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New and Improved: The Transformation of American Women's Emotional Culture.

New and Improved: The Transformation of American Women's Emotional Culture. By John C. Spurlock and Cynthia A. Magistro (New York and London: New York University Press, 1993. xiii plus 213pp. $35.00)

By closely examining the diaries, memoirs, and letters of fifty mostly well-educated northern women born between 1887 and 1916, John Spurlock and Cynthia Magistro have reconstructed some of the key transformations in the emotional lives of middle-class American women in the three decades prior to World War II. The result is a book that is rich in detailed insights that help demonstrate several major interrelated theses. Spurlock and Magistro argue that the heterosexual revolution of the early twentieth-century, which was sponsored by novels, movies, schools, advertisements, and the social sciences, left middle-class women unfulfilled and hurt. These women experienced pain due to the decline of homosocial networks and the raising of sharper taboos around homosexuality. Even emotionally strong women found it difficulty to resist the culturally prescribed life course of flaming youth, all-encompassing marriage, and child rearing. In the end, the newly extreme emphasis placed on heterosexuality and companionate m arriage fostered, not liberation, but the isolation of these women.

These are not particularly novel claims, but they are presented through an evocative biographical lens of "cultural history as personal history." (pg. ix) Spurlock and Magistro deserve our thanks for constructing a series of vivid portraits that give political significance to more diffuse cultural phenomena. However, it is at precisely this point where New and Improved should have more fully worked through a pair of related theoretical questions. The first half of this pair might be asked in terms of whether these women's diaries can provide evidence for general claims. Are they a representative group? On this note, Spurlock and Magistro admit that their evidence is particular in two senses. It focused on (1) largely white, middle-class, well-educated women who (2) engaged in the unusual activity of persistent journal writing for a number of years. Although their detailed approach to everyday life limits them to a focus on eight persistently self-reflective women, they also included an evaluation of 42 less persistent diarists and autobiographic women. Given the nature of biographical methods, it seems to this reader that Spurlock and Magistro acceptably qualified their claims, expanded the number of women in their sample, and introduced significant interpretations of both popular culture and social science in order to deal with the problems of generalizing.

A more serious aspect of the question of "representativeness," is whether Spurlock and Magistro have handled the second part of what makes their primary sources particular. Because they are private, should we read diaries as special views into emotional reality? Implicitly Spurlock and Magistro answer "yes." They call the diaries "self-writing" to distinguish them linguistically from more public cultural productions. Throughout the work they use the diaries to document emotional expressions that were at odds with the constructions ostensibly forced upon women by male dominated social science, novels, plays, movies, advertisements, and educational curriculum. Unlike these "cultural" texts, the diaries are treated uncritically to document the emotional reality below, and distinct from, a world of contested truths. It is only by subtly essentializing diaries as windows upon "experience" that Spurlock and Magistro are able to argue that, "culture proved an inadequate guide to emotional life."(xii) In this turn o f phrase "culture" is a map or "guide" to a tangible land called "emotional life" that appears only through the diaries. Their term "inadequate," used to modify "guide," is epistemologically inter-changeable with a more direct modifier, "false." This is only one phrase among many within the text that suggests to me that New and Improved is embedded in a discourse about historical action with a lineage that includes Marx's concept of "false consciousness." And these theoretical assumptions have come under serious attacks from leading scholars such as Raymond Williams and Joan Scott.

In fairness to Spurlock and Magistro, it must be noted that the problem of essentializing "experience," or the habit of reading some text critically while accepting others as transparent representations of reality, is common to the historical enterprise. The way to freedom from these problems is far from simple or clear. Yet, such difficulties seem particularly important for those who, like Spurlock and Magistro, are trying to negotiate the history of emotions. As I understand it, the history of emotions hopes to stand psychohistory on its head. Instead of looking for historical justification for current psychological theories, the history of emotions uses the past to reconstruct emotional sensibilities. Historians of emotions assume that love, hate, jealousy, and admiration etc. are historical products, and thus they presumably operate discursively, rather than psychologically. If this is true, then a key to understanding emotions is to critically examine the interplay between competing constructions of emo tional life--including those offered privately by diarists. It seems to me that Spurlock's and Magistro's interpretations of the diaries were strongest, though still frequently uncritical, when they engaged in complementary textual work (often referred to as "contextual") with novels, plays, and social science. Their best efforts in this regard came in chapters 4 and 5 on marriage and motherhood.

It is worth highlighting that New and Improved is an engrossing book that brings historical and moral significance out of the everyday words of women. Because of its accessibility and pointed clarity, New and Improved should be reviewed by historians who teach undergraduate courses on American women, families, and youth. Thus, even if it suffers from some interpretive weaknesses, and does not break new scholarly ground, it should encourage lively and useful discussions in college courses if properly complemented with other works.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Ryan, Patrick J.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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