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Prospero's Son: Life, Books, Love, and Theater

Prospero's Son: Life, Books, Love, and Theater

by Seth Lerer

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“This book is the record of a struggle between two temperaments, two consciousnesses and almost two epochs.” That’s how Edmund Gosse opened Father and Son, the classic 1907 book about his relationship with his father. Seth Lerer’s Prospero’s Son is, as fits our latter days, altogether more complicated, layered, and


“This book is the record of a struggle between two temperaments, two consciousnesses and almost two epochs.” That’s how Edmund Gosse opened Father and Son, the classic 1907 book about his relationship with his father. Seth Lerer’s Prospero’s Son is, as fits our latter days, altogether more complicated, layered, and multivalent, but at its heart is that same problem: the fraught relationship between fathers and sons.   At the same time, Lerer’s memoir is about the power of books and theater, the excitement of stories in a young man’s life, and the transformative magic of words and performance. A flamboyantly performative father, a teacher and lifelong actor, comes to terms with his life as a gay man. A bookish boy becomes a professor of literature and an acclaimed expert on the very children’s books that set him on his path in the first place. And when that boy grows up, he learns how hard it is to be a father and how much books can, and cannot, instruct him. Throughout these intertwined accounts of changing selves, Lerer returns again and again to stories—the ways they teach us about discovery, deliverance, forgetting, and remembering.   “A child is a man in small letter,” wrote Bishop John Earle in the seventeenth century. “His father hath writ him as his own little story.” With Prospero’s Son, Seth Lerer acknowledges the author of his story while simultaneously reminding us that we all confront the blank page of life on our own, as authors of our lives.

Editorial Reviews

"An affecting memoir. . . . Thoughtful and deeply felt . . . an intellectually and emotionally satisfying reading experience."

James Shapiro
"I couldn't put this book down. 'Memoir' doesn’t begin to do it justice. Prospero’s Son is a beautifully observed and often haunting reflection about how we get here and what we leave behind."

Kenneth Gross
"An absorbing and moving book, combining a scholar’s thoughts on the force of reading, especially reading in childhood, with episodes in a personal memoir, an intricate texture of stories and anecdotes that track the author's education into life, into its forms of theater and forms of magic—often failed theater, failed magic. For all the power that he attributes to story-telling, Lerer knows its costs, knows that there are moments when stories, too, fail, or trap us, or ask to be revised, re-seen. It is a beautifully composed work, beguiling in its unfolding, weaving and reweaving its threads of attention, recollection, and allusion. After two readings, the book continues to surprise."

Ellen Handler Spitz
"Prospero's Son glitters like one of the gems that fascinated Seth Lerer as a child. After this riveting read, with its lovingly chosen details and ever-inventive ways of recreating the author’s life, I feel chastened and somehow unsettled.  It is as if he has shared his life and yet remained inviolate, for he writes these pages with an aura of calm, exquisitely titrating the emotional distance at each moment with delicacy—and yet pain seeps through.  Like the rain. . . .  I could not put it down. The book works: It casts a spell."

Library Journal

"A testament to Lerer's passion for his work, this wise, literary, and allusion-dense book will strike a sympathetic chord with all involved in teaching or reading literature."

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University of Chicago Press
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Life, Books, Love, and Theater
By Seth Lerer


Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-01441-8

Chapter One

Rough Magic

November 2003.

I was teaching The Tempest when the department office manager called me out of class. My comparative literature senior seminar had eight students, all but one of them young women whose fathers were college professors, social activists, artists, or scientists. It was supposed to be a course in literary theory with an emphasis on gender and interpretation, but the syllabus—Shakespeare, Marx, Freud, Saussure, De Man, Erich Auerbach, and Judith Butler—soon morphed into weekly meditations on authority and pedagogy, reading things for what they weren't, and the students' own literary tastes. Theory became a family romance for them, a way of understanding authorship as if it were paternalism, reading as if it were a household chore. We were a few weeks into the seminar, finishing Shakespeare and turning to later versions of the play—the postcolonial Une Tempête of Aimé Césaire, the science fiction of Forbidden Planet—when the office manager opened the door. "You have to come right now." I stared across the table at my eager Mirandas and said, quietly, "I think we'll have to stop."

I took the call in the department office, and before I even heard the doctor's voice I knew that Dad was gone. I called my wife, walked to my car without my coat in the rain, and drove to the hospital.


