This is a repost of an article I wrote for my original blog on September 1, 2015. I’m reposting it today because I plan to repost the book review that followed it and is referenced in this article. I’m mostly reposting it as it originally appeared almost five years ago.
I am going to preemptively issue a disclaimer. Ordinarily, in a post like this, I wouldn’t name names. Since this story has to do with a famous person, his famous offspring, and the book written by said offspring, I’m going to name names in this post. Apologies to anyone who is offended, because I intend to be brutally honest.
The other day, I started a new Facebook group. It’s called Random Bullshit. I started it on a whim and at the suggestion of a local friend after we became disenfranchised from some of the local Facebook groups. I decided to make the group fairly open to new members, even those who don’t live in Stuttgart, as long as they don’t mind oversharing and raunchy humor. Right after I started the new group, the subject of philosophy professors came up after I put up a link to my post about how I discovered what enemas are. One of my friends said he’d mailed an enema to a former philosophy professor at Ole Miss who had given him a poor grade. I suddenly remembered my former philosophy professor at Longwood University, Dr. John Peale.
Dr. Peale’s philosophy course is, to date, the only one I have ever taken. In fact, I took the class because I had to; it was called Ethics and everyone at my school had to pass it or something similar to it as part of our general education requirements. If I recall correctly, the class didn’t meet for the entire semester and was only good for two credits.
With a course name like “Ethics”, I figured I would find the class stimulating. I remember looking forward to it. I thought it would be an interesting class, but I was mistaken. In fact, the only two things I remember learning from Peale’s class are Immanuel Kant (as in, I know he existed and was a philosopher) and existentialism (as in, I know it’s a philosophical theory). I don’t remember being very impressed by my professor, who came across as pompous, arrogant, angry, and overbearing. I do remember getting a C in the course, but that was no big deal. I got C’s in a whole lot of classes, including many of the ones I took for my major. I never claimed to be a brilliant student. I came away from Dr. Peale’s class not particularly interested in any further study of philosophy. Other former students’ mileages may vary.
One of my best friends in college temporarily had Dr. Peale as an advisor. One day, he went to see the professor to plan for the next semester’s classes. While he was sitting there talking to Dr. Peale, my friend noticed a bunch of books on the professor’s bookshelf written by Norman Vincent Peale. Norman Vincent Peale, who died at a ripe old age on Christmas Eve in 1993, was a very famous minister and author. He wrote The Power of Positive Thinking as well as many other well-received books. He was also a founder of Guideposts, an uplifting little magazine that my grandmother used to keep conveniently stationed by her toilet. I guess they made good reading material.
My friend, whose parents were big fans of Norman Vincent Peale’s books, asked Dr. Peale if he was related to the famous author and preacher. The good professor said, teeth clenched and with a noticeable edge to his voice, “He is my father.” Fortunately, my friend had the good sense not to press the issue further and got on with planning the next term’s courses.
I had mostly forgotten about Dr. Peale until the other day, after bantering with my friend about enemas on Facebook. That just goes to show you that I have a mind that can find a tangent with anything. Anyway, as a result of that bantering session, I had a sudden flashback to Dr. Peale’s philosophy class and being publicly embarrassed when Peale yelled at me for an answer I gave that must have seemed stupid to him. I don’t remember what I said or why Peale thought it was dumb, but I do remember how I felt. Fortunately, the incident occurred toward the end of the class period and I was able to slink back to my dorm with relative ease.
At the time, I had never heard of Norman Vincent Peale and had no idea that Dr. Peale was related to anyone important. I didn’t know he had some personal issues that affected him deeply enough to write a book about his dad. I just wanted to get through my Ethics class and was having a surprisingly difficult time of it. It’s not a pleasant memory. In Peale’s defense, I think he was going through some rather serious health issues at the time and that may have affected his demeanor. He retired from teaching just a few years after I took his class.
I decided to search for Dr. Peale to see what he was up to these days. I found a blog that he wrote a few years ago and that’s where I discovered the book he wrote about his difficult relationship with his father. Because I am nosey and find human relationships fascinating, I decided to order the book, Just How Far from the Apple Tree?: A Son in Relation to His Famous Father. I’m about halfway through it and will probably eventually post a review on this blog. For now, I will comment that the book does shed some light on why Dr. Peale came across the way he did to me and my friend. Despite growing up very privileged, well-traveled, and financially supported, according to his book, Dr. Peale never felt appreciated, regarded, or properly loved by his parents. In particular, Peale felt neglected by his famous father, who was supposedly not “there” enough for him.
