Right at the outset, no doubt strategically, Jane Howard risks our resistance, by her tone assigning us to the category of the erring, which few of us can like, but which is the category we must agree to if this book is to help us.
They’re saying that families are dying, and soon. They’re saying it loud, but we’ll see that they’re wrong. Families aren’t dying. The trouble we take to arrange ourselves in some semblance or other of families is one of the most imperishable habits of the human race. What families are doing, in flamboyant and dumfounding ways, is changing their size and their shape and their purpose.
Whether or not we’ve been listening to “them,” whoever they are, few of us, encased in families as we mostly are, can have believed that families are on the way out; nor would we even agree that families are changing their shapes. For every arrangement she describes, in this long compendium of anecdotes about today’s families, it’s easy to find a parallel in the literature or history of previous centuries. Think of the domestic arrangements of Fagan, or Mr. Quiverful, or Madame de Vionnet. Think of the Oncida colony or the Knights of Malta. Single-parent families are practically the rule in Jane Austen—are there any “nuclear” families in Dickens? Right away we are on our guard with Ms. Howard.
What manner of book is this? Can it be that families are only the occasion, not the real subject of it? It is not a work of sociology, or psychology, or of dramatic art; perhaps it belongs to a more enduring genre, whose real text is the mind of the writer. It seems to be a series of meditations on truth and behavior, with exempla.
Whatever it is. Howard disarmingly puts the torch to some of the straw in her original statement, by observing that the word family itself is relatively recent, and that the idea of the “conventional nuclear family,” from which she says 83.7 percent of Americans depart, is only the invention of sociologists. She goes after historians, anthropologists, and sociologists with a kind of know-nothing gusto that most people will approve. We know she hardly misrepresents the “helping professions” who “wear celluloid badges at three-day seminars in high-rise motels” and talk about Affines, Surrogates. Male Role Models, Major Intimates, Significant Others, Multilateral Facilitational Relationships. Normalive Data, Coping Mechanisms, Socialixatory Functions, Lower-Class Value Stretch, Shared Meals as a Core Experience, and Family Strength Acknowledgment Experiences. She may be a bit hard on those sociologists and anthropologists who are serious and do have a few reliable descriptive techniques or helpful intuitions for telling us something about the American family, but she’s on pretty safe ground.
Of course, it may appear to the reader that Howard is herself a little tarred with the same brush—she admits to attending panels on “progressive nucleation”—and that what we have here is …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.