The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap.
Few institutions are as shrouded in myth as the family. We see it through the misty-eyed nostalgia of Norman Rockwell illustrations of family dinners, or as the iron cage of trapped housewives, restless husbands, rebellious children, overprotective mothers and absent fathers. Myths are useful, but they tell us more about where we are now than anything about the past. The Quaylean invocation of the happy suburban nuclear family of the 1950s was as much a political move as underfunding AIDS research or the family planning clinic gag rule--and was motivated by the same ends.
Stephanie Coontz and Ferdinand Mount are both intent on demolishing the myths of the family. But they have antithetical agendas, and thus entirely different myths to destroy. Against Coontz's The Way We Never Were, Mount's book might be better titled The Way We Always Have Been. Coontz, a historian at Evergreen State College, strives to historicize the contemporary nuclear family, suggesting that our nostalgic images are ideologically based amalgams of crispmate moments. Mount, the editor of the estimable Times Literary Supplement, portrays a timeless, universal nuclear family. Depending on your point of view, Leave It to Beaver was either a historical anomaly or the pinnacle of human endeavor.
The family, as presented in Mount's The Subversive Family, is timeless in form and content-always nuclear, always patriarchial. And always politicala constant thorn in the side of any centralizer's program, subverting the efforts of the church and the state to transfer allegiance to sacred or secular communities. It has existed, from time immemorial, in constant tension with civil society; by definition anti-authoritarian, it is the source of freedom, autonomy and virtue. The nuclear family is the seat of rational individualism.
To demonstrate this ideologically loaded thesis, Mount constructs a set of myths designed to wrest the family away from such venerable historians as Lawrence Stone, Philippe Aries and Edward Shorter. (Having done no original research, Mount relies mostly on Peter Laslett and Alan Macfarlane's description of the individuaristic English peasantry.) First, be claims the nuclear family is the preferred family at all times and in all places; this family-- small, two-generation, nuclear, based on choice and affection--"is neither a novelty nor the product of unique historical forces" but rather "the way most people have always preferred to live."
People have always chosen their marriage partners, married for love and at much later ages than is commonly believed. Since marriage was "a private contract which can be ended at the will of either party;' divorce was always an option. Parents loved children; husbands venerated wives who were not only not oppressed by traditional family arrangements but were actually "sexually assertive," equal domestic partners.
Today, Mount argues, the family is besieged not only by its traditional enemies-church-based morality, secular statebuilders and Marxist-inspired moral meddlers who push brotherhood over individualism-but by feminism, that pernicious doctnne that seeks to sweep away all destinations of age and sex. Only in the book's final sentence does Mount reveal the foundation of this subversive family-- "a way of living which is both so intense and so enduring must somehow come naturally to us... part of being human."
To Coontz, the only constant about the family is that it has always been political. Even the "crisis of the family" is episodic, indicating social disruption, a "subset of a much larger crisis of social obligation,,' Today's crisis is more about "the eclipse of traditional employment centers, destruction of formerly highpaid union jobs, expansion of the female and minority work force, and mounting dilemmas of welfare capitalism" than about the collapse of family values.
But conservatives, quick to duck responsibility, have promoted a mass historical amnesia, which has spread like some noxious gas, creating that vague, ahistorical nostalgia for the traditional nuclear family. Such nostalgia is manipulated by media moguls in the service of corporate capitalism. It denies family diversity and keeps us docile consumers, with only ourselves to blame when we are incapable of providing all the economic security, political community and emotional nurturance that anyone needs.
Much of The Way We Never Were is spent deconstructing this nostalgia for the 1950s family. That golden-era family, it turns out, never existed in its mythic form; our recollection of it is an "ahistorical amalgam of structures, values, and behaviors that never coexisted in the same time and place." The loving married couple that includes a mother devoted to her children combines mid-nineteenthcentury white middle-class ideals with a family model that emerged in the 1920s.
That mythic image was also a social creation designed to fit specific political aims. Why, after all, as cultural historian Warren Sussman once asked, did we suddenly in the 1950s find ourselves sitting in the "family" room, nibbling "family sized" packages of snacks, traveling in a "family car" on a "family vacation," stopping to eat in "family restaurants" if it was so damned universal? This family was invented. (Likewise, if you already felt powerful, would you need to wear "power" ties and eat "power" breakfasts?)
A social invention masquerading as evolutionary universal, the traditional nuclear family requires certain myths of origin. Mount holds that families have always stood on their own two feet in constant tension with the state. In reality, Coontz shows, families have always been dependent on the state. The traditional family looked less like Little House on the Prairie and more like a welfare scam or a product of the Ross Perot school of entrepreneurship, relying on federal land grants, government-funded military excursions into Native American lands and state-sponsored infrastructural development. The isolated nuclear families of cozy 1950s suburbia required statesponsored roads and highways and an elaborate system of federal financing of home mortgage loans.
