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Growing Old: An Exchange

To the Editors:

May I respond to Lawrence Stone’s review of my book, Growing Old in America (NYR, May 12)? Professor Stone’s historical judgments are always to be received with respect. But on the subject of old age he is simply mistaken. The issue between us comes down to a single question: “Have attitudes toward age changed in America during the past 400 years?”

Many gerontologists say yes. They argue that attitudes were highly favorable to the aged in “preindustrial” society, before a spirit of “gerontophobia” appeared in the modern world. Some even imagine that a “golden age” existed for old people in the past, before industrialization, urbanization, and mass education separated them from jobs, families, and the respect of their community.

Professor Stone says no. He thinks that “our attitudes toward the old are not so very different today from those of Shakespeare, and that such difference as there is takes the form of greater kindness.” He believes that “American (and English) society never was gerontophilic, even in theory, and it is certainly not gerontophobic now. If the latter were true, we would be pushing the old into gas ovens, or letting them die in squalor, instead of spending staggering sums of money on pensions, medical care and nursing.”

I say something in between: that most old people (not paupers or slaves) in early America received deference and respect, but little love or affection. Age conferred an authority (often resented), which grew stronger until the late eighteenth century, when the trend suddenly reversed—less because of industrialization than the social revolutions in America and France. After that transition, a youth-bias developed in America. The authority of age and its economic status grew weaker, but bonds of personal intimacy between young and old grew stronger. A second transition came after 1900, with the discovery of old age as a “social problem,” the creation of social security, and a counter-movement against the cult of youth. Today, we are entering a new era of age relations.

That, briefly, is my thesis—a mediating idea, which Professor Stone totally misunderstood in his review. I don’t blame him; an intelligent reader’s confusion is an author’s responsibility. Still, he missed the main point of my book.

Professor Stone and I agree that there was no “golden age” for old people in the past. We agree also on the important point that people probably show “greater kindness” to the old today than in the distant past. But we disagree on the question of whether American attitudes have changed in other ways “since Shakespeare.”

Professor Stone has not made a study of the question himself. He has no evidence of his own to offer, beyond the obligatory allusions to As You Like It and King Lear. But he surveys my evidence in much detail, and concludes that “each piece” of it is mistaken.

There are a great many pieces of evidence in my book—nine different categories of it, all chosen to test change in attitudes toward youth and age generally, and old age in particular. Professor Stone examined and rejected eight of them. But in every case his critique contained fundamental errors of fact and logic. Every category of evidence falsifies his thesis.

First, there is the category of literary evidence—which Professor Stone missed altogether. Five scholars including myself have studied attitudes (explicit and implicit) toward age in American literature. We disagree about many things, but all of us find that attitudes changed profoundly, in the direction of increasing antipathy to old age. It is possible, of course, that all of us are wrong, and that truth has come by revelation to Professor Stone alone—historiographical Moses that he is. But those of us who work by the mundane method of historical research all reach a result which contradicts him.

Second, attitudes toward age may be measured in census data, by an “age heaping” test, which Professor Stone dismissed as merely a “clever exercise in cliometrics.” He thinks that everything hinges on a few “highly ambiguous cases” before 1790. Not so. We know exactly the extent of age heaping in the US Census from 1850 to the present. In 1950, age-heaping was larger at 39 than 40 or 41, larger at 29 than 30 or 31, larger even at 79 than 80 or 81—proof of a great (and growing) bias toward youth. In eighteenth-century census tracts—“two cases” by Professor Stone’s method of counting, but 10,000 people—an opposite bias appeared with equal consistency. People actually made themselves a little older. Only the seventeenth-century data is ambiguous, as I noted in my book.

Third, attitudes toward age also appear in family paintings, which were hierarchical in their age-composition before 1774, and egalitarian after 1820. Professor Stone, after grumbling about my sample, grudgingly concedes that I “may be right” about the fact—as he must. There are no known exceptions. But he rejects the evidence on the ground that it might represent attitudes toward equality and individualism rather than age. My argument was that it represented both things at once—a more egalitarian and individuated attitude toward age relations. It is as if I saw a red wagon and said, “I see a red wagon.” My critic replies, “Nonsense! You see red.”

