Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The bonds of matrimony

In More Perfect Unions: The American Search for Marital Bliss, Rebecca L. Davis traces the often exasperating pursuit of (dual) happiness

The following review was published yesterday on the Books  page of the History News Network website.

Flashy title aside, this elegantly conceived and executed monograph (one that probably, though not explicitly, began its life as a doctoral dissertation) is delimited by a specific body of information: the public discourse surrounding marital counseling in the last 75 years. Drawing upon an array of archives around the country, as well as popular literature of the time and contemporary academic research, Rebecca L. Davis charts changing attitudes -- and persistent tensions -- that have accompanied the pursuit of happiness through matrimony. This pursuit was conducted in public and private through the Great Depression, World War, the social upheaval of the 1960s, and continues to be the locus of considerable discussion. As Davis notes, many of the issues that characterize this discourse have been reiterated and refracted in the debate over same-sex marriage.

At heart, the book is a chronicle of power struggles -- and not just those between husband and wife. The first was over the establishment of marriage counseling as a legitimate professional enterprise. This was actually a two-front battle that required both government support, typically through local family welfare agencies during the Great Depression, as well as a bid for legitimacy in the broader, Progressive-minded field of public health. The establishment of organizations like the American Institute of Family Relations (AIFR) in 1930 by Paul Popenoe, one of the major figures in marriage counseling for the next half-century, was pivotal to the movement's eventual success. A key element in this strategy involved aligning the profession with the then-influential eugenics movement, emphasizing the risk of mixed-race marriages, a term that was defined relatively broadly. (Popenoe was also among those, like Margaret Sanger, who supported involuntary sterilization for the mentally and physically impaired.) Davisa also writes, more approvingly, about other pioneers of marital counseling, like Emily Mudd of the Philadelphia Marriage Council (MCP) who took a broader, more holistic approach.

Another fault line in the history of marriage counseling was class conflict. From an early date, many in the marriage profession labored to break free of its early association with relief services and place it on a more securely middle-class footing that focused on emotional rather than economic issues. Such an approach tended to alienate those who considered material factors the primary stressors in the marriages, who then tended to drift away. But Davis emphasizes that the significance of this class bias also had important cultural dimensions, particularly in enshrining white heterosexual norms as the baseline of a normal, healthy relationship.  This bias would survive manifold challenges in the second half of the 20th century, and became the cornerstone of social policy in the Bush administration of the 21st century.

One of the more complex relationships in the history of marriage counseling was that between social science professionals and clerics of the major U.S. faith traditions, who tended to have a similar outlook in the public debate over marriage (notwithstanding important differences on birth control, for example, or the ideological divide between mainline and evangelical churches). In some ways, science and religion shared common ground, even as they competed for authority. Priests and rabbis were happy enough to condone, if not sanction, eugenic thought that had the effect of discouraging interfaith marriage. And at least until the 1970s, both emphasized a strong divide in gender roles. Later, when the diverse ideological challenges of the 1960s questioned both religious and scientific orthodoxies surrounding gender and sexuality, religious leaders borrowed heavily from the language and tactics of contemporary psychology. But they used it for different, even antithetical ends. Davis offers an intriguing discussion of the Catholic Marriage Encounter movement of the 1970s and the evangelical Total Woman Program of the same era to show how liberal ideas about sexual liberation were harnessed to a neoconservative vision of marriage and family.

Throughout the book, Davis emphasizes the strong influence of the state in marriage, even to the point of prizing public purpose over private interest. "Marriage counseling in the United States . . . has been as much about the consequences of successful or failed relationships for the general welfare as for the individuals involved," she notes in her introduction. But this may be one way in which the narrowness of her focus leads to a kind of myopia. Where or when has marriage not been about economic and even political considerations at least as much as romantic ones? Why would she expect otherwise? As she notes, Americans have a particular passion for marriage (and divorce), no doubt attributable to the promises implicit in the pursuit of happiness. But that charter was itself a state document, and only the most naive of Jeffersonian libertarians can consider the habits of the heart solely a private matter.

Davis also seems to have a somewhat parochial political vision. There's an air of disappointment, and even disapproval, at the resilience of (sexist) tradition that runs through the book. This is perhaps attributable to an ideological alignment consonant with that of important feminist scholars like Nancy Cott, Elaine Tyler May, and Stephanie Coontz, all of whom are cited in the notes (and who provide blurbs on the book's jacket).
But it's possible to view the story she tells in terms of a glass that's at least half full, if one considers -- in a way Davis rarely does -- the tremendous professional, economic, and political strides women have made in the last 75 years. The mere existence of no-fault divorces and newer child custody laws favoring mothers, to cite two examples, have strengthened the hands of wives. A dose of the bracing optimism of Gail Collins's recently published survey of women's lives since 1960, When Everything Changed, might have helped here.

