In My Father's Footsteps


A brilliant father, a complicated legacy, and a son's hard-won journey of self-discovery.

William Matthews was a much-admired, award-winning poet and teacher who lived hard and died suddenly in 1997 at the age of fifty-five. He was a jazz fan, a wit and raconteur, a connoisseur of fine food and wine, and a thrice-married womanizer.

This clear-eyed, often wryly funny memoir pays homage to a charismatic father as the son struggles to step out ...

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A brilliant father, a complicated legacy, and a son's hard-won journey of self-discovery.

William Matthews was a much-admired, award-winning poet and teacher who lived hard and died suddenly in 1997 at the age of fifty-five. He was a jazz fan, a wit and raconteur, a connoisseur of fine food and wine, and a thrice-married womanizer.

This clear-eyed, often wryly funny memoir pays homage to a charismatic father as the son struggles to step out from his considerable shadow. In examining his father's death (and life), Sebastian Matthews explores his own chaotic past. A child of divorce, he was shuttled throughout his boyhood between parents and many geographies. In a confusing symbiotic time between Bill's marriages, the teenage son and his father "were roommates and drinking buddies—I took care of him; he parented me." Later came the son's wanderings, the failed commitments.

Finally Sebastian learns to confront Bill's mixed legacy. Striving to emulate the best of that "sad, happy man," he discovers new definitions of home, love, and marriage.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Matthews's life and his poetry together suggest the disadvantages of a system (academic creative writing) and a period style (accessible, autobiographical free verse) that asked poets to be only themselves writ large. Those hypertrophied selves, in life and in art, became spectacles of appetite, with readers, colleagues and students invited to watch: the poet was having more fun than anyone else -- he had to be holding court in order to feel comfortable,'' his son writes -- and his guests were free to join in. — Stephen Burt
The New Yorker
When the poet William Matthews died, in 1997, his son Sebastian was left with the patchwork legacy of a father who was lovable but evasive—the kind of brilliant man who, when quizzed about his many infidelities, might deftly change the subject to viticulture or the glory days of the Cincinnati Reds. In this memoir, the son recalls his tumultuous childhood, spent shuttling between the hippie encampments where his mother lived and the college towns (with their college girls) through which his father drifted. As a teen-ager in Seattle, he discovered his father’s world of wine, coffee, jazz, smoke, and poetry, and soon slipped into the imitative role of writers’-colony seducer and campus scapegrace. Buttressing the narrative with fragments of his parents’ verse (his mother, Marie Harris, is also a poet), the younger Matthews describes his slow passage from being “the son of the famous poet” to establishing an identity of his own.
Publishers Weekly
For most people, the death of a parent can bring a wave of self-reflection and consideration about one's place in the world. For Matthews, the loss of his father, poet and teacher William Matthews, sparks an even more intense journey into memory and meaning. At first, his memoir seems to be a dreamy valentine, complete with poetic phrases about the emptiness of the poet's apartment and Matthews wondering if his dad's cat had gone to its owner, "confused by the fallen body, crouching with him in the tub, leaning into the discharged heat coming off his body." But the romanticism quickly ebbs as Matthews contemplates how fully he has, indeed, followed in his father's footsteps. Not only did Matthews become a writer, poet and teacher himself, but he imagines parts of his father's life as his father might have lived them. He gives as much weight to his father's affairs with students as he does to his own memories, mixing recollection, reality and hypothesis. Because Matthews's thoughts bounce through time and include some unnecessary scenes, the work is at times patchy. Usually, however, the intricate weave deftly shows that William Matthews was more than an idealistic, larger-than-life figure to his son. Rather, he could be wondrous and infuriating, and Matthews doesn't flinch from describing the hurt and anger he sometimes felt growing up. Still, this is not a tiresome laundry list of complaint tempered with some lush, loving moments. Rather, it's a glimpse of two lives and a look at how complicated a father-son relationship can become, even when one member is gone. Illus. Agent, Diana Finch. (Jan.) FYI: Houghton Mifflin will simultaneously publish Search Party: Collected Poems by William Matthews (reviewed on p. 59). Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
American-born poet William Matthews (1942-97), who wrote fine autobiographical verse, died prematurely at 55. In this revealing memoir, his younger son, Sebastian, who coedited many of the poet's essays, interviews, and poetry collections and who is a poet and teacher in his own right, revisits his difficult relationship with his father. He grapples to understand his father's weaknesses (including heavy drinking, smoking, and many affairs), his reasons for divorcing his mother as well as two later wives, and his own early attempts to live the same kind of life. Fortunately, as the reader learns, Sebastian meets the right woman, marries her, and settles down to a career of writing and education. Sebastian's writing is at its strongest when focusing on his father's career and legacy, but it bogs down in the middle where the author relives his own immaturities. Recommended for public library collections and for those who enjoy reading about the tangled relationships of parents and children. [For a review of Search Party: Collected Poems of William Matthews, see p. 120.-Ed.]-Morris Hounion, New York City Coll. of Technology Lib., CUNY Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The son of the late poet William Matthews debuts with an uneven memoir of his father's life, death, and enduring influence. The author begins promisingly with a powerful segment about visiting the apartment of his father in 1997 right after 55-year-old William's sudden death from a heart attack. "All I wanted to do was to sit down," Sebastian writes, "and immerse myself in the slowly dying energy of the room." The author discusses the poet's serial sexual escapades and failed marriages, his compulsive desire to sleep with his students (he finally had to leave the University of Washington after women filed complaints), his weaknesses and strengths as a father, his drinking, and his demons. Sebastian also shows us William's obsessions with jazz and opera and describes clearly his abilities as a writer, teacher, and performer. Because of the poet's peripatetic life, the younger Matthews had no stable home life in the conventional sense. As he grew up, the author realized he wished to be a writer as well, but was soon wrestling with the same demons that tormented his father. There is an uncomfortable account of teenaged Sebastian having Clinton-esque sexual relations with one of his father's graduate students, who stayed with him while Dad was away. Unfortunately, as the focus shifts from the poet to the memoirist, interest ebbs as triteness surges in. The expression "one day at a time" makes an unwelcome appearance and brings along many equally drab friends. The author experiences sexual dysfunction, enters therapy, joins a support group, screams "Fuck you!" at his father's picture, struggles in his relationships with women, marries, and moves to Asheville, North Carolina, where he currentlylives, teaches, and writes. Succeeds creditably until the "me" in the memoir takes over. (7 illustrations, not seen) Agent: Diana Finch
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393338133
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/1/2009
  • Pages: 280
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.63 (d)

Meet the Author

Sebastian Matthews, writer, poet, and teacher at Warren Wilson College, is the editor of a new literary journal, Rivendell. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.
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Table of Contents

Crossing the Threshold 13
Song for My Father 33
Separating 46
Back & Forth 66
Change of Address 85
Bachelor Life 100
Homecoming 118
Ruining the New Road 136
The Same Old Leaf 156
Refuge of the Road 173
Barking at My Reflection 192
Why I'm Staying 211
Goodbye Porkpie Hat 235
After All 262
Acknowledgments 275
Permission Credits 277
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