Fourth, there is the evidence of naming practices—not a strong test, but a statistical straw in the wind. In early American families it was common for one child to receive the same first name as that of a grandparent. There was a sudden decline in that practice after 1800. Professor Stone disputes the empirical fact, insisting that the statistics show no secular decline but only a “random zigzag pattern.” But his arithmetic is wrong. The proportion of sons with the same names as their grandfathers fell by 38 percent from 1650-1800 to 1800-1880. Daughters with the same names as their grandmothers dropped by 53 percent. Professor Stone, undaunted by the evidence, asserts that if there were such a shift, it was a change in attitudes toward kin rather than age. But I argued it was both things—a change in attitudes toward aged kin. Professor Stone is seeing red again.

Fifth, there is the evidence of “seating the meeting”—my “strongest argument,” says Professor Stone, but not strong enough to satisfy him. In early American churches, people were seated by age, and seats of highest honor went to the oldest rather than the richest inhabitants. That practice ended between 1775 and 1836. Thereafter, seats were often sold at auction. That change, I think, represented a decline in deference to age, and a shift from a pluralist system of stratification (age, wealth, and other things) to a unitary system based largely on wealth alone. Professor Stone accepts the facts, but explains them as the “decline of deference” and the rise of wealth stratification, without any change in attitudes toward age. Still, the fact remains that the aged lost their seats of honor in the meetinghouse, circa 1775-1830. And we have been taken for a ride in the red wagon again!

Sixth, there is the evidence of retirement practices. Men rarely retired in early America, and never at a fixed age. Mandatory retirement first appeared in New York (1777) for judges over seventy. The practice grew slowly from 1777 to 1870, swiftly thereafter—evidence, surely, of a shift in attitudes toward age. But Professor Stone is not convinced. He dismisses the subject of retirement with the irrelevant observation that New York’s first retirement rule was “no more than a very modest attempt to remove senile members from the bench”—as if that fact somehow disposes of the subject. Still, the stubborn fact remains that mandatory retirement did not exist in America until 1777. Thereafter it grew for two centuries to embrace almost everyone.

Seventh, attitudes toward age appear in language. I argued that most general pejoratives for old men began to appear in the late eighteenth century, and that a family of antique praise words for the aged began to disappear at the same time. Professor Stone studied my evidence, word by word, and concluded that “nothing useful could be learned from that exercise in historical semantics.” On one word he is right and I am wrong (baldhead, 1535). But he is mistaken about all the rest. Professor Stone argues that gaffer “never became pejorative” but Webster says it is “usually contemptuous” in modern usage; he asserts that greybeard “stayed neutral throughout,” but the OED defines it as “a man with a gray beard; hence, often contemptuously, an old man”; he thinks that oldtimer is “neutral in meaning” but Webster disagrees. Altogether, I found thirty-seven pejoratives and praisewords for older men; thirty-six fit my thesis. Professor Stone’s counter-evidence comes down to a single semantical exception which scarcely supports his skepticism.

Eighth, attitudes toward age are also expressed in dress. Professor Stone accepts the fact that fashion shifted from an age-bias to a youth-bias in the period 1780-1820, but argues that more youthful clothes co-existed with a supposed spirit of gerontophilia in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. But he misunderstood the argument, which was that the exaltation of age grew stronger in American society during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and so also did age-bias in clothing. Both trends ran parallel throughout the period.

Finally, inheritance customs make a test of attitudes toward youth and age (not old age). In early America, important advantages came to eldest sons, who were favored in the law of inheritance, in the distribution of wealth, and in marriage prospects. Those advantages grew greater from the seventeenth to the late eighteenth centuries, and then suddenly disappeared. Professor Stone rejects that evidence on the ground that it amounted only to the formal abolition of primogeniture—a “largely meaningless gesture,” in a society where partible inheritance prevailed. But he is mistaken. The advantages of eldest sons have been shown to exist in law and life, even where partible inheritance was the norm. Professor Stone’s error came from his dependence on secondary works which have been left behind by recent research.