I don’t mean this to sound snarky because I can understand feeling bitter about having parents who don’t appreciate their offspring. I have felt the same way sometimes about my own parents. I think a lot of people have this problem and I know it’s a real issue. On the other hand, the book also reveals a lot of what I observed when I had Peale as a teacher. He is more than a bit impressed with himself.
After graduating from an excellent boarding school in Massachusetts, Peale studied at Washington & Lee University, a fine Virginia school in Lexington, located right next to Virginia Military Institute. Virginia Military Institute and, to a lesser extent, W&L, are a part of my personal history. My dad, an uncle, and quite a few cousins went to VMI. Bill and I got married there. A couple of my cousins are W&L grads, too. In any case, I know for a fact that W&L is a very good private university in a beautiful town.
Before he went to college, Dr. Peale went to Scotland to work. He spent a gap year harvesting salmon with his friends, which he admits was a lot of fun. He also got to travel to London and Paris after exploring the Scottish countryside. While catching salmon swimming upstream was hard work, it sure wasn’t digging ditches, cleaning horse stalls, or flipping burgers.
Next, Dr. Peale went to Boston University, where he earned a master’s degree and met his wife, Lydia. Boston University is yet another excellent and pricey university, though maybe it wasn’t so costly in Peale’s day. Peale followed up by attending Union Theological Seminary in New York, a school he writes his father was against his attending, because Norman Vincent Peale thought it was too liberal. John Peale’s choice apparently caused friction between father and son, though they were never actually estranged.
Having later graduated from seminary, Dr. Peale was qualified to be a minister. However, though he claims to be a “gifted” minister, Peale felt a calling toward academia, a choice that he claims upset his father. So he went to the University of Chicago, where he studied, and taught courses at nearby Elmhurst College. Then, he went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he earned a doctorate and taught courses.
Dr. Peale writes in his book that he enjoyed financial support from his parents, who helped him and his wife, Lydia, and their children live comfortably and travel extensively. One time, his parents even attended one of his lectures; they sat in the back as he taught and weren’t obtrusive. However, Norman Vincent Peale apparently didn’t show his son enough support for his choice to be a teacher over a preacher. That lack of regard, apparently, really offended the younger Peale, which seems to be the whole basis for his book. Peale writes that after his lecture, his father wasn’t effusive enough with praise, and that clearly seriously wounded Peale’s ego.
Peale repeatedly boasts about his successes as a teacher, awards he’s won, rewarding relationships he’s enjoyed with his students and colleagues, and his alleged talents as a musician and minister (and I only write “alleged” because I have never been in a position to see or hear for myself). More than once, he writes about the great schools he attended and the many countries he’s visited, including China several times. Peale is fascinated by China and was fortunate enough to be able to indulge his curiosity by engaging in in depth study. Despite that, he’s unhappy enough to write a book about his father, the man he admits helped him to become who he is through financial assistance and genetics. According to him, who John Peale is is pretty damned special and accomplished. But based on what I’ve read so far, Peale is wickedly pissed because his famous dad never recognized him as being as great as Peale himself thinks he is.
Again… I don’t mean to sound too snarky about this. I understand that feeling unappreciated by one’s parents is difficult. A lot of other writers have written about this very thing: Pat Conroy and Frank Schaeffer are just two of my favorite writers who have had difficult relationships with their parents. The struggle is real.
On the other hand, there are so many other things in life that are much more difficult than not being “appreciated enough” by a parent figure. In fact, Peale has even experienced a couple of them himself. This is a man who has battled cancer and alcoholism, two significant life challenges that can try a person’s mettle. He doesn’t write much about those experiences, though; instead, he chooses to try to convince readers of how accomplished he is. Moreover, besides being able to travel a lot, marry his sweetheart, have children, and study at some great schools, he’s had a career in a field where few are able to flourish. How much in demand are philosophy professors these days? How much in demand were they when Peale’s career got started?
Has Dr. Peale ever had to worry about the basics in life? Has he ever gone hungry or wondered how he was going to pay the rent or keep the lights on in his home? Has he ever lost a child to suicide or a tragic accident? Besides his health issues, has Dr. Peale ever experienced any true adversity outside the ivory tower of academia? Were his parents abusive or hateful to him, as Pat Conroy’s father was? Did they neglect him? Based on his book so far, I have my doubts. But I’m not quite finished reading it, so I will revisit this topic again when I have. Suffice to say, while I don’t remember learning a whole lot in the so-called “gifted professor’s” Ethics course, I am definitely learning something from his book.