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The Way We Never Were: American Families And The Nostalgia Trap Paperback – October 6, 1993


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; Reprint edition (October 6, 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465090974
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465090976
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (58 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #49,487 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Did you ever wonder about the historical accuracy of those "traditional family values" touted in the heated arguments that insist our cultural ills can be remedied by their return? Of course, myth is rooted in fact, and certain phenomena of the 1950s generated the Ozzie and Harriet icon. The decade proved profamily--the birthrate rose dramatically; social problems that nag--gangs, drugs, violence--weren't even on the horizon. Affluence had become almost a right; the middle class was growing. "In fact," writes Coontz, "the 'traditional' family of the 1950s was a qualitatively new phenomenon. At the end of the 1940s, all the trends characterizing the rest of the twentieth century suddenly reversed themselves." This clear-eyed, bracing, and exhaustively researched study of American families and the nostalgia trap proves--beyond the shadow of a doubt--that Leave It to Beaver was not a documentary.

Gender, too, is always on Coontz's mind. In the third chapter ("My Mother Was a Saint"), she offers an analysis of the contradictions and chasms inherent in the "traditional" division of labor. She reveals, next, how rarely the family exhibited economic and emotional self-reliance, suggesting that the shift from community to nuclear family was not healthy. Coontz combines a clear prose style with bold assertions, backed up by an astonishing fleet of researched, myth-skewing facts. The 88 pages of endnotes dramatize both her commitment to and deep knowledge of the subject. Brilliant, beautifully organized, iconoclastic, and (relentlessly) informative The Way We Never Were breathes fresh air into a too often suffocatingly "hot" and agenda-sullied subject. In the penultimate chapter, for example, a crisp reframing of the myth of black-family collapse leads to a reinterpretation of the "family crisis" in general, putting it in the larger context of social, economic, and political ills.

The book began in response to the urgent questions about the family crisis posed her by nonacademic audiences. Attempting neither to defend "tradition" in the era of family collapse, nor to liberate society from its constraints, Coontz instead cuts through the kind of sentimental, ahistorical thinking that has created unrealistic expectations of the ideal family. "I show how these myths distort the diverse experiences of other groups in America," Coontz writes, "and argue that they don't even describe most white, middle-class families accurately." The bold truth of history after all is that "there is no one family form that has ever protected people from poverty or social disruption, and no traditional arrangement that provides a workable model for how we might organize family relations in the modern world."

Some of America's most precious myths are not only precarious, but down right perverted, and we would be fools to ignore Stephanie Coontz's clarion call. --Hollis Giammatteo

From Publishers Weekly

The golden age of the American family never existed, asserts Coontz ( The Social Origns of Private Life ) in a wonderfully perceptive, myth-debunking report. The "Leave It to Beaver" ideal of breadwinner father, full-time homemaker mother and dependent children was a fiction of the 1950s, she shows. Real families of that period were rife with conflict, repression and anxiety, frequently poor and much less idyllic than many assume; teen pregnancy rates in the '50s were higher than today. Further, Coontz contends, the nuclear family was elevated to a central source of personal satisfaction only in the late 19th century, thereby weakening people's community ties and sense of civic obligation. Coontz disputes the idea that children can be raised properly only in traditional families. Viewing modern domestic problems as symptoms of a much larger socioeconomic crisis, she demonstrates that no single type of household has ever protected Americans from social disruption or poverty. An important contribution to the current debate on family values.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

59 of 66 people found the following review helpful By K. Abbott on November 9, 2004
Format: Paperback
I was born in 1970, and my childhood memories are of sun-bathed days riding my bike and playing with my friends in the safe streets of rural England. Mummies and Daddies formed coherent units, there was a real sense of community, and life has been downhill from there. Right? Except that, as an adult, I know better. One couple across the road were staying in a miserable marriage in which affairs were used to express anger; another neighbour beat the living daylights out of his wife; two children from my school walked miles to the police station to report that they were being beaten and starved; paedophile rings were being dealt with; cases of incest, rape, and violent crime were not so unusual; and the fact is that I have no memory of these things because they were kept from me.

