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American Literary History 15.3 (2003) 592-602

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Marriage and Divorce in America

Tony Hilfer

Man and Wife in America: A History. By Hendrik Hartog. Harvard University Press,2000.
Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation. By Nancy F. Cott. Harvard University Press,2000.
Framing American Divorce: From the Revolutionary Generation to the Victorians. By Norma Basch. University of California Press, 1999.
Plots and Proposals: American Women's Fiction, 1850-1890. By Karen Tracey. University of Illinois Press, 2000.
For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered. By E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly. W.W. Norton & Company, 2002

1. Marriage as Metonym

In John Updike's story of marital breakup, "Separating," the daughter, Judith Maples, home after a junior year in England contrasts the American mode of responding to gas shortage (the OPEC embargo) with how the English responded to the electricity workers' strike: "It was so sweet... during the worst of it, how all the butchers and bakery shops kept open by candlelight.... From the papers, things sounded so much worse here: people shooting people in gas lines, and everybody freezing" (197). This has everything to do with the Maples' divorce, which Updike contextualizes as a national question, implicating American individualism and social irresponsibility. Is this a stretch? It's not, according to the five books under review.

But is divorce a departure from traditional American values or an instance of them? The American right wing sees it as a catastrophic departure that threatens the fabric of American moral identity: "[O]bservance of Christian model monogamy was made to stand for customary boundaries in society, morality and civilization; the nation's public backing of conventional marriage became a synecdoche for everything valued in the American way of life" (Cott 219). This is not new. The nineteenth-century novels of courtship Karen Tracey studies focus on "what female characteristics are most apt to contribute to the happiness of the individual, to the solidity of the middle class family, and to the strength of a nation" (14). But does happiness curl up comfortably with solidity and, if not, which should one choose? Norma Basch shows how Victorian American moralists championed what they believed tobe "the self-sacrificing communitarianism of marriage against the selfish individualism of divorce," thereby translating "the divorce question into a symbolic focal point for competing worldviews" (188). Thus "marriage was (and is) a metonym for the social order" (3). [End Page 592]

Conservatives generally date the decline of America to the 1960s with the crucial 1970s contribution of the spread of no-fault divorce. The divorce rate did then soar, but was this a sign of an abandonment of central American values? There is, in fact, a good case for divorce being a central American value. Glenda Riley's Divorce: An American Tradition documents how America led the world in divorce from the 1600s on. True, it was rare but notably less rare than in England and Europe. Riley posits that "divorce fit well with American democracy and individualism" as well as underwriting "the pursuit of personal happiness as a desirable goal" (6). Thomas Jefferson, who encoded "the pursuit of happiness" into our national declaration of independent identity, "related the concepts of independence and happiness with divorce" in his notes for the divorce case of Dr. James Blair of Williamsburg (Riley 31). Jefferson noted that divorce "preserves liberty of affection" and "restores to women their natural right of equality" (qtd. in Riley 31), issues that reverberate in all the books here considered.

It would be nice to think that happiness and responsibility gotogether, but divorces involving children raise uncomfortable questions. In Updike's story the youngest child protests, "What do you care about us.... We're just little things you had" (201). Not only may happiness be in opposition to communal responsibility, it may be a questionable concept in itself. Is there in any sense of the word happiness an end to its pursuit? In one of Updike's most cunning lines, Richard Maple justifies the separation to his son by declaring that for some years he and his...


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