The Problem That Has No Name

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Photo Credit: Silhouette of woman’s face in a question mark, uploaded 9 February 2019 by Mohamad Hassan: mohammad hassan/Pxhere/CC0 1.0

This month, I’ve been talking a lot about Betty Friedan and her book, The Feminine Mystique, because the ideas in that book were an inspiration for the stories in the new edition of my first book Gnarled Bones and Other Stories. How that came to be, I go into in the Forward of that book.     

I was first exposed to Friedan and her ideas in graduate school. I took several courses in feminist theory and feminist literature, and one of our textbooks gave a snippet from Friedan’s book. The passage was one that appears in a lot of college materials on feminist theory: The Problem That Has No Name. 

This might seem like a convoluted and abstract idea but, in fact, Fridan breaks it down into an entire chapter in her book. Writing articles for women’s magazines in the 1950s, Friedan had an opportunity to visit with many suburban housewives, and her talks with them revealed how these women, who were supposed to be living the American Woman’s Dream had, in fact, a problem — a big problem. Their lives weren’t such a dream. In fact, each woman felt “a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that … [she] struggled with … alone” (Friedan, p. 1). In other words, many of the suburban housewives Friedan met expressed the same uncertain feeling that something wasn’t quite right with their lives, that, though they were living in comfort and ease, something was missing, and that missing something caused them to be unhappy, dissatisfied, and unfulfilled.

That snippet during my graduate studies made an impression on me, and I have since read Friedan’s book. I’ve been impressed by how comprehensively she looks at the way in which so many American institutions (including magazines, schools, advertisers, and the medical establishment) had created such a powerful ideology about what women should be and their road to happiness in mid-20th century America.

The key to Friedan’s feminine mystique was that it wasn’t just about the stereotype of the 1950’s happy housewife embodied in 1950’s television shows such as Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. It wasn’t just about an ideal of what all women, young and old, should strive for. It was about the mind play, the idea that a woman’s destiny to serve others (husband, children, community) should be her purpose in life, and if she did achieve this goal, she would find contentment. 

But as Friedan discovered, many of these women who, for intents and purposes, should have been happy, weren’t. And they felt guilty about it. They felt they let their families down, and they felt there was something wrong with them. They tried to blot out the problem by immersing themselves in more housework or more committees or by taking sedatives. They shifted the blame sometimes to their husbands or their children or some other outside source. Worst of all, many tried to ignore it. In short, they did everything but deal with it. 

This is, in fact, a part of how the second wave feminist movement began. It started with the feminist “consciousness raising” groups. The idea was to encourage women to discuss problems and issues related to women by connecting them to their own lives, so that they felt not only that they weren’t alone, but that they could also seek guidance together. There is a great consciousness-raising scene in the 1975 film version of The Stepford Wives, a dark comedy about the suburban housewife. Despite its tongue-in-cheek reference to this idea of women getting together to discuss their problems, the scene contains a lot of truth, especially in the way it depicts the suburban housewife’s narrow world. I talk a lot about this in my blog post about the 1950s housewife as well.

The women in Lessons From My Mother’s Life live in the 1950s and early 1960s and are subject to this same kind of snow job about how their lives should make them happy and fulfilled. But they each come to realize they suffer from The Problem That Has No Name. They come to see their lives, for all the glossy veneer, isn’t what the women’s magazines, advertisers, doctors, and psychiatrists tell them it ought to be. They don’t wait for the women’s movement to raise their awareness and give them options. They examine their own psychological reality and make their own options.

If you’d like to know more about Lessons From My Mother’s Life, coming out in March 2020, then you can click on this link.     

Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.

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The Era of “Occupation: Housewife”

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Photo Credit: 1950s happy housewife in the kitchen cooking, uploaded 24 May 2011 by Ethan: SportSuburban/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

In an interview she did in 1977, author and godmother of the second wave feminist movement, Betty Friedan, mentions, a little tongue-in-cheek, the idea of writing in the census blank “Occupation: Housewife” when she was a young woman in the 1950s. In her seminal 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, Friedan defines this decade as the era of “Occupation: Housewife.” Many women who had gone into the work force due to the shortage of men in the 1940s had, in the post-war era, retreated back to the home. As I explain in my blog post about the feminine mystique, women in mid-20th century America were sold a bill of goods about their identities and their purpose in life as wives and mothers. “Occupation: Housewife” was an extension of that.

