Fatherless America Analysis

Fatherless America (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Blankenhorn, the founder and president of the Institute for American Values, has produced a thought-provoking work. His book offers five distinct benefits. First, it offers statistical information about fatherlessness in the United States. Next, it sets out a typology of fathers, or—in Blankenhorn’s language—the paternal “characters” who dominate the American cultural narrative. The book presents a rounded theory about masculinity and the place of fatherhood in the shaping of male character. Blankenhorn also offers a list of twelve concrete proposals for redirecting American public policy as it touches on fathers and families. Finally, his book exemplifies a literary style blending scholarly and popular modes of writing. Every step in the generally conservative argument Blankenhorn develops, however, is controversial.

The dimensions of the problem of fatherlessness are staggering. Blankenhorn claims that within this decade, “the total number of father-absent homes created by unwed childbearing will surpass the number created by divorce. In this respect, unwed parenthood will soon become the nation’s principal cause of fatherlessness.” For some father-free child rearing is a voluntary matter: Nearly 10 percent of all births deriving from artificial insemination by donors (some three thousand births per year) are to unmarried women. The very fact that women are choosing to rear fatherless children indicates that inherited norms regarding family and fatherhood have shifted in profound ways.

To Blankenhorn, the unruly nature of male passions results in an all-or-nothing understanding of the paternal station. Either one is fully a father or one is a single male, living in a quite different moral world. By his definition, fathers are continuously present to their children. They subscribe to the “fatherhood code,” the ultimate expression of which is the ideal of the Good Family Man. The core values of this ideal are provision, protection, nurture and sponsorship, and such values are fulfilled differently by males. All of them are aspects of paternal love, which is different from—though complementary to—maternal love. “This difference takes us to the heart of the matter,” Blankenhorn asserts.

Sources for Further Study

The Christian Century. CXII, May 17, 1995, p. 546.

Commentary. XCIX, April, 1995, p. 60.

Contemporary Sociology. XXIV, September, 1995, p. 653.

The Economist. CCCXXXV, April 8, 1995, p. 79.

Futurist. XXIX, September, 1995, p. 61.

Los Angeles Times. March 8, 1995, p. E1.

The New York Times Book Review. C, February 19, 1995, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, December 12, 1994, p. 56.

Reason. XXVII, August, 1995, p. 52.

The Wall Street Journal. February 16, 1995, p. A12.

Fatherless America (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The cacophonous cultural debate about “family values” has not gone unnoticed in the academic community. On the contrary, a huge literature on family life, manhood, fathering, parental roles, divorce, and family policy has arisen. Were David Blankenhorn’s chapters worthless, his “Notes” section—running more than eighty pages—would rescue this book. They provide an extremely useful indication of what one might find in scholarly sources such as Demography, Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, Population Studies, Family Relations, Media & Values, and Psychology of Women Quarterly.

Yet Blankenhorn’s chapters are the very opposite of worthless. They offer the reader at least five distinct benefits: statistical information about the nature and extent of fatherlessness in the United States; a typology of fathers—or, in Blankenhorn’s language, the paternal “characters” who dominate the American cultural narrative or “script”; a rounded theory about masculinity and the place of fatherhood in the shaping of male character and satisfaction; a list of twelve concrete proposals for redirecting American public policy as it touches on fathers and families; and a literary style that blends scholarly and popular modes of writing. Every step in the argument Blankenhorn develops is controversial, and its generally conservative nature ensures that he will be vigorously challenged.

Whatever one’s political persuasion, it is difficult to find good news in the statistical pictures of America’s families. Whereas in 1960, 81 percent of U.S. children lived with both biological parents, only 58 percent did in 1990. In 1990, more than 35 percent of children lived apart from their biological fathers, compared to 18 percent in 1960. Children living with never-married mothers are an exploding population group, their number having increased tenfold in thirty years. African American sociologist William Julius Wilson reports that “the number of black children growing up in fatherless families increased by 41 percent between 1970 and 1980, and most of this growth occurred in families in which the mother had never been married.” Blankenhorn claims that if current trends hold, within the 1990’s “the total number of father-absent homes created by unwed childbearing will surpass the number created by divorce. In this respect, unwed parenthood will soon become the nation’s principal cause of fatherlessness.” Some father-free child-rearing is chosen voluntarily: Nearly 10 percent of all births deriving from artificial insemination by donors (some three thousand births per year) are to unmarried women.

The very fact that women are choosing to rear fatherless children indicates that inherited norms regarding family and fatherhood have shifted in profound ways. Blankenhorn argues that the popular television character Murphy Brown’s choice of unwed motherhood reflected new legitimacy for the growing conviction that fathers are unnecessary. This conviction, sustained and strengthened by American culture’s fascination with individualism and the idea of boundless freedom, imperils American childhood and threatens civilized order—such is Blankenhorn’s most fundamental claim.

He develops his critique of “expressive individualism” (a term borrowed from Robert Bellah) by analyzing a series of ideal types of the father—figures who populate the stories people tell one another about fathering, its blessings and dangers. Blankenhorn discerns three “leading characters” and “five minor roles”: the Old Father and the New Father are the principles, with the Unnecessary Father functioning as an omnipresent “chorus” to the action. The Deadbeat Dad, the Visiting Father, the Sperm Father, the Stepfather, and the Nearby Guy—these are minor players, though very important ones. Each of these types is given a chapter in the book.

Blankenhorn positions his discussions of the New Father and the Deadbeat Dad next to each other, and the way he contrasts them reveals his general position. The New Father is the androgynous, flexible, vulnerable hero of today’s advice books on fathering. He has reacted to the Old Father, who was role-bound, patriarchal, authoritarian, distant, and oriented to a masculine world of work. The Old Father (in the eyes of his cultural critics) used his position as breadwinner to dominate and often bully or abuse wife and children. The New Father refuses to let earning a living divide him from his children. Indeed, he moves smoothly from work routines to child-rearing, from counting house to playhouse. Responding to the critiques of feminists and the men’s movement, he opens to his feminine side—his capacity to nurture and express emotion. “He is a healer, a companion, a colleague. He is a deeply involved parent. . . . Among the stars of today’s fatherhood script, he is the one good man.”

Blankenhorn himself finds the New Father ultimately subversive of the...

(The entire section is 2053 words.)