In the past week, New York Times columnists David Brooks and Ross Douthat have taken on the issues of personal behavior and social norms among people less economically fortunate than themselves. That’s not how they put it, of course. Douthat wants to address “the social crisis among America’s poor and working class,” while Brooks, never one to shy away from a supposedly telling sociological detail, claims to be concerned with the welfare of “high-school-educated America.”
It’s the usual neo-conservative pablum. The social revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s led to a devolution in “norms,” as Brooks puts it, wiping away “basic codes and rules.” Douthat views the world of our ancestors as a paradise lost. “In a substantially poorer American past with a much thinner safety net, lower income Americans found a way to cultivate monogamy, fidelity, sobriety and thrift to an extent that they have not in our richer, higher-spending present.”
It’s a lovely story—our long-suffering but morally upright great-grandparents. They didn’t have a penny to spare, but they still found the wherewithal to scrub their children behind the ears. Too bad it’s a pile of steaming horseshit.
One of the things about growing up as girl interested in history is that if you want to read a book with a female protagonist, you end up reading a lot of tales filled not with gold seeking adventurers, but domestic drama and day-to-day life—books like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The book is the bildungsroman of Francie Nolan, a young girl growing up grinding poverty in pre-World War I Williamsburg, at the end of the first Gilded Age. Francie is widely thought by critics to be a stand-in for author Betty Smith—the word “autobiographical” appears in almost all critical considerations of the book.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of those tales that the patina of time allows us to call heartwarming, but is in reality heartbreaking. The world portrayed by Smith is more akin to Dickens than the world imagined by Douthat and Brooks, and certainly not one you’d like to think is based on a true story. It features an alcoholic father and a mother way too overwhelmed by the need to support the house to show much love to her children. A pervert wandering her tenement attempts a sexual assault on the prepubescent Francie, but her mother stops the assault with a gun.
The Nolan family savings account—a tin can nailed into a closet—is constantly being raided. Francie’s Aunt Evy’s husband abandons his family. Another aunt “gets around,” as they used to say. The only reason Francie gets a decent education is that she convinces her parents to fake an address in a better neighborhood. Even still, she’s forced to drop out of school when her father dies and her mother is unable to support her family on her own.
Of course, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is hardly alone in its bleakness. The recent publication of an all-but-forgotten memoir by Laura Ingalls Wilder portrays a much darker world than the one we read about in the Little House books. This tale features wife beaters and murderers, and the supposedly morally upright Pa skipping out of town without paying the rent. Publishers of the 1930s passed on Wilder’s true-life tale, only responding when she and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane (who complained in her diary of growing up with “no affection, poverty, inferiority”) turned the rejected manuscript into the more homespun Little House in the Big Woods.
It seems that even at the time, few readers wanted to hear the truth. Just as our own age does, the late 19th and early 20th century attracted a goodly share of two-bit moralists who confused cause and effect when it came to the lives of the lower classes. As historian Stephen Pimpare has pointed out, constant efforts were made to separate “the ‘worthy’ from the ‘unworthy’ poor.” Plenty of educated and prosperous people parroted these sentiments. When the young Francie Nolan writes about the truth of her life in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the response from her teacher is less than sympathetic:
Drunkards belong in jail not in stories. And poverty. There’s no excuse for that. There’s work enough for all who want it. People are poor because they’re too lazy to work. There’s nothing beautiful about laziness.
Indeed, like Francie’s relatives, many of the poor of the first Gilded Age led less than exemplary lives. Family abandonment was, if not common, not unheard of. If a parent died, the surviving children ran a decent chance of being placed in an orphanage by the surviving parent. (If you have any nonagenarian relatives, ask them about this stuff the next time you visit them.)
This world receded, not because post-war Americans suddenly acquired morals, but because they achieved prosperity, not to mention a social safety net through such innovations as Social Security. It was an uncomfortable part of our family and national memory, and not something many wanted to remember. So we allowed ourselves to forget.
But as our economy has faltered, as income and wealth inequality have soared, and family and government supports have been dismantled, the supposedly disordered existence of the poor has made a return. The second Gilded Age is imitating the first. None of this history features in the columns of Brooks, Douthat or others like them, however, who all warble on about an imaginary past.