In short, each category of evidence yields the same conclusion. Professor Stone’s thesis is contradicted by every test which anyone has made of it. Attitudes toward age generally and old age in particular changed in parallel ways through the full span of American history. In early America for nearly two centuries, old age became more exalted rather than less so. Then, after a “deep change” (1780-1820), a cult of youth began to develop in modern America. Another deep change seems to be stirring in our own time.

Some things have stayed the same. Professor Stone is also mistaken about the continuities in the subject. He asserts that “the current association of old age with death is a very recent one since in the past most people died young.” But every treatise on the subject in early America linked old age to death: “All men may die; old men must” was a cliché before 1820.

There are many other errors in Mr. Stone’s essay—so many that the rest of this Review would be required to correct them. Briefly, he is wrong about the anthropological literature. Professor Stone cannot at the same time endorse the work of anthropologists and also argue that attitudes toward old age show “much the same ambivalence” in primitive and “preindustrial” society, and assert that attitudes are “not so very different” from preindustrial society to our own time. At least one of those statements must be mistaken. In fact, all of them are.

Professor Stone is wrong in his sweeping statement that “in premodern [sic] England and America the old were respected only as long as they retained control of property and thus their power to make their children obey them.” The naïve materialism of that statement is contradicted by evidence such as seating the meeting in which the poorest septuagenarian was honored above the richest middle-aged man; by office-holding in which “elders” were sometimes very poor, and by the often impoverished “grey champions” who led in social crises.

Finally, Professor Stone is most grievously wrong about old age in our own time. He thinks that most old people live in “tolerable economic circumstances,” today. In 1975, their median income was $3,083. And he makes the astonishing statement that American society “is not gerontophobic now,” for if it were, “we would be pushing the old into gas ovens or letting them die in squalor.” But in reality many Americans do die in squalor. And the fact that we put old people in nursing homes instead of gas ovens, to use Professor Stone’s appalling phrase, is scarcely the crux of the question. The tone and substance of that statement strongly suggest that Professor Stone’s confusion on the subject of old age is more than merely empirical.

David Hackett Fischer

Brandeis University

Waltham, Massachusetts

Lawrence Stone replies:

I am very sorry to find myself in public dispute with Professor Fischer. I sincerely admire his intelligence, his flair, his energy, and his courage both in developing bold new hypotheses and in revealing to the world that many historical emperors have no clothes. But in this case I think that he is wrong.

The issues that divide us are far more serious than whether to call a red engine red or an engine. I believe that Professor Fischer has seen a small part of the picture but has mistaken it for the whole; that he has seen that part through a magnifying and distorting lens; that he has detected a radical change in it at a particular period of time—“The Revolution in Age Relations, 1770-1820”—which did not happen; and that he has attributed this change to a cause, a shift to a more gerontophobic attitude, which also did not happen.

I am not an expert on American history in the Revolutionary and Early National period, but, from Alexis de Tocqueville to Bernard Bailyn, students of the period have detected a widespread shift toward a democratization of all human relations and institutions. There was a steady growth of egalitarianism and individualism that affected all personal behavior, including relations within the family. To these ideas there was added among this “people of plenty” the acquisitive desire for wealth, as the only mark of distinction left in a democratic society. These traits, which are still visible in America today, were strongly reinforced during the period 1770-1820, as Professor Fischer correctly observes on pp. 108-112. When he says that “the ‘deep change’ in attitudes toward old age…was merely one aspect of a sweeping transformation,” I fully agree with him.

The trouble is that much of his evidence for changing attitudes toward the old is far more convincing as evidence of a different and broader kind of change, from deference to democracy, or from family patriarchy to greater intra-familial equality.

