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.”
This withdrawal, however, took place not because family life became warmer and more attractive, as Shorter thinks, but because the outside world came to be seen as more forbidding. Nor did the family’s withdrawal take place without a struggle. Older patterns of male conviviality gradually gave way to a life centered on hearth and home, but in the first half of the nineteenth century the new domesticity still met with resistance, which crystallized in protracted struggles over temperance, the rights of women, and the attempt to suppress popular amusements and festivities that allegedly distracted the lower orders from familial duties.
Shorter stresses the importance of seasonal holidays and festivals in preindustrial society but misinterprets the reasons for their decline. They disappeared not because the working class suddenly discovered the delights of polymorphous sexuality but because the champions of temperance and sobriety—the prohibitionists, the feminists, the Society for the Prevention of Vice, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Animals’ Friend Society—stamped them out as occasions for drunkenness, blood sports, and general debauchery. Bourgeois domesticity did not simply evolve. It was imposed on society by the forces of organized virtue, led by feminists, temperance advocates, educational reformers, penologists, doctors, and bureaucrats.
In their campaign to establish the family as the seat of civic virtue, the guardians of morality dwelled on the dangers lurking in the streets, the demoralizing effects of “civilization,” the growth of crime and violence, and the cutthroat competition that prevailed in the market place, and they urged right-thinking men and women to seek shelter in the sanctuary of the family. From the beginning, the glorification of domestic life simultaneously condemned the social order of which the family allegedly served as the foundation. In urging a retreat to private satisfactions, the custodians of domestic virtue implicitly acknowledged capitalism’s devastation of all forms of collective life, while at the same time they discouraged attempts to repair the damage by depicting it as the price that had to be paid for material and moral improvement. Recent sociology and social history echo this view of “modernization” by depicting the family as a haven in a heartless world.
This brings us to the central flaw in Shorter’s argument—his reliance on doctors and public officials as impartial observers of the “revolution in sentiment.” Since most of his statistical evidence proves inconclusive, as he himself admits, Shorter has had to supplement it with the testimony of the written word. But almost every kind of literary evidence, he insists, represents the experience of no more than “five per cent of the population.” The records left by country doctors, low-level administrative officials, and antiquarians, he believes, constitute an exception to this rule. These observers “had good knowledge of the experience of the popular classes,” and although their reports did not lack bias, it can easily be discounted. The antiquarians, conscious of the passing of the folklore and customs they recorded, tended “to see breakdown and disintegration at every turn,” but as a matter of fact “they were right,” according to Shorter.
As for the doctors, they undoubtedly exaggerated the peasants’ ignorance; but having dutifully expressed this reservation about their testimony, Shorter proceeds to ignore it. Repeatedly he cites medical evidence as an impartial and objective record of rural life. He cites medical reports to prove, among other things, that peasant husbands in France unfeelingly exposed their wives to syphilis; that their wives ignored the health of their children; that masturbation and other sexual activities increased as a result of the “surge of sentiment”; that an access of maternal feeling brought breast feeding into general favor; and that after the domestic revolution, in the words of one practitioner, “unity reigned in the families, and this true solicitousness, which means the sharing equally of trouble and joy, fidelity between the spouses, fatherly tenderness, filial respect and domestic intimacy,” became the general rule. If doctors saw the rural environment as “in every way inhospitable to good mothering,” Shorter assumes they were simply recording facts. If they were “scandalized” and “enraged,” in Shorter’s words, by the parental neglect they thought they observed, he too is scandalized and enraged.
Yet on all these points the testimony of doctors and petty bureaucrats is no more reliable than accounts of primitive society furnished by mission-bureaucrats, like missionaries, regarded themselves as agents of enlightenment, bearers of civilization to the heathen. Like their ecclesiastical counterparts, they believed it their mission to stamp out debauchery and superstition. Neither the disinterested benevolence with which they performed their duties, the dangers they suffered, nor the personal sacrifices they endured gave them an understanding of customs they were attempting, after all, to eradicate.
