Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Book Review: The Hearts of Men

A Fair Trade Book 

Title: The Hearts of Men


Author: Barbara Ehrenreich

Author's web site: http://barbaraehrenreich.com/

Date: 1983

Publisher: Anchor / Doubleday

ISBN: 0-385-17615-5

Length: 182 pages of text, 12 pages of endnotes,12-page index

Quote: “This book is about the ideology that shaped the breadwinner ethic and how that ideology collapsed, as a persuasive set of expectations.”

In other words it’s a sort of requiem for the all-American nuclear family—the couple who lived, with their two or three children, on a tree-lined street, two-storey house, red brick and/or white wood siding. Daddy went to work in the town’s main industry every day, Sis and Junior went to school, and Mommy stayed home and starched and ironed everybody’s stiff white button-down shirts. They had a car because they could afford one, not because anybody really needed one—work, school, and the corner store were all close to home. And at the corner store you could buy a pickle for a nickel, too.

Somehow this cultural model became accepted as the American ideal of a “traditional” family, although there was always some doubt as to whose tradition it was. It was not traditional in my family. The majority of my ancestors lived in Celtic countries where the nuclear family was part of the clan; the non-European ancestors also had a clan system, although it functioned differently; the ancestors in England were “of the nobility,” which seems to have meant that they showed less family or human feeling than my current cat family do, but they also at least saw themselves as part of an extended family. It’s unlikely that any of my ancestors would have seen the all-American nuclear family as intact. During the colonization of North America, European immigrants lived here in nuclear families...but they saw themselves as desperate, destitute, uprooted for that reason. When they became successful they settled down to re-create their extended families.

Back in Europe, living in “nuclear families,” in towns, devoid of roots, connections, land, community, and heritage, had been one of the hardships of the very poor. “Mobility,” the “nuclear family” not even staying in the same town long enough to raise their children, was generally a punishment reserved for criminals and the extremely unpopular. The question of how adding just a little money and material luxury to the European Nightmare allowed it to become confused with the American Dream is one Wendell Berry has considered. Barbara Ehrenreich does not find time to discuss it in this book.

She also doesn’t discuss the origin of the “breadwinner/homemaker” ideal in the Philosophie positive of the frail, suicidal French prodigy, Auguste Comte. She does neatly summarize, on page 163, Comte’s view of women: “Wom­en's strength was presumed to be of an ethereal, moral kind, which would be instantly compromised by contact with a ballot box.” She does not explain how the views of this founding father of Socialism ever got to be sold to the side anyone could call “conservative.” Anything one generation considers “progressive” seems “conservative” to the next generation, but the marketing of one of the central ideas of Comte’s scheme of humanism-as-a-religion, to what would become the Religious Right, has to be one of the most extreme examples of this dialectic principle the world has seen.

After passing glances at a couple of nineteenth-century documents, Ehrenreich plunges right in to a detailed consideration of the influential documents that, in Ehrenreich’s own lifetime, defined widely held views of what an American family ought to be. This is not even a full history of twentieth-century American writing about “the family.” It is almost exclusively about views of the American family during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

Ehrenreich was not yet well enough established to write primarily as a humorist; although The Hearts of Men, like her previous five historical studies, reveals her latent talent both for clever phrases and for ironic juxtapositions, it doesn’t pack an out-loud laugh on every page (as The Worst Years of Our Lives does). The Hearts of Men is pretty much a straight history of the events and ideas that shaped our sense of family, including the 1950s ideal of “maturity” as conformity and drudgery, the “male rebellion” of Beats and beatniks and hippies and that poisonous little brat of Elinor Wylie’s, the discovery of “stress” as an important factor in male-pattern cardiovascular disease, the “men’s liberation” and “personal growth” movements through which men tried to escape from conformity, and the important role of “the ethnicization of ‘gays.’” (When male homosexuals were screaming that the cold-shoulder treatment they got when they brayed about sex in public was the same sort of thing as slavery or the Trail of Tears, ordinary men who had merely failed as breadwinners seemed much closer to the ideal of “mature” manhood than they were.)