In the 1950s, the role of housewife was taken very seriously, so seriously it seemed as if outside forces were working together to convince women the only road to happiness was as a housewife. Icons like Leave it to Beaver’s June Cleaver, Father Knows Best’s Margaret Anderson, and Ozzie and Harriet’s Harriet Nelson became the epitome of how women should be and act. Women’s magazines like Women’s Day and Good Housekeeping not only carried advice for housewives, but included fiction focused on the housewife heroine. Guides like the one mentioned in this article told women how they should treat their husbands like gods and take care of their children so that no one could blame them if their kids turned out less than perfect (a very popular thing, thanks to Freud). Lest women realize (as many did, according to Friedan) they were more than just a cleaning machine and a servant to their husband and kids, advertisers glorified housework to the point where women would believe the world would fall apart if they didn’t retreat into their homes and bake a cake every day.

Putting this in historical context, it’s easy to see where the obsession with selling women on the idea that their only worth was in their housewifery skills came from. As I mentioned above, women were going out into the work force, some for the very first time, during World War II when workers were needed, and male labor was scarcer. After the war ended, the expectation was that women would retreat from the work force to make room for men returning from the front. In addition, the psychological atmosphere of post-war America was one of a  return to a life of stability, conformity, and traditional roles. All of these gel with the idea of women taking care of the home and making their life’s work “Occupation: Housewife.”    

Being a housewife, in and of itself, is something to be proud of, since it takes a lot of thought, skill, organization, prioritizing, and patience. In our modern sensibility, we know many women would be proud to write on the census blank “Occupation: Housewife.” But the difference between housewives today and housewives seventy years ago is that today’s housewives, for the most part, are not being told their worth lies in how sparkling they can wax their kitchen floor, or how many of their kids’ soccer games they attend.

And therein lies the problem: The 1950’s housewife was made to feel as if this was all she ever would accomplish. Even if she had other aspirations and dreams, they were only trivial compared to her “real work” as a housewife. Friedan points out, “[N]o matter how elaborate, ‘Occupation: housewife’ is not an adequate substitute for truly challenging work, important enough to society to be paid for in its coin…” (p. 294). 

My upcoming book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, features many 1950s and early 1960s housewives who would put “Occupation: Housewife” on the census bureau questionnaire. Some would do it gladly (such as the young bride-to-be in the story “Fumbling Toward Freedom”), and some more reluctantly (such as the heroine of “Mother of Mischief”). But all the protagonists, whether current or future housewives, recognize their worth lies in something more than cleaning, washing, and picking up the kids from school. They feel, like many of the subjects Friedan spoke with who were the inspiration for her book, that something isn’t quite right, that the picture-perfect images of housewives that glare out at them on their TV screens, glossy women’s magazines, and billboards are incongruent with who they are. This moment of epiphany is what drives many of them in the stories.

Get more information on Lessons, coming in March 2020, here.

Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.

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The Feminine Mystique

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Photo Credit: Betty Friedan as photographed in her home, 1978, photo taken  by Lynn Gilbert and uploaded 6 August 2009: LynnGilbert5/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Until now, most of my blog posts have related to the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. I’ve made no secret about the fact that the late 19th/early 20th centuries have always fascinated me, and a lot of my fiction takes place during these time periods.

But I’m interested in other eras as well, especially those relevant to women’s social, psychological, and political position. One of these time periods was the mid-20th century, a breeding ground for the second wave feminist movement which came in the late 1960s. My upcoming book is a second edition of my first published book, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories, and the five stories in this collection are set in the 1950s and early 1960s. All the stories were inspired by Betty Friedan’s feminine mystique, a revolutionary way of looking at femininity at that time.

Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique introduced this concept to the American public. The book explores Friedan’s experiences talking with women in the 1950s. She takes a very comprehensive look at the feminine mystique and the institutions that allowed this image to emerge.     

