But time and again Odysseus turned his face toward the radiant sun, anxious for it to set, yearning now to be gone and home once more … As a man aches for his evening meal when all day long his brace of wine-dark oxen have dragged the bolted plowshare down a fallow field – how welcome the setting sun to him, the going home to supper, yes, though his knees buckle, struggling home at last.
– The Odyssey
G.K. Chesterton’s famous quip – “Ten thousand women marched through the streets shouting, ‘We will not be dictated to,’ and went off and became stenographers.” – has not endeared him to feminists, for whom it smacks of radical sexist reactionaryism. But while I do not question the quip, I do question if it is sufficiently radical. For what, I ask, were those 10,000 men doing, such that they needed those 10,000 stenographers? For as long as the present generations can recall, it has been the norm that a man should leave not only mother and father, but also wife and children, and cleave to his desk. And while the two do not thereby become one flesh, the unity of man and desk at times eclipses that of man and wife. But it was not always so.
In 1820, the earliest date for which I can find reliable statistics, some 2.1 million men in the United States worked in “farm occupations” – that’s 72% of the work force. It is worth remembering that by 1820, the industrial revolution was in full swing, siphoning men off the land and spitting them into the factories, meaning that were we to possess reliable statistics going even a little farther back, we would find a considerably higher percentage of men working the land. A significant percentage of the remainder would have been employed in the trades: blacksmiths, wheel-wrights, butchers, bakers, candlestick-makers. Many of these, especially in the smaller towns, would have worked out of shops attached to their own homes. And while some of those working in “farm occupations” would have been working as hired labor, most would have been tilling the fields of their own ancestral homesteads.
In other words, until quite recently, a huge percentage of men worked – as we now say about a privileged class of telecommuters – “from home.” There are fantastically good arguments in favor of this arrangement. Not least of these are the psychological and spiritual health of the man and the unity and stability of his family. Any man in a happy marriage with children who has had the good fortune (as I have) to work from home will know what I mean: there is a “wholeness” that comes of having the whole of one’s life revolve around that most vital fact of one’s identity: one’s vocation as husband and father. A man working from home is a man with an undivided heart. This is especially true if his spouse is also at home, for there then opens up the possibility of forging an intimate partnership of effort: two souls striving for one goal, united in one mind, one heart, one flesh.
Camille Paglia recently complained that, because children are no longer taught the rudiments of history, most people are incapable of conceiving that anyone has ever lived any way other than how we currently live, or that any other way of living could possibly have anything to recommend itself. Our chronological snobbery is such that our forbears are deemed inferior merely because they did not live precisely as we do, not having, for instance, the cleverness to invent air-conditioning, or advertising, or abortion. History is therefore conceived of as a dauntless march to the pinnacle of human progress – i.e., the present.
Most of us are aware of the sexual revolution and the secondary migration of women from the home that preceded it, but no one considers the primary migration that preceded both, and which set the stage. Conservatives are fond of pointing out how an autocratic feminism that urged women to join the workforce at pain of being branded traitors to their sex has fragmented the family. But they are not nearly conservative enough. They have forgotten how the mass movement of men from the household, often under coercive external pressure, drove in the first wedge. If the subject ever comes up, it is assumed that it was necessary, unavoidable. But usually we don’t even get that far. Because our historical memory is so short, we cannot conceive that things ever were, or could still be, otherwise.
Perhaps there even is something to be said of the remnants of a “toxic masculinity,” which can think of its women only in terms of the caricature of the 1950s housewife, but which never thinks to turn its critical gaze back upon itself. Some, it seems, still do consider the 1950s housewife the crowning archetype of femininity. This is not so. She, poor creature (and I speak of the collective caricature, and not its individual incarnations) was a freak of nature, a curious experimental specimen cultured in a petri dish. The 1950s housewife found herself squeezed into the airless space between two epochs – between the old economy with its farms and household shops and the new with its steel skyscrapers and computers. She played the part of the housewife as in a pantomime: Hoovering the floors, catching up on her soaps, and donning high heels and a dress to welcome home her man after a hard day’s work flirting with his secretary. What a difference between this evanescent, eviscerated figure and the commanding mistress of the household of old, skillfully managing the myriad details of the lives of her husband, children, and (in any family of means) household staff, whilst often contributing directly and meaningfully to its solvency. It is no wonder that this shadow of femininity yearned for something more and settled upon what appeared from afar to be the more substantial world inhabited by her husband.
Well-meaning Christian wives are sometimes wont to unearth the syrupy advice aimed at the 1950s “good housewife.” Here, for instance, is a brief excerpt of some such advice that has made the rounds widely on Christian blogs: when your husband gets home from work, “Have a cool or warm drink ready for him. … Speak in a low, soothing voice. Allow him to relax and unwind.” Certainly, don’t speak first or complain about your day, but instead “try to understand his world of strain and pressure and his need to unwind and relax.” Much of this advice has the advantage of being deliciously counter-cultural, recommending an ethos of radical self-sacrifice that subverts the excesses of feminism and bears at least a superficial consonance with Paul’s epistolary advice to wives. And yet, while there is certainly something to be said for correcting the swing of the cultural pendulum, there is a sinister side to this Good Housewifely advice: namely, it assumes that the worlds of husband and wife have scarcely anything to do with one another. This is especially true of the husband’s world, that higher orbit in which he spins and from which he daily deigns to descend into the nucleus of the home, and into which the wife can only peer uncertainly.
