The Atlantic Archives: Juxtapositions

by Conor Friedersdorf

In Cornelia Comer's 1911 piece, "A Letter to the Rising Generation," the reader is commended to seek out “a certain volume of memoir that gives a picture of New England life in the first half of the nineteenth century.” It tells of a “delightful lady” who is plain-living, high-thinking, and purposeful in going about her day:

Before the age of twenty she had read ‘all the authors on metaphysics and ethics that were best known, and throughout life she kept eagerly in touch with the thought of the day. this did not interfere with her domestic concerns, as they did not narrow her social life. If she arose at 4 A.M. to sweep the parlors, calling the domestics and the family at six, it was that she might find some time for reading during the morning, and for entertaining her friends in the evening, as she habitually did some three times a week. She managed a large house and a large family, and her wit, cultivation, and energy enriched life for everybody who knew her. She had no higher aim than to light and warm the neighborhood where God had placed her. She and her sisters had never dreamed of a life of ease, or of freedom from care, as anything to be desired. On the contrary, they gloried in responsibility... with all the intensity of simple and healthy natures.

That day is gone, not to return, but its informing spirit can be recaptured and applied to other conditions as a solvent. If that were done, I think the Golden Age might come again, even here and now.

Almost a century later, Caitlin Flanagan wrote an essay that proves an interesting companion piece:

De-cluttering a household is a task that appeals strongly to today's professional-class woman. It's different from actual housework, because it doesn't have to be done every day; in fact, if the systems one implements are truly first-rate, they may stay in place for years. More appealing, the work requires a series of executive-level decisions. Scrubbing the toilet bowl is a bit of nastiness that can be fobbed off on anyone poor and luckless enough to qualify for no better employment; but only the woman of the house can determine which finger paintings ought to be saved for posterity, which expensive possessions ought to be jettisoned in the name of sleekness and efficiency.

A generation ago peaceful cohabitation with a certain amount of clutter was possible, because so many other aspects of home life were ordered and regular. Perhaps only those of us old enough to have grown up in houses in which the old ways were observedin which dinner was eaten in the dining room, and care was taken not to track dirt on good carpets, and wet towels were not left to sourknow what is missing from so many homes today. The current upper-middle-class practice of outsourcing even the most intimate tasks may free up valuable time for an important deposition, but it by no means raises the caliber of one's home life. My children attend a rather soigné Los Angeles preschool whose élan was recently jeopardized by a recent outbreak of head lice. Parents were given brochures from a service that takes care of the problem in one's home. This seemed a more attractive prospect than spending a morning combing for nits. But on reflection, having someone come to my home to delouse my children seemed perilously close to having someone (presumably not the same person) come in and service my husband on nights when I'd rather put on my flannel nightie and watch Dateline NBC...

What's missing from so many affluent American households is the one thing you can't buythe presence of someone who cares deeply and principally about that home and the people who live in it; who is willing to spend a significant portion of each day thinking about what those people are going to eat and what clothes they will need for which occasions; who knows when it's time to turn the mattresses and when the baby needs to be taken out for a bit of fresh air and sunshine. Because I have no desire to be burned in effigy by the National Organization for Women, I am impelled to say that this is work Mom or Dad could do, but in my experience women seem more willing to do it.

That I quote these essays doesn't imply any opinion whatever on my part about the merits of their arguments. What I do wish is that I could eavesdrop on a conversation between Comer and Flanagan.