The idea of the feminine mystique has been defined in many ways, but, for me, it’s the idea that a woman’s biological, psychological, social and spiritual destiny boils down to two things: getting married and having children. There is nothing else outside of these that a woman can, and should, want. In Friedan’s own words:

“[For] the feminine mystique, there is no other way for a woman to dream of creation or of the future. There is no way she can even dream about herself, except as her children’s mother, her husband’s wife.” (p. 59)

I think this is really the crux of the mystique: a woman’s identity, her fulfillment in life, her capabilities, and her intelligence are all tied to who she is in relation to the other people in her life. Her role in life is defined, then, as wife, mother, daughter, granddaughter, caretaker, lover, etc.

You’ve probably heard that the The Feminine Mystique led to the second-wave feminist movement in the late 1960’s. But, as Gail Collins, in her preface to the 50th edition of the book points out, that’s not, strictly speaking, true:

The Feminine Mystique did not create the women’s rights movement. Those commissions on the status of women were started by the Kennedy administration before it [the book] was published, and the Civil Rights Act was being debated in Congress while American housewives were still just starting to pass Friedan’s book around. (Friedan, location 128-132)

From a political perspective, this may very well be true. But I think from a psychological perspective, Friedan’s book did much to bring many “a-ha!” moments into the lives of the women (and men) who read it in 1963, when it was first published, and in the years to follow.

Friedan’s book has been heavily criticized, as any seminal work on gender politics would. For a start, her book is looking at a very narrow population of women: American, white, upper-middle class, and suburban-living. This was also an issue with the second-wave feminist movement — that it was addressing the needs of white middle-class women. The needs of women of color, working class or poor women, older women, lesbians, etc., were left out. In fact, the third wave feminist movement, which began around the late 1980s and early 1990s, was started to rectify this situation, as it strives to include all women and has earned the name “global feminism.” In addition, the book was also criticized for offering one single solution: that women defy the feminine mystique by getting out of the house and having careers. The implication that being a housewife and mother was somehow inferior to being a career women rubbed a lot of women (and rightly so) the wrong way. There were also personal attacks made against Friedan, more of which you can read about here.

My upcoming book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, brings to light fictional representations of the feminine mystique (among other themes). The stories are set in the 1950s and early 1960s, before the second-wave feminist movement. In each story, the main character is fighting against the feminine mystique in one away or another. For example, in my story “Fumbling Toward Freedom,” Susan is a nineteen-year-old college student about to marry an upright young man still in medical school. When she attends an exhibition of Circe sculptures by a local San Francisco artist, she finds they show her the consequences of letting love define who she is, so that her rush to get married at so young an age and quit college to become a housewife and mother, becomes less enticing. On the other side of the spectrum, Leanne, in “Two Sides of Life” is a seasoned mother of two grown children whose surprising bond with the wife of her husband’s lab assistant causes her to rethink her identity embodied in the feminine mystique.

Lessons From My Mother’s Life will be out on March 29, 2020. To learn more about the book, please visit this page.    

Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.

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The Order of Actaeon

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Photo Credit: Marble bust of Actaeon with animal skin on his head, Hadrianic Period (AD 117-138), Museo delle Navi, Nemi: Following Hadrian/Flickr/CC BY SA 2.0

As many of you know, if you’ve read my blog post about the title evolution of False Fathers, the idea of Actaeon, the hunter who earned the goddess Diana’s displeasure and paid the consequences, plays a role as a metaphor for Gilded Age masculinity in the book. 

One of the ways that Actaeon (whose story you can find here) figures into False Fathers is in a male fraternity called The Order of Actaeon (or, as they refer to themselves, the “Actaeons”). I talked about the importance of male secret societies and fraternities in the 19th century here. Many men belonged to such societies in the Gilded Age, because it was a way for them to cement their identity as men in the chaotic twists and turns of the last decades of the 19th century, when the definition of masculinity was changing just like the definition of femininity. Women had the suffragists and the New Woman  to help them cope with these changes, and men had their societies and fraternities.