Indeed, it is curious that while the mockery of this caricature of femininity has long been common sport, so little attention has been paid to the equally questionable caricature of the 1950s husband, with his briefcase, brown suit, political cant, thinly veiled misogyny, and tragic cluelessness about the lives of those closest to him. It is here that we find the genesis of that now ubiquitous clown of modern media: the weak and hapless father who is an obstacle and an embarrassment to his children, a man who knows how to manage spreadsheets and his expense account, but little more. If a woman’s choice to self-sacrificially adopt the role of the “Good Housewife” might offer a kind of corrective to the radical individualism of the feminists, we ought still to wonder where we might find the companion “Good Husband” handbook – the one in which men are enjoined, upon arriving home, to resist the temptation to recede into the interior fog of their weariness and to turn on the TV, and instead to be present to their wives and children.
If we simply accept that the industrial revolution drove men into the factories, and from there the technological revolution drove them the cubicles, it is time to expose the hidden cost upon which both were predicated. It is quite simply true, historically speaking, that for the average man to wake up every day and to leave his home and wife and children – not as an exception in time of war or other necessity, but as the universal norm – and to spend the better part of his life in an office working amidst perfect strangers is an anomalous thing. We are so accustomed to scoffing at the anachronistic arguments against women’s working in what was once the sole domain of men, that we have forgotten to ask how it is that nearly all our men got there in the first place.
Let us at least disabuse ourselves of the notion that it was voluntary. Dickens first memorialized the sufferings and degradation of the first-wave industrial workers, seized by abject want from their farms and crowded into fatally filthy cities and factories. Later Steinbeck, in The Grapes of Wrath, scathingly dramatized the Depression-era travails of American farmers, whose lands were repossessed and turned over to industrialists when they defaulted on their loans. Then, a few decades later, in The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry exposed the federal policies in the U.S. that deliberately drove small farmers off the land in favor of large-scale industrial enterprises. That process continues today. And yet, if the gleam of highly efficient factory farming seemed irresistible in the ’50s, surely it is less so now, when some 1% of our population – and a rapidly aging one at that – is engaged in the one industry that keeps the other 99% of us alive.
While it is true that we oughtn’t romanticize pre-industrialism, which, for all its cultural vitality, suffered rampant warfare, disease, and child mortality, neither must we romanticize the industrial and technological revolutions, with their callous, impersonal, and antiseptic cult of efficiency. We may never be able to return en masse to the farms or workshops, but there is value to be had merely in mourning for what has been lost, which process reminds us of what we might yet be. A man working his own fields was his own master, the sweat of whose brow was poured out directly, visibly in creating a home; his partner was not an impersonal investor, but flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone; and the subordinates alongside whom he toiled were not querulous strangers, but his own children, fruit of his loins. This is what has been lost in the two-century-long transformation of house as home into house as waystation: that luxurious modern repository for food, a bed, and distraction, barely inhabited by a loosely knit community of transients, for the sake of which we shoulder a lifetime’s servitude to debt.
Chesterton was the great champion of the romance of domesticity. For this he has been deemed a sexist reactionary. I would like to rescue him from the charge simply by observing that a great deal of what he wrote about women could and should be applied to men. Consider:
There have been household gods and household saints and household fairies. I am not sure that there have yet been any factory gods or factory saints or factory fairies… The place where babies are born, where men die, where the drama of mortal life is acted, is not an office or a shop or a bureau. It is something much smaller in size and much larger in scope. And while nobody would be such a fool as to pretend that it is the only place where people should work, or even the only place where women should work, it has a character of unity and universality that is not found in any of the fragmentary experiences of the division of labour.
This is a typical example of Chesterton’s argument that, by and large, women’s lives were impoverished when they “advanced” from the broad and mystical realm of the home into the narrow and mundane world of the office. It seems obvious, however, that if the realm of the office is so narrow and mundane (which, if it is a rhetorical exaggeration, points to the truth), then it must be equally narrow and mundane for the men as for the women, and if it is a terrible impoverishment for a woman to go from being the goddess of the hearth to the purveyor of widgets, certainly there is something equally tragic for man to have gone from being the master of fields to the pusher of pencils.
When it comes to the differences of men and women, Chesterton argues that women are generalists and men are specialists. There is something about men that has tended toward a narrower specialization of effort, and that has always been more outward-looking. The hearth has never been the dominant domain of men. The field and the forge are intimately connected to and draw their life from the hearth, but they are nevertheless apart, in the peripheries of the homestead. Men naturally tend toward the peripheries, and at times, by necessity or innate drive, to the far extremities, as adventurers, statesmen, soldiers, and sailors. Nevertheless, this drive to the extremities has ever been healthy only insofar as it has referred back to the hearth. A man who has forgotten the hearth has forgotten his heart: he is a man adrift at sea, and there is no telling upon what alien shore he may be washed up, or to what mischief he may then direct his powers.
It may not be immediately possible to change the place they work, but it is possible to change the way they work, and live – that is, with an eye always to the locus to which all of their work ought to be referred: the home. Odysseus wandered far, as men are apt to do, and at times allowed his heart to wander with him, as men are also apt to do, but there was that in him which was akin to the sturdy, rooted trunk of the olive tree that formed one of the four posts of his marital bed, a symbol of fruitfulness and permanence in the heart of the home. And that something worked to his salvation, referring all of his wanderings, labors, and sufferings back to the center, and ever enticing back to his rightful place, that rightful place of every married man – in the home.
This article first appeared in Gilbert! magazine, the official magazine of the American Chesterton Society, and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe to Gilbert!, click here.