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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: 1.2 x 5.2 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #9,071 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews 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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

57 of 64 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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62 of 71 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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82 of 97 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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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful By on March 23, 2002
Format: Paperback
It's not easy being a historian of the family. The media has an instinctive prejudice against the understanding of any ideas which are complex and subtle. Given the right and center right bias of much American political discourse it is hard for a liberal or socialist to get a word in edgewise. Much of the research occurs in scholarly articles that most people never hear of and which will only be noticed if they can be dramatic or alarming.
So hats off to Pr. Coontz's wonderful work, which cuts through the cant of "family values." Coontz starts off by noticing the media's tendency to hype alarming and misleading figures. She defuses the infamous 1986 Newsweek suggestion that women over 40 have more chance of being killed by a terrorist than of marrying for the first time. She points out that one reason why parents may be spending 40% less time with their children since 1965 is that the number of children has dropped 28%. The next two chapters point out some of the mythologies of family life in the fifties, and the complex relationships between liberal ideology and the status of women.
Really invaluable is the next chapter, on the conservative cant of "self-reliance." As she points out people have always had to rely on family partnerships, godparents, mutual neighborhood aid, ethnic and labour lodges: the Ayn Rand ideal is an utter fantasy. She points out that the Little House on the Prairie books were written by Laura Ingalls Wilder's daughter to remove all the help the family received from the community. More important she points out how the American west and American highways, housing and suburbs have all been generously subsidized. In 1988 federal tax subsidies for homeowners were four times as high as direct spending for low-income housing assistance.
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