As a child I never slept. At night, Dad would pile me into the car (no baby seat, no seat belts, a cigarette held out the window) and drive for hours till I dropped off. Sometimes, he would sing as he drove, his tuneless voice repeating the same nursery rhyme over and over.

I had a little nut tree, nothing would it bear,
But a silver nutmeg, and a golden pear.

And then I would awake in my own bed, not knowing how I got there, the smell of Kents hanging on my pj's like a caul.

Some nights, we'd all go out—Dad, Mom, my baby brother—just to fill the time. Whenever we got out of the car, my eyes would dart right to the ground. I'd pick up anything: a rusted bolt, a spent flashbulb, string, wire, pennies. I was collecting material for some great project, a machine that would transmute these scraps into a mystery, or that would reanimate the tossed-off body parts of old equipment. Every now and then, there'd be a real find. Once, when I was six, we drove out to Long Island to an Alexander's store to buy my mom a fur coat. In the parking lot, I found a piece of jetsam from another car. It may have been a solenoid, or a carburetor valve, or a gear. Whatever it had once been, it turned into a talisman in my pocket, and I held on to it on the ride back, as I fell asleep against Mom's new mouton coat.

And then, after we moved to Boston, there were the endless drives returning to New York to see relatives or friends. We always drove at night. Eight p.m. and the dinner dishes done, my father would announce, "Well, I don't know about you, but I'm ready to go." And sure as simpletons, my brother and I would jump up. Sure, let's go, what an adventure. Let's drive all night back to New York. In those days, the two-hundred-and-forty-mile trip took nine hours, over old US highways, turnpikes, and toll roads. Stops along the way, great empty cities like Hartford, trucks, backups, midnight snacks. Then the wall of traffic when we reached Co-op City. Finally, the place we'd stay. "You're father was too cheap," Mom would say, "to spend a night in a real hotel. We always lived on handouts." But that was the way then. You were expected to drop in, you expected people. Anyone could come at any time. Keep the fridge full, you never know when guests might show up. When we moved to Boston, we kept the fridge full for three years. No one came.

One day, when I was in eleventh grade, my friends and I drove to Kentucky from Pittsburgh. It was one of those vague Saturdays of late high school, one of those I-don't-know-what-do-you-want-to-do days, and we piled into our old Renault and drove. Just drove. South, through Pennsylvania coal country, West Virginia hills. Cars up on blocks in gas stations for sale for seventy-five dollars, farm eggs a nickel apiece. We stopped at a roadside place where my friend, to my horror, ordered a liverwurst sandwich, and I don't know what I had but I pulled a twenty out of my wallet and the counter fell silent, like they'd never seen one before, and who was this kid with the Pennsylvania plates coming in with his buds and a twenty.

But that's what I learned from Dad: to pull a twenty from your wallet like it's magic, to show up out of nowhere and amaze the crowd and disappear.

Years later, I was listening to an interview with Shari Lewis on the radio, and she went on, not about Lamb Chop or her bangs, but about her dad. He was a founding member of Yeshiva University, and in the evenings after classes he would teach her magic tricks. "My father," she reflected, "was like the official magician of New York." Passing a closet one day, "Daddy heard my sister screaming to be let out. He opened the door, and my sister was nowhere to be seen." Shari had discovered her ability to throw her voice. Her parents put her onstage at eighteen months. "My parents were school teachers. They ran summer camps, and I was put onstage with a crepe-paper bow."

My father was the unofficial magician of New York. He did no juggling, no ventriloquism. Unlike my friends' fathers, he could not fix a leak, start a lawn mower, or change a broken lightbulb with a raw potato. He worked, instead, his magic in the car. The theater of his majesty was the front seat, as he drove almost without looking, talking to me next to him, waving at strangers out the window. I swear he had a third eye in his left ear; otherwise, how could he see the road?

We would drive for hours around Brooklyn, often with one of his friends (usually a former student who, now in his twenties, had little to do but cruise the city with a teacher and his kid), down Pitkin Avenue to Jacks, looking for two-dollar sport coats, or to the Knox Hat Shop, where rows of dark felt hats lay like corpses. I never remember my father wearing a hat, though. It was all part of his magic: the pompadoured hair, the high forehead. He didn't need a hat to pull anything out of. Some days we would walk into a restaurant, and people would turn, as if they'd expected us. We'd enter elevators, he would count to three and snap his fingers, and the doors would close. How did he do it? One night, when I was seven, we drove deep into Manhattan, parked, and came upon the Union Carbide Building. Inside, there was an exhibit about atoms, chemistry, and power. A model of a uranium atom spun inside a great blue plastic globe. It was like being taken on a tour of matter's very heart, and I held his hand as if he were my Christmas ghost flying me over unexpected streets.

