A World of Their Own Making

A World of Their Own Making : History of Myth and Ritual in Family Life

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Christmas, birthdays, Valentine's Day, white weddings, Father's Day and Mother's Day - all timeless traditions that have been part of family life for generations. Or are they? In this history of family life, John Gillis points out how they are rituals of recent invention, from the Victorian era. Our society is presently obsessed with the notion of "family values", and we kindle a nostalgia for a close family life that existed in previous generations. Yet John Gillis argues that the past which historians reconstruct is different from our own idealized notions. For example, families were rarely stable and secure environments: children were orphaned or left home at an early age to work and early widowhood was common. We may hark back to a "golden age" of the family but it is only by accepting that our rituals and myths must be open to perpetual revision that we can satisfy our needs - this is demonstrated by the new kinds of rites, whether collective birthdays in old age or divorce ceremonies, that are developing. As the families we live with become more fragile, the symbolic families we live by become more powerful. Our families are indeed worlds of our own making. This book is intended for students and teachers of social history and sociology and anyone with an interest in the current debate on family values.show more

Product details

  • Paperback | 330 pages
  • 120 x 190mm | 268g
  • Oxford University Press
  • Oxford Paperbacks
  • Oxford, United Kingdom
  • 4 b&w illustrations, notes, index
  • 019288042X
  • 9780192880420

Review Text

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 Depressionera 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. (Kirkus Reviews)show more

Table of contents

Introduction. PART 1: Myths of Family Past. 1: At Home with Families of Strangers. 2: Life and Death in a Small Parenthesis. PART 2: A World of Their Own Making. 3: Making Times(s) for Family. 4: No Place Like Home. PART 3: The Perfect Couple. 5: Mothers Giving Birth to Motherhood. 6: Bringing Up Fathers. 7: Strangers in Our Midst. 8: Haunting the Dead. PART 4: Conclusion. 9: Remaking Our Worlds. Notes. Indexshow more