More Perfect Unions is nevertheless a useful, and usefully provocative, book. It should find a durable life in the discourse of marriage and gender studies generally.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Imperfectly Stiller

Movies like Greenberg should be portraying men more realistically

Cinematically speaking, I'd follow Ben Stiller pretty much anywhere -- and in the last decade and a half, I pretty much have, because Stiller has covered a lot of ground. Though I'm aware of his early career on stage and television, he first caught my attention with his directorial debut, Reality Bites, in 1994, in which he also played the professionally successful, but dweebish suitor for Winona Ryder, who instead chose the irritatingly self-important slacker played (typecast?) by Ethan Hawke. In the years since, I've savored Stiller in films like Flirting with Disaster (1996), There's Something about Mary (1998, which I regard as one of the great comedies of all time), Zoolander (which he also directed in 2001), and Tropic Thunder (2008), a mock Vietnam epic he starred in and helmed, whose take on racial minstrelsy, hilariously embodied by Robert Downey, will find its way into my pop culture course this fall.

Stiller is the main reason, probably the decisive reason, I went to see Noah Baumbach's recently opened Greenberg, in which Stiller plays the title role, a 40 year-old grade-A narcissist who reluctantly succumbs to the charms of a 25-year old named Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig in what will surely be a breakthrough role). I've avoided Baumbach's movies because they tend to feature unpleasant protagonists, like Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale (2005). Not that you can't make a great movie with an unattractive protagonist. But there's got to be a payoff, which can take any number of forms, among them redemption of some kind for that character, a new insight about such people, an avenue of sympathy for their struggle, or a useful lesson for those around them. I never had the confidence that I would get this from Baumbach's movies, and so was unwilling to part with the time and money to commit to one. But I've been curious about them, and this time, Stiller tipped the balance.

But I didn't like the movie. Stiller was good, as always, and I appreciate both the depth and breadth of his range. Beyond the lack of a payoff, though, was a more specific grievance: I couldn't  suspend the necessary disbelief to accept the relationship between his and Gerwig's characters -- or, more accurately, what was in it for her. Again: I can readily believe there's a good new movie to be made about a March-September romance. Or about a gigantically passive-aggressive man's achievement of emotional intimacy. Or even about a young woman's floundering in a relationship with a man who is probably no good for her (low self-esteem is clearly something that bedevils a number of characters in this movie, not all of them female). But in that case, it should be called Florence, not Greenberg. We simply don't get enough of that angle in this movie. Instead, what we get is a man who mooches rides, manipulates people into asking questions he wants answered, or simply throws temper tantrums when he feels vulnerable. As such, Greenberg is part of a dispiriting trend, one discernible in movies like Judd Apatow's Knocked Up (2007) or the new, and even more crass She's Out of My League (2010), in we're asked to accept women accepting far less than they should. There's too much sexism in contemporary cinema.

Don't get me wrong: 21st century men, particularly working class men, have plenty of problems tied to their gender. They're falling behind in their educations, their presence in the work force, and their wages, which have been receding for decades. (Maybe the editors of Newsweek could do a cover story on that to complement the one they published on women's inequality last week). But we've got to be a little more honest, even in our fantasies, about where we stand. And our artists need to lead the way. What I'd really like to see at some point is a Ben Stiller movie with the figurative title of Knocked Down.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Jim is on vacation in Massachusetts.  His airport reading this week has included Michael Connelly's recent bestseller The Scarecrow. The protagonist of this thriller is Jack McEvoy, a journalist for the fading LA Times who has just been laid off. (McEvoy, who was the central character of a previous Connelly novel, The Poet, is one of a gallery of intersecting characters in his body of work, principally detective Harry Bosch, whose settings are typically greater Los Angeles.)  Connelly uses The Scarecrow to limn the decline of traditional newspaper journalism while depicting a villain who uses his perch running an Internet server farm in Arizona to stalk his murder victims as well as track anyone who gets near discovering his misdeeds. Connelly's novels have tremendous narrative energy, as well as vividly sketched characters -- many of them edgy, intelligent, but restless souls, male and female, who are somehow never quite at ease with their ambitions or the social milieu in which they find themselves. He's in a very select company that includes Sue Grafton and Elmore Leonard as popular fiction writers who consistently craft entertaining as well as aesthetically pleasing books.  I liked this one, but my favorite Connelly novel remains The Lincoln Lawyer, featuring the dodgy defense lawyer Mickey Haller. (Haller and Harry Bosch, who appeared together in the recent bestseller The Brass Verdict, will team up again in Connelly's forthcoming novel The Reversal.)  Any of these or other Connelly novels are worth a look.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The line

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet face a threat to her standing

The Maria Chronicles #46

Maria was able to send her son Evan home the day she got out of the hospital; her daughter Felicity insisted on staying two days longer. That Maria was able to go home was a function of the strong support she received from friends and colleagues. The chair of her department, Jen Abruzzi, came by every day. Her friend Janice told Felicity she'd be coming for an overnight visit the day after Felicity left. And as Maria herself pointed out, "I'm not an invalid, after all. I can get around fine in these crutches." An evident exaggeration. But Janice did succeed in getting Maria into her car, and the two made an excursion to see The Runaways, as both of them were Joan Jett fans in their youth.

