• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

What the Doctor Ordered

The Making of Modern Society

by Edward Shorter
Basic Books, 369 pp., $15.00

Edward Shorter’s book attempts to explain the transition from the “traditional” to the “modern” family in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although most of his evidence comes from France, he tends to generalize his conclusions to all of Europe and even to America. The evidence is partly statistical, partly “literary.” Unlike those practitioners of the “new social history” who confine themselves to the study of behavior as inferred from statistics, Shorter reaches out to consider changes in thought and feeling. The recognition that these changes are central to the history of the family is the principal virtue of his work, immediately distinguishing it from studies that limit themselves to changes in family structure and household size.

Unfortunately Shorter has little understanding of the finer shades of sensibility—little feeling for feeling. In spite of his preoccupation with the quality of emotional life, he is insensitive to its nuances and ambiguities. His reading of history turns on stark contrasts between repression and “spontaneity,” publicity and privacy, instrumental and expressive approaches to experience, arranged marriage and “romantic love.” Wisely rejecting “cyclical” theories of history, which in his words take the position that “human sexual behavior, like so much else, marches historically in large cycles,” oscillating between conservatism and liberalism, freedom and constraint, he falls into the opposite error of interpreting eighteenth and nineteenth-century history as a great leap forward, an “onward march” from the emotional rigidity of “traditional society” to the sexual permissiveness and enlightenment of “our own dear modern times.”

There was, once upon a time, such a thing as traditional society, which endured relatively unaltered for a number of centuries but which was finally destroyed and replaced by something else we call ‘modern society.’ ” Shorter’s rhetoric fits his thesis—a fairy tale passing itself off as scientific history. In the “bad old days,” according to Shorter—he is addicted to coy phrases of this kind—custom prevailed over “creativity,” communal supervision over “privacy and emotional intimacy,” passivity over “empathy.” Courtship took place in full view of the neighbors; it lacked “romance.” Calculation, not “sentiment,” underlay marriage, and there was no “reciprocity” between marriage partners. Husbands, instead of helping their wives to orgasm, infected them with syphilis. Mothers treated their children with equal “indifference”

Then came modernization: a great “surge of sentiment” revolutionized the “sad little world” of traditional society In the capitalist countries of Western Europe, the creation of a national market destroyed local isolation, uprooted the peasants from their “traditional” customs, and forced them into the competitive market economy. Exposure to the market encouraged, especially in the newly created industrial proletariat, the development of individualism and an egoistic search for “self-fulfillment”—the same attitudes, according to Shorter, that Weinstein and Platt refer to as “the wish to be free.”1

The rise of a market society changed not only political and economic life but the quality of “la vie intime.” It destroyed older patterns of courtship and substituted romantic love for marriages arranged by elders and supervised by the adolescent peer group. It broke down inhibitions on premarital lovemaking. Not only did illegitimacy increase, but marriages in which the bride was pregnant at the time of the wedding increased as well. The “cool formality” that prevailed in precapitalist society gave way to a new eroticism, presumably even in marriage itself. Indeed Shorter believes that a general increase in sexual activity took place in the nineteenth century, although he gives no evidence for the curious view that not only a rise in premarital intercourse but “masturbation and polymorphous sexuality are the creations of modernization.”

The case for the decline of parental control over courtship in nineteenth-century Western Europe and the United States rests on somewhat firmer ground. Men and women may have become more willing to marry across class and local barriers, although Shorter presents little support for this view. Age disparities narrowed, evidently because young men no longer sought prudent alliances with older women. As time went on, daughters in the same family were less likely than before to marry in the order of their birth.2 The seasonal variation in the distribution of births diminished; according to Shorter, this shows that courtship and sexual indulgence were no longer associated strictly with holidays and festivals. Modernization, he concludes, had “privatized” both sex and courtship.

This argument confuses the disintegration of communal restraints with freedom and privacy the collapse of parental control with the “exploration of personality.” While statistical evidence, together with other kinds of evidence, suggests that peasant restrictions on premarital intercourse broke down under the pressure of capitalism, it does not support the conclusion that working-class children “decided to exchange the old internalized values of abstinence for new ones of self-fulfillment,” as Shorter has written elsewhere, or that exposure to the “modern sector” was the decisive element in this transformation.3

This last claim raises a further difficulty. As Shorter himself admits, the middle class, which presumably experienced “modernity” earlier than any other class, nevertheless did not become the vanguard of the “sexual revolution.” In the nineteenth century bourgeois marriages continued to be arranged with an eye to financial advantage and the transfer of property. Though respectable opinion now condemned forced marriages, it equally condemned marriages arranged without regard to “discretion,” financial and otherwise; and as Elizabeth Bennett observes in Pride and Prejudice, under these conditions it was not easy to distinguish between “the mercenary and the prudent motive.” “Where does discretion end, and avarice begin?”

If working-class families, unlike their middle-class counterparts, lost control of courtship in the latter half of the eighteenth century, it was not because the young had embraced the values of the “sexual revolution” but because their parents no longer had any property to perpetuate. Lacking even modest holdings, they found it difficult to impose “discretion” on the young. The resulting rise in illegitimacy, bridal pregnancy, and casual unions reflected impoverishment, not “modernization.”

