In the spring issue of the Washington Monthly, a surprisingly diverse array of voices pronounces the moment ripe, thanks to the swift acceptance of gay marriage, for tackling the “class-based marriage divide”—or at least for finally talking about the once polarizing topic. “Marriage can’t thrive as a gated community or an elite perquisite, and that’s where it’s headed if current trends don’t change,” warns David Blankenhorn, a co-director of the Marriage Opportunity Council, a bipartisan group eager to spread the message. In the worthy (and wonky) cover story, he and two fellow members urge broadening access to marriage as a strategic move in the battle against social inequality.
Arriving not just at the peak of wedding season but also amid this newly vocal worry over the marriage gap, The Marriage Book: Centuries of Advice, Inspiration, and Cautionary Tales From Adam and Eve to Zoloft is an especially well-timed counterpoint to all the earnest, alarmist policy talk. Scaled for an oversize Restoration Hardware coffee table, the glossy anthology presumes to be preaching to a converted, yet far from reverent, audience: readers ready to examine, from an amused anthropological distance, the best, worst, and most equivocal aspects of marriage. The book’s editors, the long-wedded writers Lisa Grunwald and Stephen Adler, aren’t wringing their hands over a cultural crisis or a precarious social rite, or trying to hammer out a marriage-promotion agenda. Rather, their trove of artifacts, collected over six years, is a revelation of the resilience, persistence, and capaciousness of, to quote Gabriel García Márquez, “the conjugal conspiracy.”
Crammed with everything from a Mesopotamian legal contract to New Yorker cartoons to modernist prose, the book’s 500-odd pages (lots of them illustrated) describe the many, often discordant, faces of marriage. Grunwald and Adler have organized their primary sources thematically: Rings, Honeymoon, Passion, Devotion, Food, Violence, Second Marriages, etc. The Odyssey makes a predictable appearance, as does The Feminine Mystique. There are prescriptions for housewives (“don’t despise the domestic potato”) and husbands (don’t kiss your wife “just after her makeup has been applied”) that seem as dated as they do eternal. You’ll discover the private patois of world leaders in its startling variety. “You are a wretch, very clumsy, very stupid, a Cinderella,” wrote Napoleon jokingly to his wife upon receiving from her, by post, only “six miserable lines”; Winston Churchill called his wife “Clemmie Kat,” and she called him “Pug.”
The editors include contemporary sociological statistics (“If you have two sons, you face a 36.9 percent likelihood of divorce, but if you have two daughters, the likelihood rises to 43.1 percent”) and a postcard from an Oregon hotel that once boasted a circular bed. There is an excerpt from Mrs. Bridge, Evan S. Connell’s masterful portrait of interwar marital ennui, along with one of the most famous fictional scenes of overwhelming post-wedding disappointment: Dorothea Brooke’s. “How was it that … the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband’s mind,” George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch, “were replaced by anterooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither?”