As Maria well knew, however, the price she paid for this show of independence with her kids was the invisible presence of Jack Casey. It was Jack who had an extra walker delivered to the apartment before Maria ever got there. And it was Jack who sent a steady stream of gourmet food -- Chinese, Mexican, Greek -- every day. Jack apparently told Felicity that he was going to stay out of the way as long as Maria had the help she needed around the apartment, but that he stood ready to help if and when the need arose. "Quite a friend you have there," Evan observed, and wisely left it at that. Janice, naturally, clucked with approval and told Maria while she knew her friend would have a million reasons why Jack was impossible but that she was just going to have to get over herself. "Fuck you, Janice," she responded, and Janice kissed her on the forehead. Maria knows that at some point she's going to have to explain to Felicity, but she can't do that until she figures out just what there is to explain.

Today, Jen has come by again, this time with a pair of tuna sandwiches, a bag of chips, and a bottle of Diet Coke. Maria is aware that Jen as been a little stiff and uncomfortable on her visits, which she's attributed to feeling awkward with the family around. But the persistence of this discomfort today is hard to explain. Though Maria has been focused largely inward -- the lingering pain in her head and an overall sour mood have left her even more quiet than usual -- she decides to venture outward: "Is there something on your mind, Jen?"

Jen puts down her sandwich. "Maria, there's been something I've been wanting to tell you, but just never felt it was the right time."

"No time like the present, Jen."

"Well, I'm not sure about that. But I suppose at this point I should go ahead and tell you."


"Maria, do you know about Larry Roganoff?"

"Don't know him. I've heard his name."

"Yes. Well, Larry's been teaching at the school for many years. Decades. Two years ago, he took a leave of absence. It was widely believed then that it was a test run for retirement, and that he wouldn't be coming back. This year, he requested an extension on the leave, which Eleanor Bernstein reluctantly granted, but did because Larry's been sick and wanted a kind of security blanket. This in part is what allowed us to hire you. Last week Larry announced he was coming back. In and of itself, that wouldn't matter. But enrollments are unexpectedly down and after a lot of contention over the budget, the Board has ordered school-wide cuts. Individually, those things wouldn't matter, either. But taken together . . . . "

"Taken together means I'm out of a job."

"Not necessarily. Dani's in your corner, Maria, and, as you know, Dani is a pit bull. "'We're going to work this out,' she told me. I don't know whether that means a fight with the Board or a fight with Larry or a fight I don't know about in trying to hold your line. But from where I sit, as a department chair facing an uncertain situation, I felt some obligation to tell you what I see. I have this idea I owe that to you, even though it feels like kicking you when you're down."

"You're right, Jen. I do want to know. And yes, I do feel kicked." This is where Maria feels like she should be saying, "I know it's not your fault." And it probably isn't Jen's fault. But nothing she's been told at any point in the last year spelled out such contingencies. She's understood that her future wasn't guaranteed. But Maria always understood this in terms of her keeping up her end. Which she has. Now it looks like it's time to go back to Carney Sandoe and re-enter the job market. How could she have been so stupid? A middle-aged woman in this economy? She was a fool to think she could leave her old life behind.

Jen punctures the silence: "I should get going."

"I'm sorry, Jen. I'm just feeling a little out of sorts."

"I understand," Jen says as she stands up. "Well no -- I won't say I understand. But I can respect how you're feeling and thinking. I want you to know I'm going to do everything I can, Maria. We all want you here. Even if I can't save your job entirely, I think we can piece something together."

"Thanks for coming by, Jen. I do appreciate that."

Jen finishes buttoning her jacket, and purses her lips. "I'll be in touch, Maria."

Maria pushes the tuna fish sandwich in front of her off to her right. And then she puts her head in her hands and begins to cry.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Jim is on vacation in North Carolina. His recent leisure reading includes Pierre Frei's Berlin, a (serial) murder mystery set at the very close of the Second World War. This is a thriller with a novel structure: after we witness the death of each (female) victim, the narrative leaps back to before the war and tells the story of the woman's life and what happened to her during the rise and fall of the Third Reich. Thus it is that we meet a film actress, the mother of a Down's syndrome child, a wealthy aristocrat, and a prostitute; part of the drama involves a fifth victim who escapes the killer at the start of the book but may not before it's over. The underlying point here, it would seem, is that many Germans -- especially women -- were also victims of the Nazi regime, a point made gently and effectively, with a clear consciousness of the Holocaust that looms over at least some of them. There are a series of other subplots, including that of a fifteen year old boy in 1945 whose age corresponds to that of the now-octogenarian author. Not a bad debut for an old man. The book was first published in Germany in 2003 and is now available in English.