The new religion of health, though based on modern science and technology, was no more tolerant of other religions than was Christianity itself. The medical mode of salvation, no less than its predecessors, asserted exclusive rights to virtue and truth. But whereas the missionaries, for all their ignorance of the peoples to whom they ministered, sometimes defended their elementary human rights against the state’s attempt to enslave or otherwise exploit them for profit, the medical profession worked hand in hand with the state to modernize the backward sectors of European society. This partnership proved to be more effective than Christianity in improving not only the health of the poor but their “morals” as well.4
The attack on disease has to be seen as part of a general attack on preindustrial customs. It went hand in hand with the suppression of public executions, the movement to institutionalize the insane, and the movement to replace public riot and licentiousness with domestic bliss. Thanks in part to the medical testimony cited by Shorter, we can now see the close connection between the nineteenth-century cult of domesticity and the religion of health. Doctors were among the foremost exponents of the new ideology of the family. They extolled domesticity on the grounds that it encouraged regular habits, temperance, and careful attention to the needs of the young. They saw the family as an asylum, analogous in its functions to the hospital, the insane asylum, and the prison. Just as doctors and penologists hoped to cure sickness, madness, and crime by segregating the patient in a professionally supervised environment devoted to his care, they hoped to mold the child’s character in the home.
The therapeutic conception of insanity, disease, and crime repudiated theological assumptions of their inevitability and relieved the patient of responsibility for his actions, insisting that he was neither possessed nor willfully sinning, but sick. The new conception of the family as an asylum similarly repudiated fatalism and the assumption of original sin, insisting on the child’s innocence and plasticity. The medical profession saw itself as the successor to the church, just as theorists of bourgeois domesticity for a long time had upheld marriage as the successor to monasticism. Whereas the church in attempting to stamp out sex had merely made it an obsession, these theorists maintained, marriage put sex at the service of procreation and encouraged a healthy acceptance of the body. This affirmation of the physical side of life had demonstrably better effects on the health of the individual and the community, according to bourgeois moralists, than the church’s denial of the body.
A medical view of reality thus underlay nineteenth-century attempts to remodel private life. The medical profession deserves to be regarded as one of the “spearheads of modernization”—the role Shorter mistakenly assigns to the proletariat. In the twentieth century, the growth of psychiatry has imperially expanded the domain of medicine and has strengthened its claim to offer not merely therapy but a comprehensive program for spiritual well-being.
That program still centers on harmonious domestic relations, proper child-care, and sexual health, but changes in medical fashion have naturally altered conceptions of how they can best be achieved. Current fashions uphold “open marriage” and “cool sex,” and it is these clichés that inform Shorter’s bizarre account of the nineteenth-century “surge of sentiment.” That account is pervaded not merely by medical evidence but by the therapeutic conception of the world in its current form, the ideology of sexual liberation, personal fulfillment, and psychic health.
Shorter assumes that the medical model of enlightenment is the same thing as spiritual emancipation, that desublimation is identical to sexual liberation, and that modern people’s narcissistic fixation on their psychic hygiene is synonymous with an expansion of the capacity for strong feeling. His sensibility is that of the T-group, encounter therapy, sensitivity training. His notion of sexual revolution belongs in a television commercial or a publicity release for the Esalen Institute, and his conception of “la vie intime” has all the profundity and coherence of Cosmopolitan’s. With the publication of The Making of the Modern Family, Shorter has established himself as the Helen Gurley Brown of social history.
In their attempt to remodel social history on social science, recent historians of the family have sacrificed whatever “traditional” methods had achieved in chronological rigor or imaginative sympathy with earlier modes of thought and feeling, without gaining much in return. The underlying reason for this failure is the bankruptcy of modernization theory, on which they have relied for their organizing ideas. As a theory of development in countries outside the West, the concept itself is patently ideological. Recent events have damaged it so badly, moreover, that the disciplines which invented it have now begun to disown it.
Even when confined to the history of Western Europe and its colonial dependencies, modernization theory has little to be said for it. Its preoccupation with “empathy” and the “demonstration effects” of modernity leads almost unavoidably to an exaggeration of the role of ideas in history. The anti-intellectualism of historians dogmatically committed to the belief that literary sources reflect only the activities of a tiny elite has not discouraged those same historians from idealist interpretations of the past. Shorter’s work, in which hardship and poverty disappear in a haze of “sentiment,” offers merely the most extreme example of this tendency.
“Modernization” is a naïve theory of historical progress. It reflects the enlightened prejudices of our own time—that earlier generations were incapable of understanding things we now take for granted, that they seldom attained our heights of feeling; that love, sex, and personal autonomy are our own inventions; and that because the masses in “traditional” society did not express their emotions in novels and poems it can safely be assumed that they had none to express.
