Theodore Roethke’s biographer and close friend Allan Seager identifies “Papa” as a story Roethke penned in high school shortly after his father’s death. Roethke’s father, Otto, worked in the family greenhouse business as the Roethkes had done in their native Germany (hence, the father’s hands “caked with dirt” in “My Papa’s Waltz”). In this story, Roethke’s father appears tyrannical and cruel. “John,” representing Roethke himself, knows that his father favors his nephew “Bud,” Roethke’s cousin, yet he still defends his father when “Bud” refers to his uncle as “nothin’ but a watchman and coaldriver.” Despite his father’s antagonism in this story, Roethke depicts himself as an intensely loyal son. The waltz in the story becomes a symbol of an idealized—and elusive—relationship between father and son; it is unclear whether Roethke understands this bond as an impossibility because of his father’s belligerence or because of his death when the poet was still a teenager. Regardless, as Roethke suggests, in the story he imagines his father with his grandfather’s maid not as evidence of adultery (it is unclear whether the story is true) but as a means through which to protect himself from the emotional devastation of his father’s death. “He wouldn’t have to worry any more,” he concludes at the end of the essay, “[h]e hated papa.”

Contributing author: Michelle Ephraim, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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> “Papa” by Theodore Roethke

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