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The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap Hardcover – 31 Oct 1992


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (31 Oct. 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465001351
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465001354
  • Product Dimensions: 15.6 x 3.6 x 23.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 334,340 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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About the Author

Stephanie Coontz is a member of the faculty of Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA, where she is a historian and an expert on American culture. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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First Sentence
WHEN I begin teaching a course on family history, I often ask my students to write down ideas that spring to mind when they think of the "traditional family." Read the first page
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 9 April 1998
Format: Paperback
Americans, especially those of the conservative persuasion, tend to idealize the 'Fifties as Paradise Lost: schools taught readin', 'ritin', and 'rithmetic; sex was confined to the bedrooms of married couples; teenagers were virginal and children docile; God's in his heaven, Eisenhower's in the White House, all's right with the world ...
In fact, as Coontz points out, the era wasn't all that innocent (her statistics on teenage pregnancies and shotgun weddings are a real eye-opener). Furthermore, the myth of the suburban two-parent, two-child family, self-sufficient economically and emotionally, was not only fostered and perpetuated for economic reasons, but a historical anomaly even in the U.S. (not to mention the rest of the world).
What Roberta Pollack Seid did in "Never Too Thin" for the MetLife weight tables, and Susan Faludi did in "Backlash" for the assertion that "a single woman over 40 has more chance of getting killed by a terrorist than of getting married," Stephanie Coontz does for the nuclear family. Her political agenda shows at times, but in general the facts she marshals are persuasive no matter whether you agree with it or not.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 6 May 1998
Format: Paperback
This book is by turns enlightening and astounding. Coontz takes on the pervasive myths surrounding the American Family (tm) and shows how the generalizations many of us take for granted don't tell the whole story. From the idyllic legends of the 1950s, to the role of feminism and other civil rights movements, to the persistent (and often ugly) myths surrounding the families of minorities--Coontz tackles them all, with persuasive arguments and an almost mind-numbing amount of data.
She suggests strongly that it isn't family life itself that's the problem, but our own attitudes to it and our responses to far-reaching changes that can be traced back to the 19th century and beyond. Among her more provocative assertions is the statement that our image of the "ideal" 1950s nuclear family is far more myth than fact; in fact, she says, the nuclear family was itself an anomaly, offset both before and after by very different ways of life.
The core of Coontz's argument seems to be that family life is shaped far more by social and economic forces than by any ideals we may hold. Corollary to this is the compelling argument that the very values of individual striving and success, so cherished in American culture, both contributed to the development of the nuclear family and to its disintegration. Agree or disagree--Coontz definitely has an agenda, and it often shows--this book is well worth reading, if only because it will make you re-examine some of your own assumptions about what many have taken to be the core structure of American life.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Kurt A. Johnson on 24 Nov. 2003
Format: Paperback
Setting out to shatter the idea that the 1950s was the perfect era, and that America's problems could be fixed if only we could somehow reclaim the values of that era, she gives a history of marriage and family culture in general, and an examination of the 1950s in particular. Her portrayal of the American family as being in perpetual flux and periodic crisis is quite fascinating, as is her review of many cultural trends occurring before, during, and after the 1950s.
First off, let me say that this book is highly polemical in nature. Sadly, Professor Coontz apparently did not have confidence that the data she presents would prove sufficiently strong to support her case, so she practiced a certain amount of hyperbole. Any anti-1950s spin that could be grasped was shoved into the book, some of it of a highly speculative nature. (For example: "Surely some of the bizarre behaviors that Joan Crawford exhibited toward her children, according to her daughter's bitter remembrance, Mommie Dearest, flowed from the frustration of being forced into a domestic role about which she was intensely ambivalent." - P36)
That said, I did find Professor Coontz's history of the American family quite interesting and informative. As a fan of the generational studies of Messrs. Howe and Strauss, I was fascinated by the way that this author's study ties in with theirs.
So, let me say that this book is quite interesting, and is valuable reading material for anyone interested in a historical look at the American Family. I would suggest that you skim certain oppressively political sections of this book, but that you do read it.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 66 reviews
62 of 69 people found the following review helpful
Much needed balance 9 Nov. 2004
By K. Abbott - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I was born in 1970, and my childhood memories are of sun-bathed days riding my bike and playing with my friends in the safe streets of rural England. Mummies and Daddies formed coherent units, there was a real sense of community, and life has been downhill from there. Right? Except that, as an adult, I know better. One couple across the road were staying in a miserable marriage in which affairs were used to express anger; another neighbour beat the living daylights out of his wife; two children from my school walked miles to the police station to report that they were being beaten and starved; paedophile rings were being dealt with; cases of incest, rape, and violent crime were not so unusual; and the fact is that I have no memory of these things because they were kept from me.

