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Life with Father: Parenthood and Masculinity in the Nineteenth-Century American North.

Life with Father: Parenthood and Masculinity in the Nineteenth-Century American North. By Stephen M. Frank (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. x plus 24Opp. $34.95).

Although we know much about motherhood in nineteenth-century America, this is the first book available on nineteenth-century fatherhood. Historians have neglected the topic in part due to their reliance on the separate spheres ideology when developing their views of nineteenth-century families. Finding the simple dichotomy of a public-private division of the sex roles helpful when constructing their views of gender relations, historians have suggested that in the industrializing economy of the antebellum period, men spent their time and energy in the masculine world of politics and business while women (with some exceptions) lived in and quietly governed the domestic realm. It made sense to extrapolate that men's fathering role declined significantly during this period. Stephen M. Frank joins the ongoing challenge of the separate spheres construction by showing that while women were the primary parent in middle-class families, men's fathering roles in the nineteenth century were still important to their famil ies and their own definitions of manhood.

This book is most innovative and interesting in chapters three through six, where Frank skillfully presents to us the voices of fathers and family members. Using overlooked yet rich passages in the letters, diaries, and autobiographies of close to 200 families, he explores fathering behaviors in the context of stages in the life cycle of fathers. The author shows that although the provider role took precedence, men had important "part-time" roles as caregiver, nurse, disciplinarian, and authority figure. Also, many readers will be surprised when reading the chapter on becoming a father at the degree to which men were a part of childbirth. Frank's evidence corroborates other studies that show how some middle-class men involved themselves in pregnancy and offered comfort and support to their wives throughout labor and birth. As children grew, men sought to develop an emotional relationship with the child. Unlike the austere Victorian patriarch stereotype, these fathers used play to express affection, find fulfillment for themselves, and help their wives in rearing good children. By showing this side of fatherhood, he effectively illustrates how men used a seemingl y simple role to shape family life. In the final chapter, the author shows the often anxious efforts of fathers to guarantee their maturing children's future prospects. He suggests that the father-son relationship was rife with stress, primarily because of economics; rural sons faced fathers who expected them to work on the farm until they reached their majority, and urban sons often fell under the obligation of fathers who provided funds for education. Daughters escaped these tensions by learning their role from their mothers and serving their fathers as deputy mothers and quasi wives. Many of these findings are intriguing and deserve future attention from scholars.

Unfortunately, Frank's complex picture of the variety of fathering behaviors and attitudes found in the nineteenth-century middle class is limited by his approach; he weakens the voices of these fathers by his use of rigid and constraining nineteenth-century cultural ideals. In the second chapter of the book, he frames his debate by exploring the advice literature that proliferated in America after 1830. At first this seems to be an effective strategy; Frank does a valuable service by showing that, contrary to what many historians have suggested, some nineteenth-century moralists and family "experts" advocated an ideal of "paternal manhood" (p. 24) that encouraged men to assist women in raising children. Moreover, this prescriptive literature provides most readers with a familiar language and point of reference. However, by beginning his study of fatherhood with this language and this mindset, the author, like so many other historians, allows the long-dead writers of this advice literature to structure our u nderstanding of fatherhood. When Frank posits the rise of a new "family man" (p. 174), the reader is not sure if this new man resided in Victorian families or primarily in the minds of Victorian writers. When Frank presents the complex fathering behaviors in later chapters, he often simplifies or even marginalizes them by framing them in terms of the idealized gender roles promoted in the literature--roles that historians now know nineteenth-century women and men did not follow all that closely. Thus, he concludes that the father, "as the less responsible" parent (p. 114), was limited in caregiving largely to the role of a playmate, and that as fathers deferred to mothers their "personal power became benign" (p. 136). And despite men's obvious powerful domestic obligations, he prefers to emphasize a "therapeutic" view of fatherhood, seeing men's domestic role as "something to be consumed by fathers, a reward for all the hard work they performed elsewhere" (p. 177). While there may be some truth to these argum ents, each is a standard of the advice literature and a corollary of the separate spheres notion. Each limits the strength of his evidence. Prescriptions usually obscure rather than illuminate power relations, and by using the prescriptive literature to structure his argument, Frank's conclusions about nineteenth-century fathers neglect the power evident in many of the passages that he quotes. In the end, his approach undermines much of the effectiveness of his challenge to the separate spheres idea of the absent and powerless father.

Of lesser importance but still troubling is Frank's casual methodological definition of class. Although the introduction claims this to be a study of middle-class fatherhood, some working-class, and elite, fathers find their way into the book. He uses poor farmers for key evidence about men's time with children and their work relationship with older sons. And in the note on method and sources he reveals without explanation that "a few" (p.226) of his fathers came from the elite classes and approximately 10% presumably from the working or poorer classes. Cross-class comparisons would have been intriguing, but Frank often does not identify these fathers as other than middle-class.

Still, this is a valuable addition to family and gender history. Historians of masculinity will need to reevaluate fatherhood's role in shaping men's definition of manhood, while historians of women and family must now return again to the debate over parenting roles in nineteenth-century American families.

Frostburg State University
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Johansen, Shawn
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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