May 13, 2010


Devoted: The Story of a Father’s Love for His Son. By Dick Hoyt with Don Yaeger. Da Capo. $22.95.

The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale of Forgery and Folly. By Doug Stewart. Da Capo. $24.95.

     There are some books that, no matter how firmly they wear their hearts on their sleeves, it is impossible to criticize without seeming unsympathetic to the point of inhumanity. Devoted is one of those “beyond criticism” books There is simply no way to find the tale of Rick Hoyt and his father, Dick, anything less than tear-jerking, emotionally wrenching, uplifting, an example of humanity at its best, a tale of what “family” really means, and so on. And it would be unfair to suggest that the book is in any way exploitative of Rick, a 48-year-old congenital spastic quadriplegic, because Rick comes across as a thoroughly remarkable individual who deserves every single break he ever gets, and then some. And his father, 69-year-old Dick, deserves not only applause but also a standing ovation for his amazing dedication to Rick and his utter refusal to see his son as anything other than a complete, talented and very able (as opposed to disabled) human being. These two men have bonded through athletic events, in which Dick has pushed Rick’s wheelchair through – among other things – 27 Boston Marathons and the Hawaii Ironman competition. Rick’s mother, Judy, became a crusader when school administrators would not let Rick enroll in public school, eventually being instrumental in the passage of the nation’s first special-education reform law. There is a purity to this family – not an angelic one, but a gritty one – that simply admits of no reaction but admiration. Except…well, after readers are done crying with joy and empathy at all that the self-named Team Hoyt has accomplished, after everyone lives vicariously through the unspeakable difficulties, after everyone reads the letters from Team Hoyt admirers worldwide and imagines being in a similar position (unimaginable for anyone who has not been in one), there may be a niggling little bit of uncertainty about what to do with this astonishingly positive microcosmic story – from a broader perspective. Consider: Dick Hoyt writes, “You know, I’m just a regular guy. …I’m like any other man in America. Only I got lucky – I have a beautiful son and an activity we can do together, despite his disability. It’s been an incredible journey. I’m not a hero. I’m just a father.” But Dick Hoyt is a hero, and so, in his own way, is Rick. Yet not all people with disabilities are heroes, certainly not in this way; not all fathers have military careers that help them hone the discipline needed to manage a severely disabled child; not all children with disabilities can function, much less excel, in a public school setting; not all disabled young people can negotiate the vagaries of college, even with caregiver assistance, to become Boston University graduates; not all people with disabilities, and their families, become icons of a cause, with speaking engagements and TV appearances galore. There are huge issues – social and economic as well as familial – associated with disabled members of society. Devoted raises many of those issues, mostly indirectly, but never addresses any of them: its focus is entirely on these people in these circumstances. It is a heartbreakingly heartwarming book, but it is also a story so remarkable in its atypical way that it makes it more difficult, not less, to try to find ways to address the many, many thousands of people with disabilities who did not have the good fortune to be born with Rick’s amazing will to overcome physical handicaps and into a family as tremendously determined and devoted as the Hoyts.

     If Rick Hoyt’s father stands way, way off at one end of the spectrum of fatherhood in terms of love and devotion, William-Henry Ireland’s stood nearly as far on the other end. Samuel Ireland denigrated his son, was emotionally distant and seems to have scared William-Henry nearly out of his wits. Samuel was also a tremendous devotee of Shakespeare, whose works were being rediscovered in England in the late 18th century and were being wildly acclaimed after a long period of eclipse that had begun even while Shakespeare was still alive (in the early 17th century, he was not considered as with-it as, say, Ben Jonson). The troubled father-son relationship and the fortuitous reascent of Shakespeare combined to lead to one of history’s more curious footnotes: William-Henry, an unsuccessful aspiring writer, managed to forge a great number of documents that scholars of his day believed had been created by Shakespeare. The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare tells this odd story in lively detail, explaining how William-Henry was able to pass off supposed letters, poems and even a “lost play” by Shakespeare after writing everything himself. Much of this was made possible by one of the great oddities of English literature: no one knows what Shakespeare’s everyday handwriting looked like (this is one reason some people still stubbornly insist that his works must have been created by someone else). A few signatures on legal documents exist, but there is not one poem, not one play, not one draft of anything known to be by Shakespeare in Shakespeare’s own hand. So William-Henry, using crabbed and often nearly indecipherable handwriting, old paper or parchment, and watered ink so faded that it appeared old, was able to convince the most prominent scholars of his day that he had unearthed a treasure trove of genuine Shakespeare manuscripts. Why did he do it? Not, argues history-and-art journalist Doug Stewart, in an attempt at self-aggrandizement or for personal riches, but in order to impress his father, whose collection of old books and manuscripts would be immeasurably enhanced by the Shakespeare works “discovered” by his son. In one of many ironies in this story, Stewart points out that Samuel Ireland never believed that William-Henry had forged the documents, even after they were exposed as fakes – because Samuel did not think his son smart enough to pull off such a fraud successfully (nor did many others: for years, people argued that Samuel himself did the forgeries and forced his son to take the blame). Oddly enough, William-Henry succeeded in fooling such giants of his age as James Boswell and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and managed to fool his father as well – despite not wanting to do so. William-Henry’s tell-all (or at least “tell-much”) book about his forgeries, The Confessions of William-Henry Ireland, was one of three books of memoirs that he wrote, and is itself incomplete and not wholly reliable. Indeed, sorting out what William-Henry did and meant to do is difficult, and Stewart does not claim to have uncovered every last bit of this minor but fascinating mystery. Shakespeare aficionados will enjoy this book a great deal, although it will be rather arcane for the general reader, despite Stewart’s accessible writing style. But how delightful it would have been if, let us say, William-Henry had turned out – as was suggested at one point – to have an ancestor with the same “W.H.” initials who had been the mysterious dedicatee of Shakespeare’s sonnets! “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” goes a proverb that dates to Shakespeare’s time. Indeed, wishes so often lead astray even those who supposedly know better – and even those who want no more than to prove their worth to their fathers.

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