Review of “The Critic’s Daughter” by Priscilla Gilman


We’ve been conditioned to expect something specific from memoirs by children of notable people: escape narratives that reveal the tawdriness or tyranny behind the parent’s publicly charming facade and chart the child’s quest for individuality. “The Critic’s Daughter” — Priscilla Gilman’s reflection on her relationship with her father, the famed literary critic Richard Gilman — is an odd contribution to the genre in that it’s more of a tribute.

Richard Gilman had come from a decidedly un-Bohemian Jewish family that never quite shook off the dust of the old country. Priscilla’s mother, the big-name literary agent Lynn Nesbit, was the daughter of a traveling salesman “who wore cardigans” and a “dutiful housewife who taught Sunday school and thought Nixon had been wronged.” But by the time Priscilla was born, her own parents had established an avant-garde apartment on Central Park West in Manhattan. Bernard Malamud read Priscilla her bedtime stories, while Toni Morrison was just “Aunt Toni.”

This was an era when the counterculture writers — like Tom Wolfe, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion — were all repped by the same few Manhattan super agents, mostly all knew or slept with each other, and could all be accommodated in a single hamlet in south Connecticut over the weekend. Lording over that scene were a handful of noted literary critics like Gilman (he wrote for the Nation, among other outlets) who styled themselves as godlike arbiters. Despite the critics’ pretense that it was their duty to strike fear into authors’ hearts, it was all one club. Priscilla would go into the kitchen and find writers that Gilman regularly reviewed grazing on her mother’s butterscotch brownies as they nursed hangovers.

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The American literary world has tried to bolt for freedom from this era — from its thin veneer of diversity, from its self-dealing insularity, from the selective way it fetishized rule-breaking. This was, after all, also an era when top writers were permitted to freely ogle Gilman’s teen daughters. Harold Brodkey couldn’t help it: he was “a latter-day Byron.” Nesbit had a serious relationship with the author Donald Barthelme before she married Gilman, and one day, Barthelme telegrammed her from Europe. “GIRL PREGNANT,” he wrote. “NEED MONEY. STILL LOVE YOU.”

Such behavior was accepted, even celebrated, as what identified the truly “idiosyncratic” and “daring” talents. Gilman, for his part, specialized in eviscerating takedowns that now feel snobby or mean. Though he identified as a free-spirit bohemian, the identity most important to him was as an enforcer. At home, he forbade his children from watching vulgar TV or listening to sentimental pop music. As a critic, he policed a border between work he deemed truly unconventional and work he decided was just stupid.

Even as a child, Priscilla could see this scene’s hypocrisies. There were real, harsh limits to his friends’ enthusiasm for people who truly lived unconventional lives; they also longed to shame, gossip, and make indignant, bourgeois condemnations. Gilman hid his preference for submissive BDSM sex from both Nesbit and his friends, worrying — correctly, it turned out — that they would think it reflected badly on him by rendering him less masculine. Nesbit’s growing ambition, meanwhile, rendered her distant and icy. Some of the book’s most shocking passages arrive midway when Priscilla’s parents divorce after her father’s proclivities came to light.

Gilman and Nesbit represented themselves to their children as people — not just professionals — who lived lives devoted to expressing the truth, no matter how “unpleasant and disturbing.” It’s amazing how little they dared to say at home when the stakes got serious. Instead of clarifying the terms of their separation to their daughters, they attacked each other covertly by leaving kompromat out where their children would see it, like a letter Gilman had sent a woman asking her to urinate on him. At one point, Nesbit tells a preteen Priscilla that her father’s “love for you isn’t real,” cruelly adding, “Your father was impotent a lot of the time. … You know what that means, right, sweetheart?” Boundaries!

In a piece of tragically dramatic irony, after a lifetime of imposing his literary opinions on the world, Gilman was rendered unable to speak in his final years. His eventual death in 2006 plunged Priscilla into an unexpectedly deep grief. She writes that a therapist told her she needs to “stop being the supporting player” and “write and direct and star in her own life.”

But Gilman’s conviction about his opinions — his reverence for originality, his belief that singing and acting are below intellectual pursuits — put Priscilla in a double bind. Accept them completely and she’d become a mimeograph. Rebel and resist, and she’d also seem to be following his admonitions to forge a life “free of the shackles of convention, history, and expectation.”

Priscilla was, and remains, torn, because she feels Gilman really was a wonderful father. And the magical, ennobling ways that he fathered — engaging with her childhood attempts at “novels” with the same seriousness he brought to great literature — seemed bound up in his whole outlook on the world, so she hesitates to condemn it. As Gilman grew sick, he became increasingly paranoid that his work would be forgotten. But that was the flip side to a sensitive understanding of the way people blossom thanks to accidents wrought by time — by encountering a great book, by encountering a thrilling person. He feverishly sought out such accidents — the moments or artworks that illuminate ordinary life like a museum’s light-box.

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Gilman’s books have gone out of print, but his daughter quotes them at great length, revealing the other side to his scathing judgments: a deep reverence for writing he loved. You could interpret his harsh reviewing as motivated by a desire to exclude people from his little literary club. You could also interpret it as outrage on behalf of wonderful literature he didn’t want to see diluted. As the book draws to a close, its mood grows elegiac, hinting that, along with all his generation’s exclusionary cruelties, we’ve also lost some of their fury on behalf of greatness.

Richard Gilman actually was a great writer — a better writer, line by line, than his daughter. But by turning away from his kind of declarative claims, Priscilla paints a richer, more vital portrait than I think Gilman probably could have painted of himself.

She has resurrected him. In the end, “The Critic’s Daughter” is about the complex love between a parent and a child. It’s not just a book for literary gossips, though those who care about names like Richard Seaver will find plenty to chew on here. Most people didn’t have celebrity book-critic parents. But to every child, every parent is, at some point, a titan — their first god, like Gilman was to his daughter.

Most childhood memoirs depict the author as an adult in child’s clothing, possessing preternaturally sophisticated observations and skepticisms. This one is sometimes childlike, still earnest and effusive. The memoir genre also now pumps out innumerable rote tales of becoming, of breaking free, of learning to “direct” one’s own life. It offers few stories of being and remaining entangled, though much of life, really, consists of the latter. “The Critic’s Daughter” is an account of a love that’s neither takeoff strip nor landing pad, a child’s confounding adoration for her parent that’s neither ever really resolved nor extinguished.

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