Academic journal article Journal of Social History

"Dreams Never to Be Realized": Emotional Culture and the Phenomenology of Emotion

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

"Dreams Never to Be Realized": Emotional Culture and the Phenomenology of Emotion

Article excerpt

"Life is a bundle of habits," wrote Gladys Bell several months after her marriage in 1925 to Marlin Wilson Penrod. "The more habits (good) we possess the better for us in tho't, feeling conduct;--among them must be the habit of forming habits."(1) In her diaries Gladys Bell repeatedly reflected on her efforts to acquire the habits or personality traits that would make her virtuous rather than merely outwardly attractive. "Pretty! I don't want folks to think me that," she wrote. "I want to be ... soulfully beautiful. I want my face to reflect a pure soul, a pure heart and nobility of purpose."(2) Yet as she wrote of her desire to acquire the best habits available, Gladys Bell struggled to control her anger toward the mother-in-law she now lived with and worried that she might never feel passionate love for her husband. Although she accepted cultural prescriptions for emotional control and love, her experiences never quite matched the models.

Historians and social scientists in recent years have begun to write histories of emotions. Important works on anger, love, grief, and jealousy show that white, middle-class Americans held common values about the appropriate expression of emotions.(3) While social and cultural norms clearly affected how individuals experienced their emotions, the historical literature has had less to say about individual experience than social constraints and demands on emotional expression.(4) To explore the relationships between emotional culture and emotional experience, we have studied the early adult years of one woman in western Pennsylvania from the perspectives of social history and of phenomenological psychology. Gladys Bell's extensive diaries from her early adult years show us that she actively appropriated cultural materials to help her shape her emotional life in a way that would be socially acceptable and personally satisfying. However, the demands and possibilities of her world contrasted with the world that appeared in cultural materials and formed a horizon against which cultural messages found their particular meaning for Bell.(5)

New emotional standards and expectations distinguish the 20th century from the Victorian period. By the 1920s, some of the changes in emotional culture were well advanced while others had only begun to appear.(6) Many areas of Gladys Bell's emotional life seem more Victorian than jazz era. Her desire to become inwardly beautiful echoes the 19th-century concern for an inward and genuine self. But Gladys Bell never took her inward self for granted, as Victorian Americans presumably could. The lengthy entries she wrote, often daily, seem to have been a strategy of introspection to discover or affirm an inner self that eluded Bell. Her tentativeness resonated more with contemporary cultural messages in spite of her nostalgia for Victorian standards. Two elements of 20th century emotional culture--emotional control and romantic love--played important roles in Gladys Bell's life.

The decline of Victorianism had multiple causes--developments within capitalism, growing diversity and pluralism, and the world war. Historian John Kasson has emphasized both the tensions within the class and gender ideals of the 19th century and the growth of consumer culture with its proliferation of choices and "fragmentation of needs." These transitions tended to undermine the Victorian belief in an ideal self that was both stable and cohesive.(7) This went hand in hand with, and perhaps helps explain, the growing suspicion of all kinds of emotional intensity that grew during the early 20th century. Without a reliable self, emotional intensity may have seemed unwarranted for individuals. As a complementary development, some emotions were condemned as dangerous to the self. Peter Stearns has shown that both anger and jealousy "became thoroughly bad, with no redeeming qualities." These, and other negative emotions such as fear and disgust, became targets of new forms of suppression. …

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