to read him. The man was the father of Mary Shelley—in a literary sense, the grandfather of Victor Frankenstein. How could I write a biography of Godwin’s daughter and neglect the career of her father?  I decided to start with a biography. So on 13 June 1997—Friday the Thirteenth, for Jason Voohrees’ sake!—I sat in Saywell’s, my favorite downtown coffee shop in Hudson, Ohio, and opened Don Locke’s A Fantasy of Reason: The Life & Thought of William Godwin (1980), a copy I’d acquired from a used book dealer, who’d himself acquired it from the Altoona Area (Pennsylvania) Public Library, where, if I can tell by its markings, it was checked out only once (and renewed once) before being deaccessioned in 1984 (i.e., sent to an orphanage, waiting for an adoptive parent—me!—to rescue it).[1]  Locke’s first two sentences surprised me:  Hidden away in some old library or bookshop you might one day come across the weighty volumes of  Political Justice, a work as obscure now as its author. Yet there was a time when it was a popular sensation, a veritable prodigy of imagination and intellect, and William Godwin the most famous, certainly the most notorious, writer in the land.
Really?  That colorless, unsmiling, portly guy? Popular? Notorious? Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad … ?
It took me about ten days to finish Locke’s 350-some pages, my reading slowed somewhat because we were involved in the stressful process of selling our home in Aurora, Ohio, where we’d lived since 1990. Our place there, one of the oldest houses in town, was great and convenient—just about two blocks from Harmon Middle School (where I taught) and only about eleven miles from Hiram College (where Joyce was teaching), only one stoplight winking between our house and Hiram. An added benefit: Our place was only a couple of miles from the Alzheimer’s facility where resided Joyce’s mother, who was now gradually and certainly and sadly forgetting everyone and everything she’d ever known. By the end, she couldn’t remember how to swallow.[2]
But in the spring of 1997, much had changed. Joyce’s mother had died on 5 February 1995, I had retired from Aurora in January 1997, and we had decided to return to Hudson, where we’d lived from 1979–1990. We’d found another old house, this one only a block from the business district, easy walking to most everything we needed and liked. Still, it was a big move. And stress was the order of the day.
But in and among my packing and unpacking boxes and bitching about it—and dealing with carpenters, electricians, plumbers—I managed to finish Locke’s biography,  and by the time I had done so, I had a completely different view of Godwin. Here was no dull and dour, black-and-white sourpuss but a vibrant intellectual, a popular philosopher and novelist, an author of children’s books, a devoted husband and father and friend. A man with some profound inconsistencies (even hypocrisies), some stubborn pride, some intransigence. A man who rose far, fell farther. But a man whose life excited me, whose writings, as I read through them—all of them—over the next couple of years, would educate and animate me.

            [1] A recent check (August 2011) shows that the Altoona Area Public Library did not replace their copy, but they do have a different biography, Jean Detre’s 1975 A Most Extraordinary Pair: Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin.
[2] See Joyce’s wonderful book about her mother—In a Tangled Wood: An Alzheimer’s Journey (SMU Press, 1996).

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