Best wishes to all for a happy Spring Break.

Friday, March 19, 2010

(Steam) engine of modernity

Christian Wolmar's
Blood, Iron and Gold: How Railroads Transformed the World takes readers on an intercontinental trip around the globe

The following review was published earlier this week on the Books page of the History News Network website.

It is easy for many of us to overlook the role the railroad has played in everyday life for the past 175 years. But it is difficult to overstate its impact. What the Internet has been to the 21st century, and the automobile was to the twentieth, rail was to the nineteenth. In the United States and virtually everywhere else on the planet, locomotives were literally the engines of modernity. It is no exaggeration to say that rail remade the world, and this epic global story is ably retold with notable concision by British railroad historian Christian Wolmar.

Wolmar's story begins, as any story ineluctably bound up with industrialization does, in Great Britain. The opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway in 1830, constructed in large measure to move the two fuels of British imperial power, cotton and coal, was followed with great interest at home and abroad. The boom that followed was not always even -- accidents, engineering problems, political conflict and financial chicanery were always part of the picture -- but no actual or figurative bust could impede a trajectory of explosive growth. Britain led the way, and indeed went on to build and/or finance much of the rail infrastructure in the world, but the United States and continental Europe were never far behind.

Wolmar notes that despite the striking degree of consensus among these competitors that rail did indeed represent the future, the hallmark of this story is diversity. This is true on the most fundamental level: technological considerations like the width, or gauge, of railroad lines varied widely for a panoply of economic, environmental and political reasons. Some nations, principally the Britain and the United States, relied on the private sector to build railroads, but inevitably government involvement proved necessary in the form of financial assistance and regulation, if not management. Others, like France, viewed rail as a political resource from the outset, and conceptualized a network as a means of advancing state interests, whether in terms of stitching together regions, assisting military operations, of both. Germany, a disorganized region of central Europe at the start of this story, nevertheless created a patchwork system with striking rapidity; Otto von Bismarck was content to have it in private hands until his rapid victory over France in the Franco-Prussian convinced him that rail was too important a resource not to be under government control.

Yet utilitarian considerations cannot solely explain the mania for railroad building across the world -- at least not in any obvious sense -- and nowhere is that mania more striking in the series of transcontinental railroads that were built across the globe in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The best-known, and most obviously necessary, was that of the United States. But enormous projects were undertaken in Russia, South America and Africa (the Cairo-to-Capetown line was a seeming exception in not being realized) without any real likelihood that they would be regularly traversed from end to end. They nevertheless made a tremendous impact in multiple directions wherever they went.

Actually, Wolmar is at his most arresting in describing the cultural impact of railroads, in ways that range from the creation of the tourism industry the transformation of urban diets. Not all these changes were positive; ecological devastation, for example was rampant (though, he argues, not nearly as bad as that wrought by the automobile). Railroads were implicated in the peculiarly deadly dynamics of World War I; since advancing armies typically entered destroyed terrain and defending ones could bring help directly to the front, successfully offensive operations were difficult to achieve. Tanks and aviation displaced rail in visibility during World War II, but the Holocaust would have been impossible without it. Still, even as he acknowledges these horrors, Wolmar believes rail has done more good than harm. He notes that in the case of Mexico, for example, a network was built at the behest of dictator Profirio Diaz for his own interests, yet“railroads were forced to recognize the rights of local people, despite the central government's attempts to ride roughshod over them.”

The conventional wisdom holds that rail went into decline in the years following the First World War, but Wolmar insists this is not the case, noting that total railway mileage continued to grow through World War II, particularly in places (like Asia) where its reach was not widespread. Although it unmistakably retreated in terms of passenger service in the United States, rail continued to be of vital importance for carrying freight there and elsewhere. And at the very nadir of rail’s fortunes, the opening of the high-speed Tokyo-Osaka line in 1964 opened a new chapter in rail as a form of passenger transportation. China, now the nation on the cutting edge of modernity, is building railways of stunning speed with stunning speed. The United States, which lumbers along with a significant commuter infrastructure in the northeast, and a truly lame Amtrak, can continue to neglect or ignore rail at its peril.

In these and other ways, Blood, Iron and Gold makes for an illuminating and useful excursion. It’s a book that should be read with as much interest by the Internet maven as it is the rail enthusiast as a case study in the global history of technology.