Honor Moore on writing The Bishop’s Daughter
For many years, in pieces, I wrote about my father—scrawled pages I stored away, for a book I never thought I’d write: A description of him celebrating Holy Communion or rowing a guide boat across the lake at our family’s summer place in the Adirondacks. Dreams that replayed moments from my childhood. Something funny from our family life. An imagined conversation between my parents during the early days of their marriage. Enraged tirades I never delivered, letters I never sent. Only after his death was I able to understand our life together clearly enough to make my way into telling our story.
My father was a man of contradictions: A sincere man of God who cursed like the marine he once was. A patrician who loved a stiff martini, a tough tennis game. A visionary social activist who lived and worked with the poor, but relished the trappings of luxury. A genius at the intimacies of pastoral work who only awkwardly navigated the closeness of family life. A husband and the father of nine children who led a second life—a secret existence with lovers who were men.
Much of our life together was spent in stilted silence, but in taking care of him during the weeks before his death my feelings about my father were suddenly transformed. One moment my emotions were so inchoate that I could see nothing at all, and the next my perspective miraculously shifted—I could see the whole of our years together and love him as the firstborn daughter I had always wanted to be. That freedom brought a new way of thinking about my father’s life as an Episcopal priest and bishop. I began to liken his spiritual calling to an artist’s vocation. Thinking of him as a kind of artist, I could begin to disentangle the strands of his complexity and identify with his suffering, his shortcomings, his errors. And in comparing his sexual search at the beginning of this century with my own in the heyday of sexual liberation in the 1960s and 1970s, I found new respect for his difficult choices.
I began to ask questions. Was my father’s choice to become a priest predicated on his altruistic desire to help people or religious desire to become closer to God? Or was it the only avenue available for a man like him? Unlike some of his generation and class who chose the ministry to escape their passions, my father became a priest to dive deeper into life, to venture much farther than he would have had he become the banker or lawyer his father expected him to be. My father’s vocation brought him great satisfaction, carrying him to the highest echelons of religious and political power in America, but his secrets caused suffering for my mother and later my stepmother, and for his children and himself.
During the four years I spent writing The Bishop’s Daughter, I saw my father’s life anew. I read the letters he wrote to my mother in the early days of their courtship and met many people who credited him with a dramatic influence on their lives. My childhood sense of my father’s greatness returned, now seasoned by my own experience as an adult. At times, I felt as if I were accompanying my father and mother as they lived their lives, all the while revisiting my own experiences as a child and a young woman. To my surprise, writing the book, while hard work, was also an ecstatic experience. I had wandered in my own confusion and pain and had thought about these people and events for years. Now things began to fall into place, and I was telling a story that seemed larger than my own, filling in the blanks, with memory rising through my dreams and thoughts, bringing revelation and tears but also laughter.
Alfred Kazin, the literary critic, once told me that what he adored about being a writer was that when one finished a book, one found oneself “an entirely different person.” After turning in my first manuscript to my publisher, I asked him when he thought a book was finished, and he answered, “When you stop thinking and dreaming about it all the time.” Now that I have stopped thinking and dreaming about The Bishop’s Daughter, now that this story is out in the world, I find myself free of the shame and sorrow that accompanied much of my life. But, surprisingly, I also find that I miss my parents more than I ever have. Released from their story, they float through my days, and I’m forever thinking of things to ask them, imagining that when the phone rings it’s one of them, and wishing that we can start all over again, now that I understand.
- In the prologue, Honor Moore writes, “it took me decades to escape the enchantment of my father’s priesthood.” How does Honor describe this feeling of enchantment, and how does it change as she grows up?
- In crafting the book’s prologue, Honor includes a scene that depicts her childhood perspective of her father, along with a brief conversation she had with him shortly before his death. Why do you think Honor chose to juxtapose these two scenes?
- Honor notes that her father, Paul Moore, was born as “the beneficiary of vast wealth”—a fortune his grandfather, as “one of the Moore brothers,” made through corporate mergers in Chicago in the early twentieth century. Her mother, on the other hand, came from wealthy roots but was also the daughter of a pioneering American female artist, the painter and sculptor Margarett Sargent. What role do these two influences—wealth and art—play in the lives Honor’s parents lead, and how do Paul and Jenny Moore try to control their influence? Does Honor suggest a parallel between her life as an artist and her father’s vocation as a priest?
