November 2009

Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die.  By Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. ISI Books. 169 pages. $25.

Miss Betsey: A Memoir of Marriage.  By Eugene D. Genovese. ISI Books. 137 pages. $25.

Mankind's primal social contract, now in tatters, undergoes some fearsome scrutiny in these very different books. The first volume is a wife's academic analysis of the marital bond drawn from her lectures at Princeton in 2003, and the second is her husband's chronicle of their own marriage. This couple made an unlikely match: Elizabeth Fox-Geno­vese was the doted-upon, treasured child of WASP parents; Eugene D. Genovese, more than a decade her senior, is the issue of gritty Sicilian-Americans of working-class Brooklyn.

Fox-Genovese (1941-2007), a prolific writer, editor, and media commentator, earned a Ph.D. at Harvard and was Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History at Emory University, where she was the founding director of the Institute for Women's Studies. She received the National Humanities Medal from President George Bush and the Cardinal Wright Award from the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. Her book Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die is not a collection of grueling, arcane treatises; rather, its rigorous logic brims with delightfully anecdotal accounts of the "historical, moral, and cultural foundations of marriage…."

Examinations of premodern marriage reveal that love had long been unbundled from marriage -- economic necessity was the horse pulling the carriage. For most of history, personal safety was found in numbers, and arranged marriages expanded a group's alliances, population, and power. Individual needs were subordinated, but clans kept couples together throughout doldrums and disasters. Fox-Genovese recognized that ancient marriage needed work, declaring that the "Old Testament often offers a less than appealing picture" of the bond, and that 20th-century gains in women's status "were long overdue."

Discussions of radical indi­vidualism's goal -- personal gratification through endless lifestyle "choices," including same-sex marriage -- underscore the devaluation of the nuclear family as rights trump responsibilities: "Today, Americans have endowed the liberation and the rights of the individual with a preeminence and sanctity that set them apart from virtually every other known society." Fox-Genovese believed that same-sex marriage "will decisively contribute to disaggregating all of the remaining social institutions that provide the foundations for any collective resistance against political and economic domination." Worship of diversity (almost a cult phenomenon) has shattered "a generally binding code of right and wrong."

Pope John Paul II's teachings on strong intact families inspired material on the plight of children. Fox-Genovese focused on the radical-feminist agenda that views childcare as "work fit only for servants." No-fault divorce, promiscuity, and abortion have yielded an implosion of marriage; children are no longer the heart's desire, "the fruit, gift, and blessing of a marriage." Products of this strange new savagery are on display everywhere -- neglected little ones and alienated, nihilistic teenagers ravaged by corrupt entertainment. The author insisted that children's "sexualization alone should be enough to indict our culture for terminal decadence." As for musical-chairs family combinations, she claimed that "adults may be able to survive this madness," but it's "doubtful that any significant number of children will survive it, as the mounting evidence of their distress amply warns."

The eminently practical professor rested her case on the global record: "Throughout history, religious authorities have displayed a special interest in marriage, presumably because they, like political authorities, have viewed marriage and the family as fundamental agents and sites of the ordering of human life." The decline of traditional marriage transforms many a young male into a perennial man-child -- sullenly self-centered and spiritually stunted. Problems with unmarried young men plague all cultures, but our rampant licentiousness celebrates venal, feral bachelors, while at the same time witless radical feminists coldly denigrate male contributions to family and civilization, ignoring the fact that most of the world's dirty, dangerous work is borne by men.

Fox-Genovese proclaimed that "only organized religion -- in the broad ecumenical sense -- has the resources to promote and nurture a lasting moral renewal." Though some folks think we might be inching away from the abyss, she remained guarded, glumly noting that "none of us can confidently assess the upheaval through which we are living."

Eugene D. Genovese (born in 1930) penned Miss Betsey: A Memoir of Marriage in loving tribute to his wife and their many years together. Genovese, a cradle Catholic, left the faith and became a teenage communist. In early middle-age (after two failed marriages), he was a history professor at Sir George Williams University in Montreal. When he met Elizabeth in 1968, he was living "an academic workaholic's dream" with generous helpings of self-indulgence. As Marxists back in the 1970s, the pair was amazed by radical Catholics espousing liberation theology; they considered the "ideological blending of materialist Marxism and Christianity an absurdity."

Genovese's book takes a measured look at academia -- that wondrous world of flexible schedules, professional autonomy, travel opportunities, job security, innumerable perks, and prestige -- instructive to individuals distanced from the ivory tower. While working at the University of Rochester he assailed the many universities that were dropping required courses on Western civilization: "A new generation of ideologically motivated educators put an end to the requirement, denouncing it for Eurocentrism or some other hate crime." Genovese also has terse comments for the radical leftist feminists who despised his wife, and calls their movement "barbarous."

A lively disparagement of Manhattan culture amuses, but then again Genovese sings the praises of Emilio Pucci dresses. No asceticism here: passages cataloging the joys of upscale shopping, cooking, movies, baseball, pets, professional rivalries, and the minutiae of household management pepper many pages. Although Genovese's book is beset by slips into sentimentality, those incidents are mere specks in the eye of a heartbroken widower.

Genovese returned to Catholicism after his wife converted in 1994. Two scholars with impeccable work ethics and exquisite expertise in history, culture, and morality moved handily toward traditionalism. Geno­vese echoes his wife's sorrow at our cultural devastation throughout his book, even as she warned of growing chaos in a new millennium: "For, as seen in historical perspective, our contemporary situation is indeed something new under the sun."

- Mary McWay Seaman





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