The argument that the past was better because one remembers it being so does not, I fear, hold water. Historians and sociologists fight a losing battle against nostalgia and the very human desire to return to a golden age when things were simpler, more wholesome, easier to deal with than the realities we face as adults. Books like Coontz's 'The Way We Never Were' are vital to understanding and facing the complexities of the world instead of retreating in fear to a world of projected simplicity and order that never really existed.
63 of 72 people found the following review helpful
A refreshingly realistic myth-buster 9 April 1998
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Americans, especially those of the conservative persuasion, tend to idealize the 'Fifties as Paradise Lost: schools taught readin', 'ritin', and 'rithmetic; sex was confined to the bedrooms of married couples; teenagers were virginal and children docile; God's in his heaven, Eisenhower's in the White House, all's right with the world ...
In fact, as Coontz points out, the era wasn't all that innocent (her statistics on teenage pregnancies and shotgun weddings are a real eye-opener). Furthermore, the myth of the suburban two-parent, two-child family, self-sufficient economically and emotionally, was not only fostered and perpetuated for economic reasons, but a historical anomaly even in the U.S. (not to mention the rest of the world).
What Roberta Pollack Seid did in "Never Too Thin" for the MetLife weight tables, and Susan Faludi did in "Backlash" for the assertion that "a single woman over 40 has more chance of getting killed by a terrorist than of getting married," Stephanie Coontz does for the nuclear family. Her political agenda shows at times, but in general the facts she marshals are persuasive no matter whether you agree with it or not.
83 of 98 people found the following review helpful
A must get for your local conservative politician 17 Jun. 2001
By Robin Orlowski - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Since its inception, the religious right has attempted to convince America that the world would be better and all of our social problems would be resolved if we could magically transport back to the 1950's as represented in Leave it to Beaver and countless other comedies designed to "imitate" the emerging WASP middle-class suburban lifestyle.
Yet as Stephanie Coontz points out, this was a Hollywood myth that never existed in real life. Instead, women were maimed from illegal abortions, gays were bashed at an alarming rate, schools were segregated, the disabled were hidden and sexual and domestic violence supposedly did not happen to "good" people. Telling it like it really was is not a PC fairy tale, but a practical reality if we are to finally confront and undo some of America's social problems.
Politicians, particularly on the right, have been successful in exploiting and appropriating this myth for their own personal means precisely because there have been few watchdogs to challenge them. Were this possible, we would discover the new left had its roots in the backlash against Senator Joe McCarthy and his communist witch hunts. The cover picture with a young Robin Morgan is particularly ironic in light of the fact that the former "Mama" child star reincarnated herself as one of the most prolific and articulate leaders of the new left and women's liberation in the 1960's.
Family Values have become such an emotional election issue because we are not really sure what they mean. Sure, any politician (indeed most do out of a fear of being perceived as anti-family) can embrace the concept and even make a career out of such proclamations, but our realities have been less than stellar pictures.
The section on teenage pregnancy and unwed mothers confirms that the higher rates occurred before the legalization of birth control and the relegalization of abortion and the only difference is that girls who chose to keep their babies are not shipped off to maternity homes or forced to leave school. Additionally, she points out the young girls who engage in sexual activity are not feminists because they are more likely than non-sexually active peers to have very strong dependence needs and desires as well as traditional gender roles.
I also believe Coontz should have done more investigating on the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse and the legal system that essentially encouraged it by allowing it to go unchecked. In the greatest of ironies, the decade where GLBT Americans enjoyed the least amount of rights was also the times when child hood sexual abuse was the highest. However, I realize Coontz was trying to provide a general overview with this book and believe that the subsection could provide enough material for a separate book of its own.
While I realize it may be difficult for some readers to reconcile starry-eyed visions with this more pragmatic account, the resulting intellectual growth is a concise picture of what America was really like. Perhaps now, the religious right will quit screaming and join the proactive discussion on family life.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
A must-read! 15 Jun. 2000
By Suzanne Pettit - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This book is a gem! Here is a thoroughly researched explanation of many of the attitudes toward family that pervade the American psyche today and keep us from moving forward. Growing up in a "broken" home, under non-traditional circumstances, I always felt like a freak -- like my family and I were substandard. I looked upon my parents as failures. As I read this book, I came to understand what they were up against as a young couple coming of age in the '50's -- trying to live up to an unrealistic and, ultimately, detrimental image of what a family was supposed to be. Thank you, Ms. Coontz, for allowing me to see my parents as people, and to find a new love and respect for them. And, for helping me to reconsider my own value system.
25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
Taking on the myths that shape us 7 Sept. 2005
By Jean E. Pouliot - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
"The Way We Never Were" is a book that will delight and amaze those interested in factual history and annoy those who like their history more...legendary. Author Stephanie Coontz's purpose is to turn a historian's eye on the ever-shifting patterns of American history, turning a cutting laser on the myths that still inform our politics and personal attitudes.

Most of us have a reasonable familiarity with recent history - say, the last 50 years or so. There's a temptation then to assume that people in earlier ages shared our base assumptions - they were just us in different clothes. Coontz gently puts the lie to these assumptions, showing us that our ancestors and predecessors looked at the world differently and organized their societies along different lines. In the process, she destroys a number of hallowed national myths based on what is essentially a misreading of history.

For instance, the myth of Rugged Individualism-the idea that America was founded by those who rejected governmental assistance-comes in for a thorough thrashing -- as does the idea that a man's house was his castle. In colonial America, says Coontz, government would take children away from their parents if they did not learn their alphabet by the age of six. Inability to read meant inability to read Scripture which meant an inability to be saved. Too, the rugged individualists who tamed the West were anything but. Sure, they worked hard to build their homes and harvest their crops. But without the national government's assistance in clearing the land of natives, building transportation networks and subsidizing land purchases, the westward expansion would not have occurred at the rate it did. To boot, the successful settlers were communitarian -- establishing homes near others, sharing tools and expertise. Those who chose to go it alone were the least successful, passing a culture of poverty and ignorance to future generations.

Coontz's work is a welcome corrective to the still-flourishing myths of individualism. She has much to say to those who still think that success is their personal achievement, and who forget that success is often a collective exercise of an individual's work, government assistance (be it killing Indians or awarding tax breaks) and personal connections.

Coontz takes on many other topics, including consumerism, working women, teenage pregnancy (the late 50s had the highest, not lowest, incidence of teen pregnancy), marriage, love, abortion rates through the centuries and much more. A fascinating and compelling read!
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