The rosy glow of this nostalgic family is also based on class, race and gender inequalities. Coontz tackles the assumption that it was feminism, and especially women working outside the home, that demolished the family. Women have always maintained some public presence; the original Mother's Day actually celebrated mothers' activities outside the home (although advertisers and ideo1ogues quietly perverted it). Mount's traditional family is strangely genderless. He sees the spread of divorce, for exampie, as a result of working-class enfranchisement, reading out of history the feminist struggle for divorce reform.
Middle-class families were wellbehaved, while working-class men were incapable of controlling their wives; Jackie Gleason's impotent bluster contrasts sharply with Jim Anderson's soothing reassurances. Did these middle-class fifties fathers ever go to work? You'd never know it, given how incidental were their lives in the public sphere to their identities as loving fathers. Who even remembers what Jim Anderson, Ozzie Nelson or Ward Cleaver did for a living?
Finally, Coontz argues, black poverty is not the result of family breakdown but its cause. These families, so demolished by slavery, are actually exceptionally resilient, constantly seeking to "improvise new family relations" as well as draw on traditions of child care and extended fineage. With these last statements, though, Coontz's argument begins to sag, as if she were forcing her historical foundation to take more weight than any monocausal thesis can bear. Fifties workingclass families are hardly pathologized now, and even Lucy and Ricky moved to the suburbs eventually. And current research suggests that black families were less decimated by slavery than we thought earlier. But even so, how do we know that the traditions Coontz claims are inherent in the black family are not equally the product of invention?
The centerpiece for both books is not the persistence or the transformations of the family but rather the constantly shifting relationship between the family and the surrounding community. And here, as the authors draw on classical theoretical traditions upon which to ground theft claims, the contrast between the two is starkest. Marx's ghost floats through both books, playing the spook of statesponsored antifamily, anti-individual conformism to Mount, or the friendly spirit animating efforts to historicize the family to Coontz, locating the family as an institution that both shapes and is shaped by economic, social and ideological currents. Both writers see the family as an object of contention in political theory-- an effort that, by itself, weakens Mount's argument.
Mount searches for the mythic origins of the rational individual, a lost Lockean rummaging through the detritus of consumer capitalism. There's no Burkean delight in traditional village hierarchies here; all community, whether medieval clerisy or socialist solidarity, is mind control. When statebuilders try to impose ideals of fraternity, they generate apathy and indifference; the "longing for a fuller life" ends in "emptiness." The nuclear family is the only structural source of rational individualism capable of resisting the pull toward conformity.
Mount ought to do a little more wrestling with Freud's ghost. Freud argued that parental control (and involvement) was the only hedge against the libidinal forces that threatened to tear society apart. Only parental authority could enable children to focus their energies, repress their desires and get on with the business of civilization. The family was more about conformity than nonconformity, more about reproduction than about resistance-the only way to insure that civil society was, at least sometimes, civil.
Coontz sees the family as a pale substitute for genuine community. Her radical Rousseauianism, filtered through not only Marx and Freud but also feminism and the 1960s radical movements, casts the contemporary American family as a case study in failure, the absence of collective possibilities, so that "private family relations became less a preparation ground or supporting structure for civic responsibility than a substitute for such responsibility."
The privatized nuclear family is not only compatible with the centralized bureaucratic state, organized religion and consumer capitalism, Coontz argues, but these structures positively thrive on fauxstrong nuclear families, which are far weaker forms of resistance than earlier communities might have been. "The triumph of private family values discourages us from meeting our emotional needs through mutual aid associations, political and social action groups, or other forms of public life that used to be as important in people's identity as love or family." Contra Mount, strong states love strong families because they mean that communities are weak. Our best hope, then, Coontz argues, is not to see families as retreats from community and political life but to recognize that they have always been deeply embedded within them; that ..families have been most successful wherever they have built meamngfui, solid networks and commitments beyond their own boundaries."
Coontz's book is a refreshing corrective to current debates about family values, and certainly to Mount's bizarre, a historical phantom family. Historically rich, and loaded with anecdotal evidence, The Way We Never Were effectively demolishes the normal, traditional nuclear family as neither normal nor traditional, and not even nuclear.
In the genuine nuclear family, the home is the center around which individual subatomic particles (like Mom, Dad and the kids) revolve; and that home is deeply connected to others to form the only matter that matters--the community. The nuclear family does not function without neighbors, extended kin networks and communities. What we have now is not a nuclear but a thermonuclear family, intensely fused into itself, drawn in too close, tightly oppressive and hence explosive--each particle constantly bombarded by external forces, with no communal shields to protect it.
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|Author:||Kimmel, Michael S.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1993|
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