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Modern Love: Romance, Intimacy, and the Marriage Crisis.

Modern Love: Romance, Intimacy, and the Marriage Crisis. By David R. Shumway (New York: New York University Press, 2003. xi plus 269 pp.).

David Shumway, who is a professor of English and Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University, begins his study of modern relationships with theoretical grounding. Discourses provide the terms that people use to discuss their experience. In his introduction Shumway shows how the discussion of romantic love developed over the hundreds of years before the twentieth century. He speculates that some form of powerful desire between two individuals has transcultural characteristics, but by the middle ages in the West, "the discourse of romance had transformed passion from a pain that it was best to avoid into an experience to be sought." (15) The narrative form of romantic love always required an obstacle in the way of the lovers. Typically, the obstacle was the marriage of one of the lovers to someone else.

Relying on historical work on the family, sexuality, courtship, and marriage Shumway shows that an important shift in the understanding and uses of romance appears in the late 18th and early 19th century. As property and alliance became less important motives for marriage, desire and choice came to predominate. Rather than an outlaw passion lurking on the outskirts of marriage, romance became the gatekeeper of marriage. Karen Lystra's work has shown that middle class women and men after 1830 took for granted that a lengthy, passionate courtship would lead to a love-match. Novels, the main carriers of the romantic discourse during the 19th century, dealt with courtship. Even though most of the popular works of American literature had to dispense with adulterous love as a plot device, obstacles of every other kind could prevent lovers from realizing their passion until the novel ended. But these novels of romance ended with marriage--they were never about marriage.

By the early twentieth century the literature of love had to deal with marriage as the crisis of Shumway's title took shape. As the expectations for personal satisfaction within marriage grew, so did the divorce rate. By 1920 one American marriage in six succumbed to divorce mainly due to the dissatisfaction of one partner or the other with married life. Marriage also became far more important as a place of retreat from the growing alienation in a capitalist society. Using fiction, cinema, and advice literature, Shumway explores the marriage crisis through his discussion of two different though closely related discourses, one based in romance and the other in the late twentieth-century ideal of intimacy.

In the decades following World War I, efforts to address the marriage crisis recast both romance and marriage. Advice writers such as Elinor Glyn and Marie Stopes proposed the "romantic marriage," on the one hand setting aside the traditional hostility between marriage and romance, and on the other introducing techniques of courtship and even intrigue into the marriage relationship. As Glyn suggests in The Philosophy of Love, "the wife can learn a great deal from the mistress" (78). Screwball comedy also re-imagined the terms of marriage and romance. Movies like It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday put forward sanitized scenarios of adultery and eventual remarriage that renegotiated both marriage and romance.

As early as the 1920s the object of the discourse of romance and marriage had become the "pure relationship" that existed only for mutual benefit and personal satisfaction. This concept, along with the term "relationship," becomes prevalent after the mid-twentieth century when a new discourse arose to complement and even subsume romance. The intimacy discourse could probably not exist without the pervasiveness of therapeutic language in late 20th century American culture, with its emphasis upon communication. Shumaway traces the rise of marriage and family therapy as part of this new discourse about love. Marriage or relationship therapy considers coupled people as natural units, and seeks to prevent or fix problems faced by couples. The advice literature of intimacy depicts couples who communicate their feelings to one another, rely on one another as confidants, and self-consciously work to preserve their relationship. Intimacy discourse claims that couples will be equal within the relationship--always a difficult goal in a sexist society--and also that they maintain a delicate balance between autonomy and fusion. "Freud said that a healthy individual was one who could love and work," Shumway reminds us. "While this is doubtless more difficult than it sounds, it is baby stuff compared to the task of trying to decide if you have reached intimacy." (156)

Shumway demonstrates the difficulty of achieving and maintaining intimacy by examining a range of popular movies, including Annie Hall and others by Woody Allen, When Harry Met Sally, and An Unmarried Woman. He adds layers of complexity to the vagaries of intimacy through his close reading of works of fiction, particularly of John Updike. Where the case study of marriage therapy and advice literature necessarily takes the ideal relationship as its basis for discussion and comparison, cinema and fiction can freely explore the ambiguities of the pure relationship.

Modern Love makes an important contribution to our understanding of relationship in twentieth-century America. It touches on many of the same themes as Eva Illouz' Consuming the Romantic Utopia (1997). Both books explore the use of love within the context of alienation in a capitalistic society. Modern Love should also be read by anyone who reads Helen Fisher's Why We Love (2004). Fisher treats love as a universal experience, a product of heredity and evolution. Shumway knows Fisher's work, and relies on her anthropological analysis to identify transcultural elements in love and romance. But Fisher's work tends to naturalize romance, to make it a product of our brain chemistry. Shumway shows how we construct love in our ongoing collective discussion of passion.

John C. Spurlock

Seton Hill University
COPYRIGHT 2005 Journal of Social History
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Author:Spurlock, John C.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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