These prejudices would inflict terrible wounds on any discipline; for history they are fatal. As for the darker aspects of our own days—mounting violence, a popular attitude toward authority that is at once contemptuous and submissive, abundant signs that political freedom has become increasingly precarious—modernization theory averts its eyes or resorts to the complacent wisdom that freedom brings its own burden of loneliness, boredom, and “alienation”—in Shorter’s words, the credo of capitalist society, that “nothing is free in this world.”
It is time that historians of the family outgrew both their infatuation with concepts and methodology imported from social science and their own illusions about history. Priding themselves on their scientific approach to the past, they have perfected useful techniques of demographic analysis only to place them at the service of crudely ideological conceptions of historical development. Forgetting everything they learned as “conventional” historians, they have made the transition from “traditional” to “modern” society into an all-purpose principle of historical explanation. Their insistence on the “fit” between the nuclear family and modernity satisfies the need to believe in historical progress, while their covert tendency to romanticize “the world we have lost,” in Peter Laslett’s phrase—even as they ostensibly glorify the one that replaced it—satisfies the current taste for nostalgia. But the question for serious historians is not whether progress exacts a price but whether the history of modern society can be considered progress in the first place.5
According to the latest version of liberal mythology, the “privatization” of experience and the emergence of the inward-turning family, though they contributed to individualism and economic growth, entailed a loss of “community.” Actually privatization itself is an illusion. The same historical developments that created a new taste for privacy in the nineteenth century created new threats to privacy. The same forces that reorganized family life around the ideal of intimacy created new pressures on the family, which have made real intimacy more difficult than ever to attain.
Anyone who doubts these assertions should consult recent studies of American youth showing the extraordinary lengths to which young people go in order to avoid intimacy—not, as the propaganda of sexual liberation has it, to rejoice in their new freedom from puritanical restraints. Such studies—Kenneth Keniston’s The Uncommitted, for example, and Herbert Hendin’s The Age of Sensation, just published—make it clear that the flight from feeling is rooted in developments that have undermined intimacy and privacy in the family: most obviously, the absence of the father. Another recent study, Alexander Mitscherlich’s Society Without the Father, explores in detail the psychological consequences of the father’s absence—the development of a new type of character structure dominated by pre-Oedipal impulses, narcissistic, obsessed with violence, cynically indifferent to the claims of authority but incapable of resisting authority in the name of a higher principle internalized as conscience.
Historical study of the family might begin with the accumulating evidence of psychic devastation in contemporary society. To what extent do families contribute to this devastation and to what extent does it originate in dehumanizing influences outside the family? When did the family cease to provide emotional refuge from these influences, if it ever did? Was there a clearly demarcated point in history when the classic bourgeois family, the family based on privacy and the need to train autonomy in the young, gave way to the demoralized family of today? Or did these two tendencies in the modern family—the one promoting autonomy and the other undermining it—coexist from the beginning?
If historians cannot shed light on these issues, they might as well confess the whole enterprise of family history a failure. There is no reason, however, to think that the important questions are inherently resistant to analysis or that historians of the family are condemned to deal with peripheral issues, simply because these are the ones most accessible to measurement. More ambitious if misguided work is already beginning to appear. Once the inadequacy of the prevailing sociological “models” of the family and its history are generally recognized, the substitution of history for legend can fairly begin.
(This is the last of three articles on the family.)
December 11, 1975
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. ↩
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. ↩
“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. ↩
Shorter thinks it is a waste of time to read novels, but an acquaintance with Homais, the village chemist in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, might have prevented him from being taken in by medical ideologues posing as men of science. Homais can be taken as exemplifying the emerging alliance between medical ideology, republican anti-clericalism, and the new machinery of mass promotion. He is full of enlightened ideas about child-rearing: ↩
In his introduction to a collection of essays just published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, The Family in History, Charles E. Rosenberg calls on historians of the family “to move from retrievable social and economic data to their emotional meaning for individuals” and to identify connections “between changing family norms and a changing social structure.” This is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately the contributors tend to oversimplify those connections. Lawrence Stone, for example, outlines a curiously old-fashioned argument concerning “the shift from a kin-oriented to a nuclear family,” which he associates with “the decline of kinship as the main organizing principle of the society.” But it is hardly convincing to characterize medieval Europe, with its guilds and manors, its web of feudal ties, its elaborate systems of law and royal justice, and its universal church, as a society held together by kinship. ↩