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A WORLD OF THEIR OWN MAKING by John R. Gillis

A WORLD OF THEIR OWN MAKING

Myth, Ritual, and the Quest for Family Values

By John R. Gillis

Pub Date: July 31st, 1996
ISBN: 0-465-05414-5
Publisher: Basic

 A thoughtful debunking of the American family's mythic past. Gillis (History/Rutgers Univ.) quite ably proves that, contrary to popular opinion, there never has been a ``Golden Age'' of family values. Each generation has reacted to its own crises, Gillis argues, by idealizing the family life of previous generations; today's innovation is the belief that every 1950s family was as impeccable as the Cleavers. In the '50s, parents turned for guidance to the Depression-era generation, who in their day had clung to the Victorians as exemplars. The greatest strength of the book is the author's systematic demonstration that the rituals we now attach to the elusive phrase ``family values'' are quite recent, most dating to the Victorian era. Before the 19th century, families did not need to create time to spend together. They had no choice but to sleep, work, and eat together in their small communal space. By the 1850s such forced mutuality had been displaced by a market economy, in which fathers left the home to work, mothers became the guardians of the hearth, and children were transformed from miniature adults into idealized angels. With these new roles came important supplementary rituals. Weddings, which had previously been simple events, had by the turn of the century become lavish family celebrations. The two-day weekend was created to promote the Victorian ideal of intentional family togetherness, as was the family meal, especially Sunday dinner. Holidays such as Christmas were transformed into family-centered and commercial enterprises. Gillis's work is well researched, the topic stimulating. Gillis writes with an easy, contemporary style, although his familiarity with the reader can be a bit jarring (he refers to early Europeans as ``our ancestors,'' presuming that his audience is entirely Euro-American). In all, though, a useful contribution to the history of the family, accessible to general readers.