This becomes clear if we run through once more the major elements in Professor Fischer’s argument. The evidence for a change in seating arrangements in Massachusetts meeting houses is taken from an unpublished thesis entitled, significantly enough, “Provincial Massachusetts: from a Deferential to a Democratic Society.” In this case there is the added doubt whether one can safely generalize from Massachusetts to America, even in the eighteenth century. History may look this way from Boston, but not from Philadelphia or Williamsburg. The naming pattern argument is taken from a paper (about Hingham, Massachusetts) by Professor Daniel Scott Smith, who attributes the observed change to a change in relations between the nuclear family and the kin.

As for primogeniture, the leading modern authority on the subject, Professor Stanley Katz of the Chicago Law School, has given no weight at all to gerontophobia in causing its abolition. Jefferson would have been just as much opposed to it if it had been ultimogeniture, since what he objected to was the accumulation of property, not the fact that it was the eldest son who took all.

Professor Scott Smith’s evidence about the change in the marriage partners of eldest sons in Hingham (once more Massachusetts) can be explained perfectly well by the growth of free choice of spouse by all children, who now married more frequently for affect than for property. The cause of the change in family portraits is best illustrated not by the compositional arrangement but by the interaction of the sitters among each other. They show greater equality and affection, which has nothing to do with any decline of gerontophilia. As Mr. Keith Thomas has pointed out, the very slow spread of the concept of a mandatory retiring age is part of the growing bureaucratization of the lifecycle, by which both young and old are now made to march through the stages of life in a lock-step governed by their date of birth. It is a development which affected the young long before the old.

In all these arguments Professor Fischer has, I believe, misinterpreted the meaning of his evidence. In the other cases his evidence is merely unconvincing. Age heaping to appear younger is clearly evident in census data of 1880 and after, although one may suspect that the bulk of misrepresentation was due to women not men. The four earlier examples, however, are very ambiguous. In the 1636-1672 example the trend is to exaggerate not age but youthfulness among the twenty-nine-year-olds and the thirty-nine-year-olds; in the 1661-1675 sample, among the twenty-nine-year-olds and the fifty-nine-year-olds; in the 1776 sample, among the twenty-nine-year-olds; in the 1787 sample, among the thirty-nine-year-olds. I would conclude that this leaves the whole matter up in the air.

The semantics of language are equally ambiguous, as I showed using Fischer’s original reference work, the OED. He has now shifted his source to Webster, in the hope of improving his shaky case. The major defect of the argument from dress I pointed out in my review: if the late seventeenth-century shift from youth to age does not signify anything much, why should the shift back from age to youth around 1800 carry such weighty implications? If the former signifies a growing of bias toward age, there is virtually no other evidence to support such a contention. Professor Fischer is here confusing patriarchy with gerontophilia.

Everyone who has studied the matter in the last few years has concluded that in England in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, and presumably also in America, theoretical attitudes toward the old (which Shakespeare, as usual, accurately represented), were very ambiguous; that actual behavior was often callous; and that children usually only supported their parents and accepted them to live with them if they had to. Both the rich and the poor usually avoided it altogether. These are the findings of Mr. Keith Thomas, and Professor Steven R. Smith, whom I cited in my review. They are also those of Mr. Peter Laslett, whose book, Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations (Cambridge University Press, 1977) only appeared after my review was written. In his more cautious moments (pp. 60-71) Professor Fischer agrees.

Institutional arrangements for dealing with the aged poor have changed profoundly, not between 1770 and 1820 but in the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. They changed in response to the phenomenal growth of the proportion of the old in the society, the spread of mandatory retirement, and the inevitable takeover by the state of the burden of medical care and maintenance. But whether the psychological attitude of the individual adult has changed very significantly over the centuries is quite another matter, and one about which I remain somewhat skeptical. The available evidence suggests to me that the mutual affective needs of young and old are now, as in the past, normally satisfied in the West by separate domicile, but physical propinquity and frequent short visits; and that the aged poor of today are vastly better off than they have ever been in the past, however unsatisfactory their situation may still be in this, the richest society the world has ever seen.

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