(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The daughter of the late American historian Christopher Lasch is editor of this volume of his spirited essays on women, romantic love and marriage, and feminism. All but one of the essays had been published elsewhere. Lasch’s ruminations on what he considered important questions in these realms occupied his thinking and influenced his work for many years. Questions about the place of women in society, the connections between love and marriage, and the roots of feminist thought have yielded conclusions not always congruent with reality, according to Lasch. The most recently written essay in the collection, “Bourgeois Domesticity,” was near completion at the time of the author’s death from cancer in 1994. In the two years that preceded his passing, Lasch himself chose which of his essays were to be included here. The selection is a good representation of his thought and its development, rather than a reflection of the mind of the editor.

Lasch’s aim is to demonstrate the connections between contemporary feminism and an emerging preference for intimacy as a basis for marriage. He critiques some facile and incomplete conclusions about society past that he believes infect modern thought. He believes that today’s extensive reliance on processes and institutions that are the legacy of the Enlightenment and its worship of reason has produced a new paternalism, heir to the patriarchy of past generations. Rather than increasing and assuring freedom for the family and for women, twentieth century professionalization has rendered modern life nearly devoid of intimacy and imagination and has bound it to a new form of oppression. The hegemony of reason has produced a magnifying glass that brings so much light and heat that it burns away the very life it scrutinizes.

The book is divided into two sections. Part 1, “Manners and Morals,” presents a historical cameo of life as it was lived and recorded prior to the modern era. The section includes four essays, somewhat uneven in what they offer the reader but clear in what they are trying to accomplish: laying the groundwork for Lasch’s conclusions. Lasch contends that much of what has been written about past institutions and practices is inaccurate, or at best incomplete. Some literature from the past, especially drama, may have exaggerated certain aspects of male-female relationships. The accuracy of the picture is further compromised when viewed by contemporary historians, feminists, and others through a murky lens, clouded by preoccupations with the abstract question of gender. Lasch sees this as the wrong question.

Part 2 offers his vigorous and sometimes caustic commentary on modern society and its chroniclers. It includes, for example, some rather direct shots at Carol Gilligan, one of feminism’s contemporary heroes. This seems to be the more successful section of the book. Its representative essays are more even than those in part 1, and it takes on the concrete issues of modern feminist and male scholarship with a decisive cutting edge. Lasch’s assertion that society has moved “from patriarchy to neopaternalism” informs its content.

In the first essay, “Comedy of Love and Querelles des Femmes,” the author enters the persistent debate about the nature and place of women in society. Lasch questions the common wisdom that medieval courtly life reflected misogyny. His read on the period suggests that rather than a “diatribe against womanhood,” the quarrels over women that are represented in the literature of the time were really intended as lighthearted play, in which both sexes are the target of satire. The author shifts the question from abstract thinking about women to the actual status of women as lovers and as wives. He defines the issue not as a detached dispute about whether women are equal to men in general but as an exploration of the relative equality of women in different social constructs. This theme, the need to locate questions about women in historical context rather that to distill them into a dualistic mind-body dichotomy, is consistent throughout the essays.

Selections in the first section of the book are not evenly rendered. Some are so generously punctuated with quotations and ideas from other sources that the casual reader may be reluctant to continue. The second essay, a review of a book by Jean Hagstrum, abandons the reader to mine Lasch’s themes and thinking in the ore of another’s work. Yet Lasch is not reticent in presenting his reaction to Hagstrum’s position. This review becomes another opportunity to reassert Lasch’s belief that the contemporary imagination and emotional...

(The entire section is 1881 words.)