I grew up longing to relive his skill. Once at a conference in the 1980s, I turned the corner of a book exhibit with two graduate students in tow, only to find a champagne reception in progress for a newly minted author. We were all handed glasses as if we had been expected, and I turned to my students and smiled. "Like how I did that?" There was the time, when I was teaching a freshman seminar at Stanford, that I trooped the students into downtown Palo Alto for a final lunch, and before we could hit the restaurant, we were accosted by a famous TV anchor with a mike: what did we think of the Starr Report? It was breaking news, and all the students spoke into the mike, on camera, with a poise that came from years of suburban assurance, and I said to them, when it was over, "How many other teachers get you on TV?"

And then there was the night when I was eight when Dad failed to come home. Just months before, he had bought a new, silver Firebird convertible. We'd put the top down, cruise around, and put the top up (that was a day's play). He always said he could never afford that car, but he bought it anyway. It stood out like an open zipper on the dull street of my third grade. And then, one night, he did not come home. We went to bed. Mom woke me up at six or seven in the morning to say that he'd been in a bad accident, but he was fine. What happened? He had gone to a meeting—an investment club? a teacher's union thing? a temple board group?—and when it was over, the car wouldn't start. He had called for a tow, was sitting on the hood smoking a cigarette, when something possessed him to get back inside. And then the crash. A drunken driver, we were told, plowed into the parked car, with Dad inside it, sending the whole thing skittering down the block, the emergency brake still on.

The car was totaled (the first time I'd heard that word). Nothing salvageable. The next day, he went out and bought the dullest, most anonymous car he could find, a deep green Chevrolet Impala. And that summer, we drove to Boston in it.

Fifteen years later, after the divorce, we reconvened for my brother's Princeton graduation. Mom and I sat there in a dorm room, waiting for Dad to pick us up and take us to the ceremony, and she opened up.

"That accident. Please. There was no meeting. It had been a tryst. You know what he is. I knew it when we married. I brought him home to meet my mother after we were in the Brooklyn College production of Blithe Spirit together. She said to me, 'Who is this man who is an actor?' And at the wedding, Aunt Gussie came up to me and said, 'You know, he's a fagelah.' Well, what did I care? I wanted to get out of that house, and he married me. My father was sick. God, how I still miss him. He sold chocolates and smoked cigars. He taught himself to sing by listening to John McCormack records. He loved to dance. Six weeks after I married, he was dead.

"To his credit, your father got me going after that. He forced me to finish college, forced me to get that master's degree, shoved me out of the house to go to work. We had a good time, acting in the plays at night and then going to the Garfield Restaurant for cheesecake. But then you were born, and then your brother, and everything changed. He was never home. And when he was, he brought his boys with him. The year you were born, he was teaching a ninth-grade class at Huddie Junior High, and all the kids chipped in and got you a blue blanket. I still have it. They were your first babysitters. Then they became his friends. It was fun at first, but after a while I knew what was going on and resented it. He'd bring home these men, now in their twenties, and I'd have to make them dinner while they sat around, and I would have to watch them worship him. Him. A ninth-grade teacher.

"Here's what I think: one night he was going off to meet someone, and someone else had heard about it and they set out to get him. Someone tried to kill him plowing into the parked car like that. Maybe it was one of those boys, or an angry dad, or somebody from school he made a pass at. It doesn't matter. I'm telling you, that's why we moved to Boston. How he got into Harvard is a mystery to me. And the only way he got that degree was because the dean of the school, who saw right through your father, was killed in a plane crash. So they had to give him the degree. You wonder why he couldn't get a job back in New York? Everybody knew.

"It was no better in Boston. Those families we spent those horrible Thanksgivings with—do you think those kids knew about their fathers? There was that Frenchman and his family, and every chance he got he'd hug Larry and say things like, 'I love you like a madman.' And then there was that Englishman who worked in the local school system. Do you remember that big old house in Cambridge? Dad loved that man because he had an accent and an eye patch. When he first introduced me to him, I thought he looked like Claude Rains. Your father probably thought so too. You and your brother and the other kids were upstairs watching TV, and the four adults were downstairs, cleaning up the dishes, and their hands touched.

