Battleground of Desire: The Struggle for Self -Control in Modern America

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In recent years, Peter N. Stearns has established himself as the foremost historian of American emotional life. In books on anger, jealousy, "coolness," and body image, he has mapped out the basic terrain of the American psyche.

Now Stearns crowns his work of the past decade with this powerful volume, in which he reveals the fundamental dichotomy at the heart of the national character: a self-indulgent hedonism and the famed American informality on the one hand, and a deeply imbedded repressiveness on the other.

Whether hunting and gathering tribe or complex industrial civilization, every social group is governed by explicit and implicit guidelines on how to behave. But these definitions vary widely. The Japanese worry less about public drunkenness than Americans. Northern Europeans adhere to stricter standards than Americans when it comes to littering. Today, we swear more now and spit less, discuss sex more and death less.

With an emphasis on sex, culture, and discipline of the body, Stearns traces how particular anxieties take root, and how they express inherent tension in contemporary standards and a stubborn nostalgia for the previous nineteenth century regime.

Battleground of Desire explodes common wisdom about Americans in the twentieth century as normless and tolerant, emphasizing that most of us follow a litany of rules, governing everything from adultery to bad breath.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
The study of manners, rudeness, and personal comportment might seem elusive for researchers interested in how social mores and cultural and economic forces have intersected in different periods of U.S. history. But both Caldwell, a literary critic, and Stearns, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, have uncovered a wealth of fascinating material that sheds new light on the processes by which moral values and rules about personal behavior have been made, enforced, broken, and discarded by successive generations of Americans. Stearns's approach is more comprehensive--his focus is on patterns of self-control and social regulation from the Victorian era to the late 20th century, and he tackles such topics as hygiene, child development, and human sexuality. He finds that the "American approach to control surely tends toward excessive worry and self-denigration." Some Americans "may impose so many standards on themselves that enjoyment and releases become excessively difficult." As a result, "we may not, to put the case bluntly, have enough fun--even as we divert ourselves by buying another product or watching another show." Meanwhile, Caldwell emphasizes the rise of self-appointed "etiquette watchdogs" and the difficulties that even the most sophisticated moralists encounter in trying to formulate coherent guidelines for personal behavior in the office, on the subway, at weddings and funerals, and in cyberspace. Both books have their virtues as works of scholarship, but of the two authors Caldwell is the more lively by far; his book has that "can't-put-it-down" quality that is the mark of an exceptionally strong prose stylist. The result is an insightful and amusing study that deserves a wider, nonspecialist audience.--Kent Worcester, Marymount Manhattan Coll., New York Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Stearns (history, Carnegie Mellon University) explores the history of American self control and discusses the wide social implications of self control as a characteristic prescribed by every culture in different ways. He investigates issues that define American attitudes towards morality, sexuality, and disciplines of the body, covering the Victorian legacy through current norms. In comparing trends throughout our cultural history, he points out that there has been no collapse of impulse control or moral demonstration between the eras, only a shift in form. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814781289
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/1999
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.19 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter N. Stearns is Provost and University Professor at George Mason University. Since 1967, he has served as editor-in-chief of The Journal of Social History. His numerous books include World History in Documents; American Behavioral History; and Anxious Parents.

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Table of Contents

I The Issues
1 The Heart of the Matter 3
2 Models and Guidelines 30
II The Victorian Legacy and the Beginnings of Change
3 The Victorian Style 55
4 Transitions 92
5 Causation 107
III Twentieth-Century Standards
6 New Combinations 133
7 Sexuality 187
8 The Body and Health 252
9 Addiction and Disease 291
IV Conclusions and Suggestions
10 Conclusions 323
11 An Agenda for Evaluation and Change 353
Notes 369
Index 427
About the Author 434
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