The Dream That Refuses to Die

by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

ISI, 225 pp., $25

If you own a television set, you most likely have witnessed one or more of the following: the didactic yammerings of Dr. Phil; the blissful testimonials of couples who met through an Internet dating site; the lovelorn jottings of the world's most famous fictional sex columnist, Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City. All of these individuals have shared their deep (or not so deep) reflections on romantic love, shaping our opinions--or at least prompting some passing thoughts--on the role of marriage in our society.

As we're inundated by these dramatized depictions of marriage, it is refreshing to sit up and get a scholarly perspective on the subject. And the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, celebrated historian, teacher, and founding director of the Institute for Women's Studies at Emory University, gives us that perspective. In 2003, President Bush awarded her the National Humanities Medal; that same year Princeton invited her to be a distinguished visiting scholar. Marriage grew out of three 90-minute lectures on the historical, moral, and cultural foundations of marriage she gave at Princeton, but Fox-Genovese did not live to see their publication, dying in 2007 at 65.

Nor did she have the chance to put the final touches on this immensely thought-provoking volume, including a preface. And so her editor, Sheila O'Connor-Ambrose, stepped in to write an introduction--an eloquent tribute to Fox-Genovese's intellect, strong Roman Catholic faith, and her "shining full-hearted" 38-year marriage to Eugene Genovese, the great historian of the South.

O'Connor-Ambrose shares a powerful fragment Fox-Genovese had written for a preface:

Marriage for love--the promise of an enduring and engulfing bond between a man and a woman--is a dream that refuses to die. In defiance of the rising tides of cynicism, sexual liberation, promiscuity (before, after, and during marriage), and declining interest in children, the dream still promises that we will finally be loved as we long to be loved.

This introductory quotation, and the book's title, belie what's inside: a serious, exacting analysis of the institution of marriage and the ways in which it remains under attack. Fox-Genovese roiled academia when, in the 1980s, she evolved from "Marxist-inclined feminist to conservative public intellectual," as her New York Times obituary puts it, and her abandonment of liberalism, secularism, and the sexual revolution, as well as her embrace of Catholicism, affected her writing in profound ways.

But Marriage is neither a sermon nor a self-help book; nor does it explicitly espouse any outdated notions of what a husband and wife ought to be. It is intellectualism, with a warning: Same-sex marriage, our society's unhealthy obsession with individualism, and our culture's devaluation of children will sound the death knell of marriage as a vital institution.

"Oh, marriage will survive as one 'lifestyle' choice among many," she writes, "but as no more than that."

The notion of marriage as the union of one woman and one man has been dissolved in a flood of options, reduced to the status of one "choice" among many. And if the gravest and most sacred features of human existence are reduced to matters of style, why should we care which styles others may choose?

By lifestyle choices, Fox-Genovese is not referring only to same-sex marriage; she cites abortion, cohabitation, even polygamy, as "lifestyle choices" that have torn at the fabric of traditional marriage. And when she is not defending the sanctity of marriage, Fox-Genovese features historical background on how attitudes toward sexuality and the purpose of marriage have changed over the centuries.

Her discussion of how love is portrayed in literature--from Romeo and Juliet's "consuming love" to the "courtly love" of Arthurian legends to the "tempered love" embraced by Jane Austen's heroines--is particularly fascinating. (Indeed, Austen treated marriage for love with great caution--though each of her heroines does marry for love.) How, then, do we reconcile love and marriage?

Fox-Genovese asks the genuinely perplexing questions that are the centerpiece of so much great literature: "Could marriage domesticate the unruly force of love? And could passionate love survive the daily demands of marriage?" These are ancient questions, but no less relevant today. And just like that, Fox-Genovese makes "Carrie Bradshaw" look like the amateur she is.

So far as I can tell, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese seems to have realized her dream: She married for love, and her marriage was one of mutual contentment. She was "loved as she longed to be loved." I suspect that Eugene Genovese must be proud of his late wife's vigorous defense of marriage and the family, and her message. And even though she is gone, and despite all the obstacles standing in its way, I suspect that the dream will live on, and so will this exceptional book.

Erin Montgomery is a writer in Washington.

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