It all started with television. Early in 1992, then Vice President Dan Quayle took the sitcom Murphy Brown to task because its lead, played by Candice Bergen, was to give birth out of wedlock. The show and its sponsors’ apparent endorsement of this transgression, Quayle argued, was proof that the entertainment industry was antifamily, or, at least, against the traditional American family as defined by Ozzie and Harriet, by the Cleavers and Ricardos.

Quayle, as it happens, was right: television had moved beyond the comfortable, happy, two-parent family; an artifact that, at least to the scriptwriters, seemed to belong to a time past. The new television household, the world of the Simpsons and Bundys and Connors, was something altogether different from those of Mayberry R.F.D. and Family Affair, to name two of the top-ten shows a quarter-century ago. Still, by making the role of Happy Days an ideal for the age, Quayle opened himself to the perhaps justifiable charge that he could not sufficiently distinguish televised fiction from lived reality, much as George Bush seemingly could not comprehend shopping for one’s own groceries. His appeal to replace Candice Bergen and her ilk with more wholesome role models did not work: American voters did not endorse Quayle’s viewpoint in the 1992 election, but Murphy Brown continues to air.

It being an election year, the issue of family values is once more in the news. “Today,” writes social historian John Gillis in A World of Their Own Making, “both Democrats and Republicans deploy equally apocalyptic visions of family decline and social disorder. And although most Americans do not believe their own family life to be in immediate danger, they are quick to perceive their neighbors being in total disrepair.” That perception, Gillis maintains, is an old one, a current that has long flowed through our history. Bill Clinton may trace the decline in family values to an uncaring government and economic system. Bob Dole to the corrupting influence of the welfare state and the Hollywoodization of the culture. In either ease, the assumption holds that we once lived in a golden age where the two-parent, self-sufficient family was paramount, and that we have somehow fallen from this state of grace.

All golden ages are mythic. The one to which our presidential candidates advert is no exception, growing from the idealized family of the 1950’s, itself an idealized version of the family in the Depression Era: a bulwark us-against-them struggle in the face of hard times. Those who lived in the 1950’s—and in the 20’s and 30’s—will tell you that the reality was far different from the cheerful, sanitized history that has been conferred on those eras; but, as Gillis notes in his lively revisionist history of the American family, that has not kept the myth from overpowering the truth.

The realities are indeed different. One of the cornerstones of our supposed golden age is the notion of the family based upon partners who were monogamous, Eros being contained within marriage. Gillis combs the census records to show that, throughout our history, this was not always the case. Premarital pregnancy rates in most American states, he writes, have never fallen below ten percent, and sometimes have reached 30 percent, especially in rural areas. Little shame attached to these out-of-wedlock adventures. “Before the nineteenth century,” Gillis maintains, “no great fuss was made about premarital pregnancy or even illegitimate birth as long as the community was assured that it would not be unduly burdened by the child.” Indeed, childless couples were viewed as being somehow more unnatural than unwed teenage mothers, a view that still obtains in many unsuburbanized parts of the world.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Newt Gingrich alike summed up the golden age idyll, Gillis continues, with their proposed return to a system of orphanages in which the unsanctioned newly born are to be housed. Gillis points to a flaw in that plan by noting that before World War II, when they began to disappear, orphanages were in the main short-term holding centers, halfway houses on the way to family placement. With a decline in available two-parent families to take in these “orphans”—mostly the children of so-called welfare mothers—the likely result will instead be a new class of semipermanent government wards.

Another golden-age myth assumes the presence of a father quietly prepared for all crises and on hand at every formative moment of his children’s lives. Gillis counters that until quite recently fathers—and mothers—worked such long hours that they saw their children only on Sundays, their one day off. Now that working hours are again increasing, parents—those at least who have jobs—are likely to be absent as well from their children’s lives. Compulsory education, Gillis notes, was initially intended to remedy this situation, replacing the ubiquitous parents of family workshop and farm with the authority of the state in loco parentis. Parents were left to carve out “quality time” for their families (as much a concern in Victorian times as now) from the tattered remnants of the week. The absence from home of parents and children also led to a decidedly ungolden regimentation. Gillis observes: “It was in the 1850’s and 1860’s, exactly when work and school time were first imposing their relentless regime on middleclass families, that families began to organize the day into an endless cycle of meals and bedtimes that has changed remarkably little ever since.”

The golden age may never have existed but it exerts a powerful influence on us, leading to such strange phenomena as “holiday trauma,” our latest widescale social disease: the product of a demand for choreographed performances in which family members play an assigned part in manufacturing togetherness, and in which children remain children no matter how old they may be. Among its other manifestations are the self-styled “family restaurants” that now seem to occupy every street corner, advertising their soups and microwave heated dinners as homemade, and—oddest of all—Las Vegas casinos billing themselves as “family destinations.”

Times are changing, though: in the last quarter century the number of American households made up of one person has increased from 13 to 26 percent of the total, while the percentage of children living with a single parent has increased from 12 to 27 percent. Yet the family endures; “flexing,” Gillis observes, “rather than breaking,” through mechanisms like the shared custody of children. This of course is far from the televised ideal: even the Simpsons live under one roof. But, Gillis suggests, to seek to retrieve a golden past that restores (to borrow from Hollywood) a condition in which men are the producers and women the directors of real-life family drama is misguided at best. It could even cost someone an election.


[A World of Their Own Making, by John R. Gillis (New York: Basic Books) 310 pp., $28.00]