The Modernization of Fatherhood: A Social and Political History

Article excerpt

The Modernization of Fatherhood: A Social and Political History, Ralph LaRossa, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1997. 287 pp.

Ralph LaRossa, a sociologist at Georgia State University, begins his survey of American fatherhood by taking a page from feminist history. Quoting Gerda Lemer's claim that women's exclusion from their pasts has proven to be the "most serious obstacle" to their "intellectual growth," he places John Demos' claim that fatherhood's long and checkered history has been short on historians. This is a provocative and paradoxical position, especially insofar as history has traditionally been patriarchal, and patriarchs are synonymous with fathers writ large in scripts of power. Moreover, fatherhood writ small has received increasing attention, beginning with Steven Ozment's When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe (1983), which aimed to offset the negative images imposed by family historians. But then Kertzer's study of medieval Italian life, Sacrificed for Honor (1993), clearly demonstrated that however much power women exercised within households, their emotional and reproductive lives were regulated by shame-honor-revenge codes that placed them in no-win situations and mostly let men, putative fathers especially, off the hook-practices reinforced by the Church. In Children and Childhood in Western Society Since 1500 (1995), Hugh Cunningham traces a shift in parenting guides from mothers to fathers due to Renaissance Humanism. Since families were prototypes of the State, sons were in a direct line of civic authority. Advice books urged fathers to become involved from selection of wet nurses to instruction in reading. Cunningham contends that these new emphases, drawn in part from classical models, were put into practice, at least among the more enlightened households. The joint Humanist and Protestant focus on the individual favored more active paternal roles, especially in northern Europe and Britain-nations that figured prominently in settling the original colonies. It was only with the rise of industrialism that the father began receding from family life, although it shouldn't be assumed that in earlier centuries families were more intact. Traditionally, sons were schooled-out or apprenticed at a young age.

Conceding he exaggerated to make a point, LaRossa opts for "histories of fatherhood" rather than seeking an overarching meganarrative of Fatherhood-an endnote provides a virtual bibliography of these histories. Over the centuries fatherhood has been both idealized and denigrated, reflexively assumed and elided, no doubt to a great extent because most often it is the father's fate to appear in the son's texts, necessarily fraught with oedipal tensions. Here is the deeper explanation for LaRossa's concern that the wheel of fatherhood must be re-invented by every generation; sons disparaging their father's world and elevating their own is more acutely Oedipal than vaguely "other-izing." LaRossa himself pays scant attention to historian Robert L. Griswold's Fatherhood in America (1993), which covers some of the same ground and dwells in detail on the New Fatherhood.

What is missing and needed to ground a history of fatherhood is direct access to the fathering process via the father's voice, but the social sciences evidently eschew the particular in favor of the more objectively general. The few letters from fathers LaRossa is able to turn up in the Archives of the Children's Bureau are confined to practical inquiries on "diet and nutrition." And although Griswold includes abundant vignettes, he rules out "extensive use of personal letters or diaries of individuals," thus leaving the "history of emotional relationships to other scholars." Nonetheless, at rare moments in history fathers have written down their own tender thoughts about children. Boccaccio's poignant response to Petrarch's granddaughter who evoked his deceased child is often cited as evidence of parental investment. …