- Her father tells Honor that his primary reason for joining the priesthood was to satisfy his longing to celebrate the Eucharist. And yet, like his friend Dorothy Day, Paul Moore’s spirituality seems grounded in an effort to solve concrete problems of living. How did Paul Moore directly engage his ministry with the world, and how did it make him a household name in the Episcopal Church and later in the city of New York? How does Honor view the differences between her father’s personal spirituality and his practicality as a civic-minded religious leader?
- Honor describes her years in Jersey City as “the best time” of her childhood. What about this period in her life does she grow to cherish? What influence does her time there seem to have on her later life?
- What effect does Nona Clarke have on Honor during Honor’s trip to Europe as a college student? How does Nona complicate Honor’s view of her father both in 1967 and later, when Honor sees her in Switzerland after nearly forty years have passed? How does Honor seem to view Nona’s assessment of her “wonderful” life?
- What role do letters and letter-writing play in The Bishop’s Daughter? What does Honor mean when she describes the letters between her parents as “unrevised by the decades”? How would your understanding of the book be different if Honor had chosen not to include excerpts from letters?
- Besides her parents, what are the other major influences on Honor during high school and college? What factors does she cite in the emergence of her political and sexual consciousness in the 1960s and ’70s? What is the importance of theater to Honor’s life when she is a young adult?
- Why does Honor remember the dinner she had with her father on 8th Street in 1970—when she was twenty-four and he was forty-nine—so vividly? What role does psychotherapy play in Honor’s relationship with her father when she is an adult?
- How does Honor describe the memory of finding in her father’s study a book of photographs open to a page depicting a naked young man? Later, when she finally learns of her father’s affairs with men, how does Honor react? Why is Honor “furious” when she reads a copy of her father’s book Presences?
- How does Honor’s relationship with her mother evolve after her parents’ separation? How does Honor feel as her mother begins to open up to her about sexuality and her marriage with Honor’s father?
- After her mother died, Honor turned the experience into art, writing poetry and the play Mourning Pictures. How does Honor describe these artistic endeavors in relation to her grief over her mother’s death? What is the effect on Honor of the critical failure of Mourning Pictures on Broadway?
- Honor writes, “in 1974, I found myself in a dream realm of women.” Later, she writes of trying to “establish myself in a new sexuality.” What is the relationship between the awakening of Honor’s feminism and her same-sex love affairs? How do both Honor and Paul Moore’s sexual lives operate outside the boundaries of traditional sexual labels such as “gay” and “straight”?
- How does Andrew Verver and what he reveals about his relationship with Paul Moore affect Honor’s understanding of her father’s sexuality? How does Emma Black further complicate this picture? Does Honor reach any conclusions about her father’s sexuality?
- The book’s dedication reads: “For my siblings, each of whom would have another story.” What does this dedication suggest about the story Honor presents in The Bishop’s Daughter and the nature of self and memory?
About Honor Moore
Honor Moore is the award-winning author of three collections of poems, Red Shoes (2005), Darling (2001), and Memoir (1988). She is the author of the biography The White Blackbird: A Life of the Painter Margarett Sargent by Her Granddaughter (1996), which was a New York Times Notable Book and will be published in a new edition by W. W. Norton in 2009, and of the play Mourning Pictures (1974), produced on Broadway. She coedited The Stray Dog Cabaret, a collection of translations of the Russian Modernist poets by Paul Schmidt (2006), and edited Poems from the Women’s Movement (2009) and Amy Lowell: Selected Poems (2004), both for the Library of America. Since 2000, she has taught in the graduate writing programs at The New School and Columbia University School of the Arts, and from 2000 to 2006 served on the board of PEN American Center. She lives in New York City.
Honor Moore’s suggestions for further reading
- Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
- Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson
- The Lover by Marguerite Duras
- Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin
- Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
- The Border of Truth by Victoria Redel
- The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald
- My Father and Myself by J. R. Ackerley
About Honor Moore
Honor Moore is a poet and the author of The Bishop’s Daughter. She lives in New York City and teaches at the New School and Columbia University.
Books by Honor Moore
“An eloquent argument for speaking even the most difficult truths.” —New York Times Book ReviewMore
“Sexy, telegraphic, edgy, and rapt. . . . Exquisitely visual, cuttingly witty, Moore’s poems are at once cool and searing.”—BooklistMore
“A striking portrait of a woman artist’s struggle for life.” —Arthur MillerMore