Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Like father, like daughter

Memoir of a Modernist's Daughter, by Eleanor Munro. New York: Viking. 271 pp. $18.95. In her book about pilgrims and pilgrimage, ``On Glory Roads,'' Eleanor Munro described herself as the visionary humanist daughter of a rationalist father. Munro's deep interest in mysticism and other varieties of religious experience can be seen - as she herself sees it - as a daughter's attempt to supply the elements that were lacking in the world-view her father lived and sought to bequeath to her.

Thomas Munro was a noted art critic, an exponent of Modernism who practiced a scientific approach in place of ``old-fashioned'' subjective judgments. As a young man, he had cast off the religious moorings of his family background and gradually embraced an optimistic, but essentially materialist, philosophy influenced by the pragmatism of John Dewey and the aesthetics of George Santayana.

About these ads

His was the hopeful Modernism of progressive education, the League of Nations, and, later, UNESCO (of which he was a founder). He brought up his children to be free, rational, and independent. But when Eleanor's pursuit of freedom led her in directions he did not approve, he retreated into shock and anger.

Theirs was a classic father-daughter conflict, in which the daughter's attempts to be ``free'' - as per her parent's instructions - tested the limits of the father's definition of freedom.

Munro dealt with her father's formidable influence sometimes by rebellion, but more often by avoiding an open break. Rather than disavow his teachings, she sought ways of continuing or completing them. She, too, became involved in the art world, working in the 1950s for Art News magazine and discovering in Abstract Expressionism a belated flowering of her father's Modernist faith in the high seriousness of art's mission. In her love affair with an older man, Art News's editor Alfred Frankfurter (whom she later married), Eleanor found someone whose Romantic enthusiasm for experience formed a sharp contrast to her father's creed of measure and moderation. (After Frankfurter's death, she married New York writer E.J. Kahn.)

While Thomas Munro believed aesthetics - subjective states of feeling and perception - were best described objectively, Eleanor Munro uses a subjective approach - not only to portray her own emotions, but also to recreate as best she can the worlds of her parents and grandparents. Her style is engagingly idiosyncratic - turgid and limpid by turns, with moments of lyrical insight. Times and places as well as people are subtly evoked: The Cleveland suburbs of her girlhood, her grandparents' Catskill mountain retreat, postwar New York, and Europe as she experienced it in Alfred's company: ``Breakfast was no quick stoking of fires but a slow rising into conversation while the butter melted, the tea grew cold in our cups and the orbs, crescents, and slivers of fruit and toast on our plates drew honeybees in the window.'' Writing about her father and herself, Munro explores the fault lines beneath the smooth surface of his cheerful Modernism. Although he preached a Walt Whitmanesque exaltation of nudity and the human body, he would later warn his daughter of the high value of a woman's virginity on the marriage market. Although he believed in tolerance, it was many years before Eleanor discovered that her own mother came from a Jewish family. And most poignantly, toward the end of his life, her father's ability to accept death as the final end of a purely material existence gave way to tentative speculations about immortality.

Munro - who had her share of Freudian analysis as a career woman in the anxiety-ridden '50s - approaches the father-daughter relationship as a study in influence rather than an ``Elektra complex'' scenario of frustrated desire. Influence, after all, is an aspect of love: Loving parents hope to influence their children; children are influenced by those they love. This memoir not only sheds light on the delicate complexities of family relationships, but also illuminates certain patterns in cultural history, showing how ideas and attitudes are transmitted - and transmuted - from generation to generation.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.