Fatherhood in the 19th Century

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Photo Credit: A family in a drawing room, artist unknown, 19th century, Bonhams: FA2010/Wikimedia Commons/PD art (PD old)

As the title of the second book in the Waxwood Series, False Fathers, suggests, the idea of fathers plays a huge role in the story and in the psychological reality of Jake Alderdice, the main character. Like everything else in the Gilded Age, fatherhood was a complex and changing concept in the late 19th century.

Before the 19th century, the role of the father was less removed from the family. Since so many Americans lived in rural towns and kept farms or other small ma-and-pa businesses, fathers worked close to home and sometimes even alongside their families. Their involvement with their wives and children was more intimate because of their close proximity to their families.

But this changed in the 19th century, and the concept of the separate spheres played a role. As industrialization and urbanization became the norm for many families (that is, families moved to the cities, and men worked in larger companies owned by someone other than themselves), men’s “place” was regulated more to the pubic sphere. That is, their attention shifted to the larger spaces of business, law, and finance. As such, fathers were more detached from what went on in the home, though they still maintained a certain level of control as the main disciplinarians and educators of their children. The separate spheres also put women more firmly in private places such as the home. Their role as mothers and caregivers became more important, thus removing fathers even further from the day-to-day workings of the family.

We also want to remember the characteristics of the Gilded Age — success at any price, excess, and flaunting wealth. This was an ideal many American men wanted to achieve and, as such, they needed to put all of their focus on their business and financial endeavors to get it. This didn’t leave them much time or emotional energy to devote to their families. Thus, the identity of the father became one of the bread-winner.

There was something else that factored into the extrication of fathers from family life — public schooling. Up until the 1850’s, sending children to public schools was optional. As I mention above, many Americans were still living in rural areas and tending to farms or small businesses. In this atmosphere, children were often times given a very spotty education that depended more upon when they were needed to help out with the family (for example, on the family farm or during harvest seasons) than upon the idea that children should get a steady education. But in the 1850’s, that began to change as states issued laws that made sending children to public schools mandatory. Although the transition to mandatory public schooling for all states didn’t happen until the late 1910’s, it took the role of educator out of the hands of many fathers.

But while fathers lost their hold on their children as educators, their role shifted to business advisors, mainly for their sons (since most women did not and weren’t expected to work). This put the emotional connection between fathers and sons on a different level, a more authority-oriented level that we can imagine may have been somewhat less affectionate than it had been in earlier times. This is indeed the role various father figures take in relation to Jake in False Fathers. Much of his struggle for masculine identity lies in what his future success in the public sphere will look like. In this, he asks and receives help from a number of older men in the book.

I realize this paints a pretty dismal picture of fatherhood in the 19th century, since it makes it sound as if men were little more than bread-winners and business advisors for their families. This is not to say that fathers were emotionally remote from their wives and children by any means (as the painting above shows). And, in the 1920’s, when women had earned more of their rights, they began to demand men share in the raising of their families, both physically and psychologically. In turn, men themselves were advocating for this, starting a Fatherhood Movement which, thankfully, has gained a lot of ground today and continues to do so.

To read more about False Fathers (which is now on sale at a special preorder price), you can go here. If you want to find out more about Jake and other characters in the Waxwood Series, read the series page here. And if you’d like to read an excerpt from False Fathers, you can join my readers group.   

 

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The Gilded Age Masculine Identity Crisis

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Photo Credit: Men of Progress, Christian Schussele, 1862, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Washington D. C: ~riley/Wikimedia Commons/PD old 100 expired

The second book of the Waxwood series, False Fathers, is a coming-of-age story about the male protagonist, Jake Alderdice, transitioning from boyhood into manhood in the late 19th century. In doing my research on masculine ideals of the era, I came across an article that takes an interesting view at the subject. You can find the article here.

According to the author, John Robert Van Slyke, the Gilded Age brought about a crisis in the definition of masculinity for men. I have mentioned in my blog post about the Gilded Age how the chaos and the excesses of the era changed the way in which Americans saw themselves, socially and psychologically. We know how this was true for women, as the Victorian idea of the “angel in the house” was breaking down in the face of suffragism and the new American ideal of womanhood represented by the New Woman.

But many changes were going on for men as well. For Van Slyke, this was represented by “a shift from the term ‘manliness’ to ‘masculinity’” (pg. 2). These may seem like the same or similar, in terms of meaning,and perhaps in our modern way of thinking about gender, they are. But for the 19th century, they were very different. Manliness was a Victorian ideal rooted in abstract realities, a “‘honorable, high-minded’” idea that required “sexual restraint, a powerful will, and a strong character” (Van Slyke, pg. 3). Masculinity, however, was a concept emerging into the new century that implied “‘aggressiveness, physical force, and male sexuality” (pg. 3). So while the qualities of what made a man in the Victorian era (looking back from the Gilded Age) were intangible, those qualities of the 20th century (looking ahead) would be required to be more tangible and measurable.

One reason for this was that America was moving into a more “doer” century, where one’s deeds rather than one’s values would be the measure of one’s character. For men, success in the public sphere was imperative in the Gilded Age, and their worth was judged by their achievements. America was becoming bigger, richer, and more powerful on the world stage. Competition was becoming fiercer. Therefore, a more forceful, physical presence was necessary to succeed.

Van Slyke brings in a nice example of this from the business world. Many men in the 19th century began their business success by getting loans and gaining credit from the bank with which to build their companies (much as entrepreneurs do today). In the mid-19th century, a man could get a loan or credit based on his character. If he proved himself to be a reliable, upstanding, dependable citizen, a hard worker and moral man, those were enough. However, by the Gilded Age, this was no longer possible. It was a man’s prospects and his assets that determined whether he would be given a loan or credit.

This crisis of looking back to manly virtue and looking forward to masculine physicality presented problems for young men in the Gilded Age. Success in the public sphere was still the name of the game, but the means with which they achieved it were no longer based on their fathers’ and grandfathers’ manly virtues. They were based more on how aggressive they could be in business, how wily and cunning they were, and how much interest they had in commercial success.

This crisis is one Jake faces in the book. His artistic nature makes him more contemplative and dreamy, the opposite type needed to become a business titan like his grandfather, and this is contrasted by other male characters his age in the novel. One reason why he accepts Harland Stevens, a middle-aged man who befriends him during his summer in Waxwood, as a surrogate father is because Stevens seems to present the balance between Victorian manliness and Gilded Age masculinity. 

To read more about the book, coming out in December, go here. To read more about Jake and Stevens, take a look here. And if you’d like to read an excerpt from False Fathers, you can do so by joining my readers group here.      

Works Cited

Van Slyke, John Robert. “Changing ideal of manhood in late-nineteenth century America” (2001). Graduate Student Thesis, Dissertation, & Professional Papers. Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, The University of Montana. 

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