The Order of Actaeon (which, by the way, is entirely fictional) operates on the principle that there is, in the Gilded Age, a “disturbing inclination of modern young men toward falling into the twin traps of profit-seeking and vicious competition characteristic of civilized life and thus losing their manly strength and virtue.” It began, in fact, so that older men (known as “Patriarchs”) could guide younger men (known as “Youths”) and help them live a purer, more decent life with beliefs and virtues that were honorable and admirable. Each Youth enters the order on the recommendation of a Patriarch who then becomes his mentor throughout his life (or the duration of his involvement with the Order).

The Order’s activities evolve mainly around masculine pursuits, such as carpentry, fishing, and hunting. In fact, the hunt is an important metaphor for the Actaeons and the reason why they named their fraternity after the Greek mortal. The Order believes that hunting develops skills of “strength, aggression, instincts, pride, and self-control.” To this end, the Order organizes weekend hunts, where each youth is expected to participate and submit to guidance by his Patriarch.

Another important aspect of the order is secrecy. They don’t even allow men to know one another’s real names. Each member that enters the order choses a name for himself by which he is known in the order (Jake chooses the name “Carlton,” his beloved grandmother’s maiden name). Neither are the men allowed to know about one another’s life outside of the order. This secrecy is so important that, as one of the men explains to Jake, one of their founding members was asked to leave after he revealed some of their activities to his wife.

The quotes I use above are from a document that appears in False Fathers, where the Order of Actaeon principles and philosophies are outlined in writing. Harland Stevens, the main father figure in Jake’s life, is the one who creates it, brought into the order as a Youth by the man who was asked to leave it and, now, one of the leading Patriarchs. Stevens’ vision of the orders’ philosophies are very clear and precise:

That emotional attachments may drain a man of his intelligence and virility, and he is to maintain some distance between himself and his loved ones beyond keeping the secrecy of the Order.

That modern man is forced to separate his pure life from his civilized life to cultivate his development and well-being.

That each man shall agree to the virtues of hunting not only as a means of athletic skill and success, but also as a way of developing his strength, aggression, cunning, and wile. He shall seek to make himself a skilled hunter and help others do the same.     

The order and especially its vow of secrecy plays a major role in Jake’s journey at the end of the novel. 

If you’d like to read an excerpt from False Fathers involving the Actaeons, you can do so by joining my readers group. For more about the book, go here. And don’t forget to check out the series page to find out more about the entire Waxwood series.

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The Spanish-American War of 1898

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This is a very touching image showing that, while the Spanish-American War may have only lasted 4 months, Americans took it very seriously.

Photo Credit: Farewell Arch in South Framingham, Massachusetts, where Massachusetts troops departed for the Spanish–American War in 1898, from Reminiscences of Company F, Second Regt. Massachusetts Infantry, U.S.V., First Brigade, Second Division, Fifth Army Corps, Of Gardner in the War With Spain, With Historical Data, 1906, author unknown: Kges1901/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 3.0

When talking about historical fiction, time matters. Even specific years matter because history has shown that what can happen from one year to the next can rapidly change the world. This was my thinking behind setting the Waxwood Series in the last decade of the 19th century. Book 1 of the series, The Specter, takes place in 1892, and Book 2 of the series, False Fathers, takes place six years later, in 1898.

Authors always have to consider what events occurred outside of the text in the time period in which the book is set and whether to incorporate those events or ignore them (as Jane Austin largely ignores the Napoleonic Wars in much of her fiction). My approach is primarily to focus on the psychological reality of the characters as they live within their time, so outside events may or may not play a role. I am not a fan of historical fiction that includes copious amounts of information dumps about historical events and people in order to create an atmosphere of the past for readers. I believe the specific details of life, especially social and psychological, makes the historical context more real than any detailed description of a historical event that may not be relevant to the characters’ conflicts and journeys.

However, this doesn’t mean that historical events don’t have a place in my fiction. In fact, in False Fathers, the Spanish-American War plays an important role in the story, not so much the events of the war itself as its meaning to Jake Alderdice, the protagonist of the book, and other male characters in the book.

The Spanish-American War stands out in the annals of American history for several reasons. First, it was a very short war. War was officially declared on April 21, 1898 and the fighting ended on August 13, 1898 (though the war officially ended four months later). America involved itself in this war for both financial and humanitarian reasons. And the consequences of the war for the United States helped to push the nation toward one of the greatest changes that occurred during the Gilded Age — it hurled the country onto the world stage.

