(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Perhaps all imaginative writing is autobiographical. The more closely such writings details conform to verifiable facts in the author’s life, the easier it is for readers to see an equivalence between reality and art. Yet such a view contains a hazard to readers of fiction based largely on fact: Writers are at liberty to veer at will from fact to fancy, and when they do, readers may be deceived.

“Father and Son” is Kunitz’s best-known and most-anthologized poem. Written as World War II was erupting in Europe, it is the story, which Kunitz says came to him in a dream, about a boy seeking his dead father. Because the poet’s father committed suicide before his son’s birth, this is not a conventional father-son poem packed with memories of family outings, fishing trips, or ball games.

Kunitz had to invent his father. Anything he devised was reasonable; the boy had no real knowledge of the specter that had sired him. His mother, a distraught widow who, in the aftermath of her shocking loss, had to struggle to run her husband’s manufacturing business and to support her three children, erased the memory of the dead Solomon Z. Kunitz from her household. She could not deny his death, but she could handily deny his having ever existed.

Stanley’s sole concrete memory of his father was of a face in a faded photograph, which was torn from his hand by his angry mother who punished him for treading on forbidden ground in his...

(The entire section is 456 words.)