We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Battleground of Desire

The Struggle for Self -Control in Modern America

Peter Stearns

Publication Year: 1999

In recent years, Peter N. Stearns has established himself as the foremost historian of American emotional life. In books on anger, jealousy, "coolness," and body image, he has mapped out the basic terrain of the American psyche.

Now Stearns crowns his work of the past decade with this powerful volume, in which he reveals the fundamental dichotomy at the heart of the national character: a self-indulgent hedonism and the famed American informality on the one hand, and a deeply imbedded repressiveness on the other.

Whether hunting and gathering tribe or complex industrial civilization, every social group is governed by explicit and implicit guidelines on how to behave. But these definitions vary widely. The Japanese worry less about public drunkenness than Americans. Northern Europeans adhere to stricter standards than Americans when it comes to littering. Today, we swear more now and spit less, discuss sex more and death less.

With an emphasis on sex, culture, and discipline of the body, Stearns traces how particular anxieties take root, and how they express inherent tension in contemporary standards and a stubborn nostalgia for the previous nineteenth century regime.

Battleground of Desire explodes common wisdom about Americans in the twentieth century as normless and tolerant, emphasizing that most of us follow a litany of rules, governing everything from adultery to bad breath.

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page, Copyright

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. iii-iv


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. vii-viii

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. ix-xii

‘‘I really lost it’’ is a phrase we often hear and use today. The ‘‘it’’ may refer to our temper, our mastery over grief, or another currently expected inhibition. We might use this expression when apologizing for deviating from standard restraints, angling for approval, or warning our...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF
p. xiii

A wide array of colleagues and students contributed to this book at various stages of its development. My research assistants for the final segments of the project included Jennifer Rode, Luke Brindle, Ken Billet, Damon Zick, Megan Barke, Darrell Meadows, David Yosifon...

Part I: The Issues

read more

ONE: The Heart of the Matter

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 3-29

In the late eighteenth century, those Americans beginning to form a new middle class worried about proper norms of behavior. In 1759 John Adams, the future president, described in his diary his concerns about his physical twitches—too often shrugging his shoulders and...

read more

TWO: Models and Guidelines

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 30-52

Presenting the emergence of a new system of self-control in the twentieth century as directly contributing to the evaluation of current behaviors and concerns builds on a number of intriguing hypotheses about the relationship of past and present social norms. This chapter discusses...

Part II: The Victorian Legacy and the Beginnings of Change

read more

THREE: The Victorian Style

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 55-91

It is easy to show how the Victorian approach to self-control differed from our own, whatever the judgment of the contemporary state of American morality and civility. According to the educational reformer Horace Mann, expounding the importance of the moral character of...

read more

FOUR: Transitions

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 92-106

Between 1880 and 1920, Victorianism was substantially redefined and, in some respects, decisively rejected. A full statement of the characteristic twentieth-century patterns of self-control did not emerge until the second quarter of the new century, but the process of implicit reevaluation...

read more

FIVE: Causation

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 107-130

In many ways, the Victorian system of self-control functioned quite well for nearly a century, gaining precision and adherence with each decade from the 1760s to the 1870s. It helped define middle-class identity while providing some guidelines for the socialization of the American...

PART III: Twentieth-Century Standards

read more

SIX: New Combinations

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 133-186

The factors that led to the revision of the Victorian style of self-control solidified in the turn-of-the-century decades. Signs of transition, including both relaxations and new targets for constraint, emerged at the same time, although the fuller shift in standards awaited the 1920s and...

read more

SEVEN: Sexuality

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 187-251

In 1998, Americans were confronted with their capacity to be collectively weird about sex. Democratic President Bill Clinton was caught in an affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, about which he initially lied. Republicans and associated moralists seized on his dilemma...

read more

EIGHT: The Body and Health

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 252-290

Standards for the body, hygiene, and health escalated steadily during the twentieth century, and in some areas Americans accepted unusually rigorous norms. The contrast with sexual patterns was striking and deliberate. For many, the change was imperceptible because the standards...

read more

NINE: Addiction and Disease

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 291-320

Earlier arguments about body discipline and even sexuality concentrated on the American tendency toward moralism in converting issues that could be defined as problems of health or beauty or even efficiency into larger challenges to character. This penchant has never precluded a quest...

PART IV: Conclusions and Suggestions

read more

TEN: Conclusions

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 323-352

Americans in the twentieth century remained highly aware of the need to keep themselves under control—or at least they were told to do so— even though the changes from Victorian standards were very real, with especially dramatic relaxations in manners and recreational culture...

read more

ELEVEN: An Agenda for Evaluation and Change

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 353-367

Historians usually are uncomfortable moving from a presentation of past developments, of changes and continuities, to an evaluation of their quality. Yet the recent history of self-control invites questions about the results: Is the basic American disciplinary system, modified by exceptions...


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 369-426


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 427-433

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF
p. 434

Peter N. Stearns is dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and Heinz Professor of History at Carnegie Mellon University. He has won several teaching awards at Carnegie Mellon, where he offers an introductory world history survey as well as advanced courses in social...


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 435-450

E-ISBN-13: 9780814786826
E-ISBN-10: 0814786820
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814781289
Print-ISBN-10: 0814781284

Page Count: 400
Publication Year: 1999

OCLC Number: 794702308
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Battleground of Desire

Research Areas


UPCC logo

Subject Headings

  • Self-control -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Social life and customs -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Social life and customs -- 19th century.
  • Self-control -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access