The war involved fighting in Cuba, a colony of Spain at the time. Spanish rule was oppressive to Cuban insurgents, and they had been fighting three years prior. The brutal treatment of the Cubans by the Spanish gained a lot of sympathy in the United States, thanks to the yellow journalism popular at the time. It was very much on the minds of Americans. Author Gertrude Atherton, in her novel Senator North, published in 1900 and set a bit earlier, shows Washington society discussing the war constantly at their dinner parties and picnics, and outlines some of the great debates going on in the Senate about whether America should or should not enter the war. The thing that pushed America to declare war on Spain was the sinking of the battleship USS Maine, which newspapers played up as having been caused by either mines or torpedoes fired by the Spanish army (though it was never established whether this was really true, or whether it was some kind of technical error having nothing to do with the Spanish). 

A major player in the war was Teddy Roosevelt, who left his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in order to join in the fighting with a group of soldiers known as the Rough Riders. This short war made Roosevelt a hero and cemented his emerging political career at the turn of the 20th century. The nation insured independence for Cuba (which helped with political and financial trade) and gained control over the Pacific, including the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. The war also allowed the United States to declare Hawaii its territory (though Hawaii wouldn’t become a state until 1959).

In False Fathers, which takes place during the summer of 1898, the war is very much on the minds of Waxwood’s resort guests. In one scene, Jake and Stevens, a father figure who guides Jake throughout the book on his journey to manhood, are watching Stevens’ cousin Roger and his friends play billiards, and the subject of the Spanish-American War comes up:

They were, Jake realized, not completely ignorant of all but their tight little world of games and touching the edge of vice. They discussed with some seriousness the war in Cuba, bringing forth different opinions peppered by the usual boyish attitude of having taken words out of the mouths of their fathers or uncles.

“— Says we ought to pull out while the getting’s good,” said Norris Harrington. “It’s not worth the lives already given for it.”

“And let Spain take over?” Andrew Trent scoffed as he spilled two balls in the pocket. “We’re not there for fancy, boy. We’re there so all can see we are a power.”

For these young men who are coming of age in the last years of the 19th century, the war symbolizes the potential for bigger and better things, not only on a national level, but on a psychological level for them as young men going out into the world. The idea of power expands both in the public and private spheres. 

You can find out more about False Fathers here and more about the series here.     

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New Year’s in the 19th century

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Photo Credit: Fanciful sketch of a New Year’s Eve celebration, Marguerite Martyn, 1914, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 4 January 1914, Editorial Section: BeenAroundAWhile/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

Since this is the holiday season, I’ve been reflecting on the holidays in history, particularly in the 19th century. I wrote about Thanksgiving and, in an older blog, Christmas in the Gilded Age. No historical holiday discussion could be complete without New Year’s.

We have a lot of New Year’s traditions, and it’s fascinating to see where they came from and why. For example, New Year’s has always been a social holiday, more so than Thanksgiving and Christmas, which have been (and still are) mainly family holidays. But the nature of that socialness has changed over time. In the mid-19th century, it was not uncommon to have a “watch night” on New Year’s Eve, where people (especially in rural areas) would watch and wait for the clock to strike midnight so they could leave their old sins behind and begin the new year fresh.

The ones who turned New Year’s into a party holiday was, not surprisingly, the Gilded Agers, and for the same reasons they turned Thanksgiving into a lavish extravaganza of dining out. They wanted to show off, to let all their wealthy and success glitter and glow, basking in their social and financial glory. So they began to throw lavish parties and “invitation only” balls, providing eight-course dinners, and generally making a lot of noise and spectacle. Many of the Gilded Age wealthy who had lavish summer homes in places like Newport started throwing extravagant parties for the new year in those homes that were the envy of may of their contemporaries and of the non-wealthy.

There were other traditions that became staples of what we accept as New Year’s celebrations that came in the 19th century. One of them is the singing of the song “Auld Lang Syne,” a song that signals the sentimental farewell to old friends and experiences. The song was actually an 18th century ballad composed by Scottish poet Robert Burns, and the tradition of singing it at midnight on New Year’s Day began in the mid-19th century, though it wasn’t until later in the 1920s that it became a permanent staple of our New Year’s celebrations.