It’s a superbly written historical study; Ehrenreich remembers when each of these books came out, how it was received—she was there—and can pick the most insightful passages to quote from each one. Statistics are used, too, but never in an obtrusive way. If you’re a baby-boomer, The Hearts of Men is practically a scrapbook of your childhood and youth, as it might have been put together by the wittiest member of the family. This is the kind of history book you put on the nightstand, planning to read a page or two before falling asleep for several nights, and then find yourself staying awake to finish.

Unfortunately, Ehrenreich was a Socialist, her editors were also Socialists, and in 1983 “democratic socialism” still seemed like a viable hybrid rather than an oxymoron, so Ehrenreich was allowed to give free rein to her biases at the end of the book...which allows chapter 10 to slide off into shrill partisan rhetoric and makes chapter 11 disappointing.

Phyllis Schlafly, Ehrenreich whispers with a little contrived shudder...was...a Bircher. Do readers even in their fifties remember the John Birch Society? Has anyone else kept copies of their literature? Birchers were the generation before Jerry Falwell’s Religious Right; they were evangelical Protestants, some of whom seriously believed that Armageddon was going to be a literal, physical war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. They were of course as mistaken, we can see with our flawless hindsight, as their left-wing contemporaries, some of whom seriously believed that in order to survive we needed to make more concessions to “Communism.” Was it discreditable to have been a Bircher? Only if you were claiming to be too young to have been one, and Ehrenreich doesn’t claim that Schafly was doing that but that Birchers were beyond the pale. Birchers weren’t violent but I can see why their Socialist contemporaries would have become so bigoted about them—some Birchers did call for the deportation of American Socialists to one of those Marxist countries they claimed to admire so much. I am probably the reincarnation of a Bircher because I think that, at the time, this might have been a good idea. (Then again, there's a web site that positively identifies with the John Birch Society for our time...I'm not a member.)

In addition to Schlafly, Ehrenreich lets the “conservatives” of 1983 (those still trying to live in, or encourage their children to form, nuclear families) be represented by a walking target called George Gilder, whose argument was basically that, as a man, he needed and appreciated the civilizing influence of homemaker-type women, and by a writer (or self-proclaimed channeller) of sentimental fiction called Taylor Caldwell, whose argument was that women shouldn’t spoil the “con game” whereby women had been pretending that being a “homemaker” in a baby-free home was a full-time job. These three did not, of course, fully represent the “conservative” position of 1983. 

Ehrenreich didn’t try to explain “conservatives” like Jerry Falwell, who recognized as well as Ehrenreich did that only a few well-off families could ever really fit the “breadwinner/homemaker” model, while they also understood that the American working class tend to identify with the socioeconomic class in which they hope to retire. Nor “conservatives” like Ronald Reagan, who recognized that the women who were currently making most of the noise about being feminists didn’t want his support, while he quietly appointed more women to more influential positions than any other president had ever done. Nor women like Margaret Atwood, Raquel Welch, Erma Bombeck, or for that matter Grandma Bonnie Peters, all of whom were rejected by the left-wing “feminists” of the 1970s because they’d achieved too much without needing a left-wing movement.

But there’s hope, she says, as of 1983...if Americans will only see the light and go Socialist! Around the turn of the century Ehrenreich was (so far as I know) the first Socialist to admit that, back when the Soviet experiment seemed promising, Socialism had become the religion in which many people--including her--believed not as a matter of fact but as a matter of faith. I have to salute her ability to understand and admit that. 

Anyone reading The Hearts of Men after 1989 can laugh through chapter 11. ("Chapter 11? Is this chapter...bankrupt?") Still, the  first ten chapters of The Hearts of Men remain worth reading, whether they’re a blast through your past or a review of your parents’ or grandparents’ early lives. Warmly recommended.


If you buy it here for $5 per copy + $5 per package, you could probably find a better deal elsewhere, but we'll send $1 to Ehrenreich or a charity of her choice. (Left-wing, no doubt, but if it's D.C. Salsa I for one won't mind.) Also, you could probably fit copies of For Her Own Good, Fear of Fallingand The Worst Years of Our Lives into the package, for a total of $25, of which Ehrenreich or her charity would get $4.