Reading fatherhood.

In American Studies, we often “read” a work, or set of works, and narrowly focus on a single aspect that may be only indirectly related to the work itself. For example, what is the role of technology in The Great Gatsby? Or, what does Hitchcock’s North by Northwest suggest about advertising? As we surveyed novel after novel in one of my American Literature classes, my professor repeatedly asked, “What does this narrative imply about the American family?”

In that course, we focused on two primary instances of “family”: (1) the fundamental unit of society, American-style, and (2) the collection of people known as “Americans” as a national entity (whether or not they enjoyed full rights and citizenship). I discovered some interesting insights into American fatherhood by considering The Scarlet Letter, its narrative content, its historical context, its influence on later American writers, and comparing these traditional perspectives with the modern American response to DNA paternity testing.

Where are fathers in American Literature?

In a 2009 article, Josep Armengol-Carrera notes that “American literary fathers, when/if present, tend to be represented as authoritarian and repressive figures.” But, digging beneath the surface, his exploration ultimately considers “the plurality as well as the irreducible complexity of fathers in American literary history.” The Scarlet Letter certainly presents a “plurality” of fathers in a very complicated construction that forces its readers to critically examine American fatherhood.

The crisis of fatherhood in The Scarlet Letter.

The main narrative centers on a fatherless child and her reticent mother. Domestically, poor little Pearl has at once two fathers and no father. Her religious (and biological) father proves weak and unstable, while her scientific (and legal) father becomes a vengeful tyrant—both hide their paternity in pursuit of personal gain. Thus, the care of fatherless daughter and husbandless mother falls to the community. But the Prynnes remain physically and socially separated from the town fathers, who are incapable of either discipling or nurturing anomalies like Hester and her daughter.

Hawthorne’s implications reach even further than the family or communal unit. In his lengthy (but relevant) setup, “The Custom House”, Hawthorne empathizes with the Puritan fathers, who rigidly but earnestly established a new world, and the Founding Fathers, whose grand experiment had (by Hawthorne’s time) already devolved into a two-party spoils system despite the Founders’ best (and original) intentions. A careful reading of his novel (and his letters and journals) reveals just how abandoned Hawthorne felt socially, culturally, and politically.

Revolution, realignment, and redefining fatherhood.

So, when fathers fail so completely, what’s a girl or a boy or any citizen to do? It turns out, they can do something very American: reject their father, and find a new one. After all, the nation began with the “Sons of Liberty” renouncing their English fathers in favor of Founding ones (a point made by Armengol-Carrera, via David Pugh). The new, or newly chosen, fathers don’t have to conform to the traditional or the expected. Twain, who greatly admired Hawthorne, helped Huck find a moral father in a runaway slave named Jim.

Of course, first fathers, like Lee’s Atticus Finch or Cather’s Anton Rosicky or L’Engle’s Alex Murray, can be heroes, too—even if flawed ones. And sometimes, the choice between fathers isn’t as simply dichotomous as good versus evil or right versus wrong. Sometimes, growing up well requires a “plurality” and “complexity” of fathers, as in Chiam Potok’s The Chosen, Lee and Kirby’s The X-Men, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and—most emphatically— in Lucas’ Star Wars.

I am a son, actively involved with bio-dad and step-dad. I’m also a father of four. So, I can readily relate to the usual American protagonists and their efforts to negotiate paternal relationships while seeking their own identity. I’m also a marketing director for a U.S.-based DNA paternity testing lab, which puts questions about American paternity in a distinctively commercial light.

The U.S. market for paternity tests.

In the U.S., DNA labs conduct more than 1 million paternity tests every year.1 In 2007, the rising demand for paternity answers spawned the world’s first retail DNA paternity test kits, now sold nationwide in more than 25,000 retail locations. The sales figure corresponds with birth rates for unmarried mothers, which climbed to 42.4% in 2014, or about 1.5 million births annually. A Yale study shows that dozens of other countries experience even higher out-of-wedlock birth rates, but paternity test sales remain much stronger in the U.S.2

DNA paternity test results can have surprising consequences. When results are positive, as they are in two-thirds of DNA paternity test cases, most fathers react with relief and even joy. Often, the scientific proof of fatherhood enables these fathers to forgive and forge new, stronger bonds with mother and child. Many assume that an alleged father with a negative result will simply abandon the child (and mother) in question. But in my experience, non-biological fathers often take steps, such as marriage and legal adoption, to protect their relationship and their rights in connection with a family they’ve come to love and cherish despite the absence of biological ties. Simply put, these families choose fatherhood, despite the biological evidence.

And, for Americans, fatherhood is a choice, even a crucial one.

Fatherhood matters.

The Scarlet Letter reminds us that paternity questions are not new. A survey of American literary history (Armengol-Carrera’s) combined with DNA paternity test statistics, shows that “paternity questions” have been with us since our founding. The absence of fathers in much of American literature does not suggest that fatherhood is unimportant to Americans, but rather it represents a cultural need to find one’s own path and to choose one’s own moral father—even if it’s your biological one.

For Americans, fatherhood matters deeply. And, though it may be assigned or assumed by birth, fatherhood is finally earned and retained by action. In other words, a father is as a father does (a lesson also poignantly learned by the fatherless Forrest Gump). American culture allows—even encourages—the reassignment of fatherhood based on this principle, which corresponds to our political roots and our consequent cultural experience.

A paternal postscript.

As my children begin to fly the nest, I’m reminded of my commitment to be as wise and careful as Atticus Finch, as patient and kind as Anton Rosicky, and as loving and committed as Alex Murray. I know that my kids must also find their own path and choose their own “plurality” of influential fathers and father figures—and I hope to be foremost among them.

1 In 2010, the AABB reported 382,199 paternity tests for legal purposes (such as child support or child custody) performed in the U.S. The AABB does not record tests performed for non-legal purposes (such as peace of mind), but DNA Diagnostics Center, one of the country’s largest direct-to-consumer DNA labs, processes more than than 1 million samples annually, mostly for “non-legal” paternity testing. With 38 accredited labs in the U.S., the true number of annual paternity tests likely well-surpasses 1 million.

2 The deviation in U.S. demand may partly be ascribed to affluence, though Yale’s list includes the U.K., France, Norway, Australia, and other relatively wealthy economies where paternity tests are sold at much lower volumes. A varied approach to welfare support for unwed mothers may also be a factor, since the U.S. focuses on biological fathers as the primary source of financial support. Still, the intensity with which Americans question paternity is a significant outlier.