And the famous New Year’s Eve ball, that gigantic globe of light that drops at midnight every year in Times Square? That originated in 1904 and was first dropped for on New Year’s Day in 1905. The original ball was seven hundred pounds of iron and wood and populated with a hundred light bulbs. The ball has been updated several times, the last time in 2008, so that it now weighs over twelve hundred pounds and, rather than be lowered by hand with ropes, now uses a laser atomic clock located in Colorado.

I don’t think it’s a far stretch to say that we still do, in a way, have our “watch night” where we wait impatiently for the midnight hour to strike so that we can let go of the old year and enter the new. In fact, the reason why New Year’s Day is January 1 has to do with just that idea. Julius Cesar was the one who implemented the new calendar year to begin on that day, naming the first month of each new year January after Janus, the Roman god of new beginnings. Janus has two faces — one face facing front and the another face in the back of his head. Why? So that he can look back to the past and look forward to the present and future. For anyone who has read my fiction, this is exactly what my characters do. So, in essence, if I had to chose a holiday that belonged to the Waxwood Series, it would be New Year’s.

To find out more about the Waxwood Series, please visit this link. The first book of the series, The Specter can be found here and the second book here. The third book will be out in the summer of 2020 and the fourth and last book will be out at the end of 2020 (just in time to celebrate the coming of another new year 🙂 ).    

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The Odd Duck: The Character of Jake Alderdice

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[Jake Teaser]

Photo Credit: Father and son (Thomas Hopewell and his son Timothy), Frank Buchser, 1861, oil on canvas, Galerie Koller: Botaurus/Wikimedia Commons/PD art (PD old 100)

In an earlier version of False Fathers, my second book in the Waxwood Series, Jake Alderdice tells his mother how people have always thought of him as an “odd duck.” To me, this summarized Jake’s character not only in the story but in the canon of my own writing.

I won’t lie. Writing about Jake was a struggle for me for many reasons. On the one hand, since the Waxwood Series is about the deterioration (physically, mentally, and emotionally) of the Alderdice family, Jake’s story had to be told since he’s Vivian Alderdice’s younger brother. But I was nervous about writing the story of a male main character, even though Jake’s psychological reality was familiar to me.

The story I conceived of Jake in the original 3-part novel about the Alderdice family (which I talk about here) included Jake’s story. In fact, his story is the only one that remains more or less true to my original conception of it from that novel, in the sense that Jake comes of age amidst psychological circumtances many young men usually don’t have to deal with. But I realized when I started rewriting the story that I didn’t really know Jake at all. My own uneasiness about writing male characters (especially central ones) kept me from really digging deep into his character. I knew some things about him — that he was an artist, taught by his grandmother, that his mother had a particular loathing for him she didn’t have for his sister, and that his identity as a man (and the only surviving male of the family) was instrumental to his evolution. I liked him, but he felt remote to me, much more so than his sister Vivian or Gena Payne, the main character in Book 3 of the series.

What gave shape to the character of Jake was the historical time frame. When I wrote the book as contemporary fiction, Jake didn’t seem all that much different from other young men. He didn’t go for “sowing his wild oats,” but so do a lot of young men these days. He was an artist, but so are many others. His mother treated him as if he were a mistake, but so do a lot of other mothers (unfortunately).

So why did the historical context change this? Simply, I started to see Jake’s character against the backdrop of the Gilded Age. The psychology of gender has always interested me, not only regarding women but men as well. When I started researching masculinity in the Gilded Age (some of which I talk about here and here), I realized how complex the idea of what it meant to be a man back then was, almost more complex than what it was to be a woman (since women had some support with the suffragist movement and the New Woman ideal). As I wrote the drafts for this book, I got to know Jake better and understood his struggle to figure out who he was, not only in the shadow of the family half-truths, lies, and myths, but with his own personality and quirks that did not suit the growing ideals of masculinity at the end of the 19th century. 

So he became a character I appreciated and thought I could make readers appreciate as someone looking for what he wanted to be in a chaotic world with contradicting messages and conventions (not unlike young people in our world today). I could see not only his struggles, but also what he learns about his family, those around him who profess to help him, and, most importantly, himself. 