The argument that the past was better because one remembers it being so does not, I fear, hold water. Historians and sociologists fight a losing battle against nostalgia and the very human desire to return to a golden age when things were simpler, more wholesome, easier to deal with than the realities we face as adults. Books like Coontz's 'The Way We Never Were' are vital to understanding and facing the complexities of the world instead of retreating in fear to a world of projected simplicity and order that never really existed.
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63 of 72 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 9, 1998
Format: Paperback
Americans, especially those of the conservative persuasion, tend to idealize the 'Fifties as Paradise Lost: schools taught readin', 'ritin', and 'rithmetic; sex was confined to the bedrooms of married couples; teenagers were virginal and children docile; God's in his heaven, Eisenhower's in the White House, all's right with the world ...
In fact, as Coontz points out, the era wasn't all that innocent (her statistics on teenage pregnancies and shotgun weddings are a real eye-opener). Furthermore, the myth of the suburban two-parent, two-child family, self-sufficient economically and emotionally, was not only fostered and perpetuated for economic reasons, but a historical anomaly even in the U.S. (not to mention the rest of the world).
What Roberta Pollack Seid did in "Never Too Thin" for the MetLife weight tables, and Susan Faludi did in "Backlash" for the assertion that "a single woman over 40 has more chance of getting killed by a terrorist than of getting married," Stephanie Coontz does for the nuclear family. Her political agenda shows at times, but in general the facts she marshals are persuasive no matter whether you agree with it or not.
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83 of 98 people found the following review helpful By Robin Orlowski on June 17, 2001
Format: Paperback
Since its inception, the religious right has attempted to convince America that the world would be better and all of our social problems would be resolved if we could magically transport back to the 1950's as represented in Leave it to Beaver and countless other comedies designed to "imitate" the emerging WASP middle-class suburban lifestyle.
Yet as Stephanie Coontz points out, this was a Hollywood myth that never existed in real life. Instead, women were maimed from illegal abortions, gays were bashed at an alarming rate, schools were segregated, the disabled were hidden and sexual and domestic violence supposedly did not happen to "good" people. Telling it like it really was is not a PC fairy tale, but a practical reality if we are to finally confront and undo some of America's social problems.
Politicians, particularly on the right, have been successful in exploiting and appropriating this myth for their own personal means precisely because there have been few watchdogs to challenge them. Were this possible, we would discover the new left had its roots in the backlash against Senator Joe McCarthy and his communist witch hunts. The cover picture with a young Robin Morgan is particularly ironic in light of the fact that the former "Mama" child star reincarnated herself as one of the most prolific and articulate leaders of the new left and women's liberation in the 1960's.
Family Values have become such an emotional election issue because we are not really sure what they mean. Sure, any politician (indeed most do out of a fear of being perceived as anti-family) can embrace the concept and even make a career out of such proclamations, but our realities have been less than stellar pictures.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Suzanne Pettit on June 15, 2000
Format: Paperback
This book is a gem! Here is a thoroughly researched explanation of many of the attitudes toward family that pervade the American psyche today and keep us from moving forward. Growing up in a "broken" home, under non-traditional circumstances, I always felt like a freak -- like my family and I were substandard. I looked upon my parents as failures. As I read this book, I came to understand what they were up against as a young couple coming of age in the '50's -- trying to live up to an unrealistic and, ultimately, detrimental image of what a family was supposed to be. Thank you, Ms. Coontz, for allowing me to see my parents as people, and to find a new love and respect for them. And, for helping me to reconsider my own value system.
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24 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Jean E. Pouliot on September 6, 2005
Format: Paperback
"The Way We Never Were" is a book that will delight and amaze those interested in factual history and annoy those who like their history more...legendary. Author Stephanie Coontz's purpose is to turn a historian's eye on the ever-shifting patterns of American history, turning a cutting laser on the myths that still inform our politics and personal attitudes.

Most of us have a reasonable familiarity with recent history - say, the last 50 years or so. There's a temptation then to assume that people in earlier ages shared our base assumptions - they were just us in different clothes. Coontz gently puts the lie to these assumptions, showing us that our ancestors and predecessors looked at the world differently and organized their societies along different lines. In the process, she destroys a number of hallowed national myths based on what is essentially a misreading of history.

For instance, the myth of Rugged Individualism-the idea that America was founded by those who rejected governmental assistance-comes in for a thorough thrashing -- as does the idea that a man's house was his castle. In colonial America, says Coontz, government would take children away from their parents if they did not learn their alphabet by the age of six. Inability to read meant inability to read Scripture which meant an inability to be saved. Too, the rugged individualists who tamed the West were anything but. Sure, they worked hard to build their homes and harvest their crops. But without the national government's assistance in clearing the land of natives, building transportation networks and subsidizing land purchases, the westward expansion would not have occurred at the rate it did. To boot, the successful settlers were communitarian -- establishing homes near others, sharing tools and expertise.
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