Throughout the nineteenth century, the working-class family struggled not to widen its sexual freedom but to achieve respectability—to preserve its daughters’ virtue, to restore parental control of courtship, and to get married women out of the factory and into the home, where they allegedly belonged. This does not mean that working-class culture simply mirrored middle-class culture, but it undermines the contention that proletarians were the first to develop a new sexual ethic based on the search for “personal fulfillment.” Personal fulfillment was a bourgeois conception first applied to political and economic life, and extended in the twentieth century, as Weinstein and Platt have shown, to the realm of domestic affairs and sexuality. The working class, on the other hand, persistently sought to counter the demoralizing effects of industrialism by reviving the very traditions of communal action which, according to Shorter, it eagerly repudiated in the interest of sexual freedom.

The ideology of sexual emancipation, a twentieth-century phenomenon, cannot be projected back into history without doing violence to the quality of earlier experience. Personal life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did undergo a striking transformation, but this transformation affected the middle class more than the proletariat and centered not around sexuality but around the cult of domesticity. Shorter understands the importance of bourgeois domesticity, but he does not recognize its ideological elements and therefore takes at face value everything bourgeois propagandists said about family life in “traditional” society.

According to Shorter, the “traditional indifference” with which mothers treated their offspring gave way in the nineteenth century to “spontaneous feeling” and “sentiment.” The “frozen emotionality” of the old regime yielded to “playful efforts to help the infant develop as a person.” In the middle class the “eroticization of marriage” centered around the mother-child relation rather than the tie between husband and wife. The decline of infanticide and of abandonments of infants, the growing popularity of breast feeding, the cessation of the practice of swaddling, and the new willingness of mothers to consult experts in child care all testified to a new solicitude for the child. Even the decline of infant mortality, Shorter insists, can be attributed to better mothering as well as to improvements in public health. Formerly infants died because they were treated with “indifference.” The modernization of motherhood put an end to “the ghastly slaughter of the innocents that was traditional childrearing.”

Here again Shorter ignores the effects of poverty and misfortune. Did “premodern” parents abandon children because they were indifferent to their welfare or because they could not bear to see them starve? Did they maintain an emotional distance from their children because they had no capacity for “spontaneous feeling” or because the high rates of infant mortality would have become otherwise unbearable? Modern medicine, sanitation, and public health, modern technology and the modern standard of living have blotted out the memory of everyday hardships, discomforts, deprivation, and loss, formerly endured as a matter of routine. Even historians, whose business it is to remember, find it more and more difficult to enter imaginatively into the lives of our ancestors. Besotted with current doctrines of emotional authenticity and personal “fulfillment,” they perceive the necessary stoicism of earlier times as a form of emotional indifference, resignation in the face of adversity as parental neglect.

Till well into the middle of the nineteenth century,” Huizinga wrote in 1936, when the memory of these things had not yet been altogether obliterated,

even the well-to-do section of European society was in much more direct and constant contact with the miseries of existence than we are today and think our due…. On all sides man was continually made to feel the natural limitations of earthly well-being.

The comforts with which he now surrounds himself, Huizinga added, are “spoiling him. He is losing the good-humoured resignation in the daily imperfections of human well-being which formed the discipline of earlier generations.” Shorter’s interpretation of preindustrial parenthood confirms the accuracy of this assessment. Oblivious to the suffering of earlier generations, he assumes that they faced death “placidly, because they knew their names and memories would live on in the lineage of their families.”

The “surge of sentiment” changed all that, according to Shorter. Romantic love “detached the couple from communal sexual supervision,” and maternal love “created a sentimental nest.” A third development, the “rise of the nuclear family,” completed the family’s withdrawal from the community. Shorter rightly argues that the significance of the nuclear family lies in its detachment from the outside world, in the family’s determination to protect its “privileged emotional climate” from outside intrusion, not in the size or composition of the household. Its rise, Shorter maintains, can best be traced in the decline of institutions that formerly “competed” with the family, especially peer groups. In “traditional society” the adolescent peer group helped to socialize the young, while the camaraderie of adult males drew them out of the family into the saloon and the sporting arena. The modern family, on the other hand, has withdrawn into its “emotional fortresses.”

  1. 1

    The Wish to Be Free: Society, Psyche, and Value Change by Fred Weinstein and Gerald M. Platt (University of California Press, 1969). See my review in The New York Review, November 27, 1975.

  2. 2

    Here Shorter relies on the article by Daniel Scott Smith, “Parental Power and Marriage Patterns,” in the special issue on the history of the family in Journal of Marriage and the Family, vol. 35, no. 3 (August 1973), pp. 419-428.

  3. 3

    Illegitimacy, Sexual Revolution, and Social Change in Modern Europe” (1971), reprinted in The Family in History: Interdisciplinary Essays edited by Theodore K. Rabb and Robert I. Rotberg (Harper and Row, 1971). This anthology includes the contents of a special issue of the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 2, no. 2 (Autumn 1971), devoted to the history of the family, in addition to two or three other articles from the same journal.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print