To learn more about Jake, you can check out the series page here. To order your copy of False Fathers, which is now at a special preorder price, go here. Plus, you can read a bonus excerpt from the book if you join my readers group here.       

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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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Thanksgiving in the Gilded Age

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Photo Credit: “THANKSGIVING DINNER [held by] OCCIDENTAL HOTEL [at] “SAN FRANCISCO, CA” (HOTEL)”, 1891, scan by New York Public Library: Fee/Wikimedia Commons/PD scan (PD US expired)

For those of us living in the States, Thanksgiving is a big deal. The spirit of gratitude and giving prevails, as well as a sense of patriotism and pride. Thanksgiving is traditionally a time when people don’t necessarily dine with their families, and those who do often times have non-family members at their table. It’s not uncommon to be invited to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, if you don’t have family close by or can’t get to your family for the holiday.

As most of you know, my Waxwood series is set in the Gilded Age (roughly, the last quarter of the 19th century). I’m always curious about history as it relates to the present day, so I was prompted to ask the question, “How would the Alderdices (the series’ wealthy San Francisco family) have celebrated Thanksgiving, if they celebrated it at all?”

It turns out the Gilded Age aristocracy did indeed celebrate Thanksgiving, but not in the way we do now. When we think of this holiday, we think of a large table crowded with food, fall colored table settings, lots of kids and grandparents and aunts and uncles. That is, we think of family. Rosy cheeks, laughter and family jokes and memories abound. Our vision of Thanksgiving is like something out of a Norman Rockwell illustration.

But the aristocrats of the Gilded Age, both “old money” and “nouveau riche,” weren’t quite so committed to the idea of a family Thanksgiving. In fact, the opposite seems to have been true — Gilded Age swells saw Thanksgiving as a time to go out and dine at the fanciest restaurants or hotels. It was not unusual for Gilded Agers to feast on non-traditional Thanksgiving fair, such as oysters, turtle soup, foie graise, prime rib, and Petit fours. The image above of the Thanksgiving menu at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco (one of the swankiest hotels of its day) hardly looks like the usual turkey with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie most Americans feast on today.

We might be led to believe that wealthy Gilded Agers weren’t as family-oriented as we are today, but this need not be the case. As I pointed out in my blog post about the Gilded Age, people in this period in American history were obsessed with excess and an “over-the-top” feasting on life, especially those who could afford it. A family dinner at home simply did not fit in with their lifestyle. However, an extraordinary dinner at a fine hotel did, and many Gilded Agers used it as an excuse to show off their wealth and affluence, their lavish clothes and jewelry, and their ability to have a good time on a holiday.

If that sounds a little petty, keep in mind that the concept of a family Thanksgiving was foreign to the originators of the celebration as well — the Pilgrims. Pilgrims in the 17th century celebrated Thanksgiving with their neighbors and friends, often times without members of their families present, as many had stayed behind in England or had perished on the journey to America or in the coarse of their hard life on American soil. Historians have cited Prohibition in the 1920’s as well as the Great Depression in the 1930’s as reasons why the elaborate Thanksgiving festivities of the Gilded Age fell out of favor. That might be, but I’m guessing it was more about the post-World War II era in the late-40’s that made the concept of family more precious and more politically important to Americans. This is why Rockwell’s illustration became so much a part of the American psyche and thus, Thanksgiving became associated with an intimate portrait of family.

While Book 2 of the Waxwood series, False Fathers, takes place out of the holiday season, Book 1, The Specter, gives the reader a taste of how Thanksgiving was celebrated in the 1850’s. Interestingly, Penelope Alderdice, who is in Waxwood for the summer as a young woman, writes her mother about the holiday in April, not November. My research shows that the holiday started to appear at the end of the year in 1863, but I couldn’t find out why! Nonetheless, this winter holiday Americas are so used to is a spring holiday for Penelope in the book. Thanksgiving itself is perhaps less significant to Penelope than where she is spending it in the year of 1853 and with whom.

To find out more about the book and get in on a special Black Thursday/Cyber Monday discount (Amazon only), you can go here. To find out more about the Waxwood Series, this page will give you all the details.

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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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