"We could have had a life in Boston, too, but your father couldn't let it go. He did get one job offer out of grad school, at the school of education at Texas A&M. I remember he came back from the trip, and his advisor came to dinner: Dr. Hunt, a wonderful man, a Texan, Eisenhower's assistant secretary of education, a decent, decent man. He turned to Larry and he said, 'If you go to College Station there will be a cross burning on your lawn the first night. Think of your children.' And Larry thought he was talking about being Jewish.

"If you ask me, the only way he got that job in Pittsburgh was he slept his way into it.

"The man was a liar. And a terrible driver. I can't get into a car with him, the way he talks and tailgates and weaves around. Is he really going to pick us up? I'd rather walk. It's a miracle he hasn't died in a car."

He died in a hospital bed. He had gone in for heart-valve surgery, his voluble Argentinean surgeon assuring me that it was all routine. My father introduced me in Yiddish as mein zindel, the surgeon smiled and babbled something about nachas, yichas, and sachel. He shook my hand and six weeks later—after losing thirty pounds, after a regime of Coumadin, after two return visits to have his heart restarted—my father checked himself into the emergency room with back pain and just stopped living on the gurney.

I found the hospital and parked illegally on a side street, went in at the first door I saw, and found a desk. "My father passed away. I'm here to see the body." The nurse looked at me, unfazed, as if I were picking up my dry cleaning. She asked my name, got on the phone, and soon directed me to a room in another wing. An elevator, two hallways, a double door, and then a suite of rooms around a nurse's station. I mentioned his name. "Are you his brother?" No, I'm his son. Now she looked at me as if I'd lied, but she got up and walked me to the room, pulled back the curtain, and left me there.

He lay in the bed on his back, his mouth open, his skin the color of old parchment. It was as if they'd hooked a vacuum pump to his navel, drew the air out of him, and then left him on the mattress.

The doctor came in, a full ten years younger than me, shaken, his collar unbuttoned and his tie loose. "I'm very sorry. He came in last night with back pain, and we thought it might have been a kidney infection, so we put him on an IV drip of antibiotics and rehydrated him, and let him sleep." Now, reading from the chart: "The nurse checked in on him at noon today, and he was ready to go home. But when she came back fifteen minutes later he was cyanotic, in respiratory failure, asystolic. He was carted without response, and we declared him at 12:20. Do you want some time with him alone?"

I signed the forms and authorized an autopsy.

I walked out of the hospital and found my car. A sodden parking ticket stuck out from under the windshield wiper, and I tore it up. Now it was pouring rain, the San Francisco streets pitched up like waterslides. I inched out of my illegal spot, turned up the hill, and drove to his apartment building.

When Dad moved to San Francisco six years earlier, he wanted a great address—a number and a street that, when he mentioned it to someone in a store or on the phone, would cause them to gasp or smile and recognize him for the master that he'd hoped to be. The same as when he got his Harvard EdD, he put "Dr. Lawrence Lerer" on his checks and flew as "Dr. Lerer"—until one day (he'd regaled me with the story), someone had a heart attack on a plane, and he was called up to assist. It was certainly a good address: a 1930s, faux-Spanish apartment building on the corner of Pacific Avenue and Fillmore Street. With its wrought-iron gate, its Mexican tile floor, and its arched mosaic lobby, it looked, at street level, like a set for a Zorro movie. But the apartments were tiny and unrenovated. His still had the 1930s kitchen, with a big white porcelain sink and enameled stove; the living room had old sash windows; and the bathroom had the black-and-white tile of a chessboard. When I first saw the place, the day he moved in, I thought—well, that's it, he's finally found a place that looks like where he grew up. I changed my mind, the year before he died, when I was watching local news on TV. There was the building, and a reporter, and a story about a couple who kept pit bulls in their apartment, one of which had attacked another tenant, a woman in a same-sex relationship, and about how the whole building was full of gay men and women and run like a private club.


Excerpted from PROSPERO'S SON by Seth Lerer Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Seth Lerer is dean of arts and humanities at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of many books, including the National Book Critics Circle Award–winning Children's Literature: A Readers; History from Aesop to Harry Potter.

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