Anger: The Struggle for Emotional Control in America’s History
Carol Zisowitz Stearns and Peter N. Stearns
University of Chicago Press $24.95 (cloth)

Beyond Ethnicity: Descent and Consent in American Culture
Werner Sollars
Oxford University Press $24.95 (cloth)

OVER the past fifteen or twenty years, anger and ethnicity have become heated topics in adult popular culture—of the kind that provides reliable fodder for endless Donahue shows. At a time when consumer choice is celebrated (“born to shop” says the new T-shirt) and lifestyle pluralism still tolerated (even in the eighties), they join such trivial and nontrivial topics as nostalgia, child-rearing, religion, and upscale ice cream as matters about which we are constrained to have opinions, to make choices, and to take sides.

Add the understandably strong desire to believe that our preferences are not simply arbitrary but grounded in conclusive facts, common decency, or self-evident good taste, and we can understand why the air is, filled with swirling currents of little ideologies: kids need discipline/kids need freedom;  life is empty without religion/religious zealotry has killed more people than science at its most destructive; nostalgia is the trivialization of the past/nostalgia is the retrospective construction of historically shared identity. In the present case, the dialectics are: venting your anger is good for you/civilization is repression; and, social mobility is what America is about/to lose one’s ethnic heritage is to lose everything authentic about oneself. But neither of the books discussed here is a likely prospect for the usual five-minute hold-up on Good Morning America.

CAROL and Peter Stearns teach at Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon Universities, and have three doctorates between them, two in history, one in medicine (psychiatry). Their book is an initial venture into a new field they call “emotionology,” by which they refer to the norms and conventions societies devise to evaluate and otherwise control emotions. A history of American emotionology about anger, it is a book with a thesis to argue: from the late eighteenth century, Americans have mounted an increasingly repressive “campaign against anger.”

Since the colonial period, when anger (particularly by employers and other bosses against employees and other subordinates) was pretty much taken for granted and simple prudence expected in expressing it, this campaign has gone through several phases. In the early nineteenth century stem warnings against the expression of anger became common, particularly in domestic settings and especially for women, who were responsible for maintaining the home as the proverbial haven in a heartless world. Later, strong efforts were made to “channel” anger into sports (boxing gloves became common presents for young boys), business enterprise, and other appropriately vigorous activities. Gradually the campaign reached into the business world itself, where Taylorism, the precepts of Dale Carnegie, and the managerial techniques taught in the Harvard Business School reined in anger at the workplace and shifted much of the tension between anger and its control back to home and hearth.

If this sounds like an historical preparation for a let-it-all-hang-out solution to the problem of anger control, it isn’t. The anti-anger campaign has succeeded all too well with the Stearnses, for all that they believe it has made us “uncomfortable and confused” about one of our sharpest emotions, and has had other negative effects on the “American personality.” In their effort to avoid being identified with the other extreme of “emotional liberation” they are more than occasionally given to such banalities as “Anger can be dangerous; it must always in some way be constrained; but it cannot and should not be eliminated”—as if there were any real possibility of that. The Stearnses apparently think there is, for their book is in part an effort to demonstrate that the attempt in the “sixties” by the counterculture (a word that doesn’t appear in the book) to re-emotionalize middle-class interpersonal relations was only a minor sociological blip (among earlier such blips). In the mid-seventies, they say, the campaign resumed with renewed force—to the point where control was directed not only at the expression of anger, but at the emotion itself, whose very incipience was now likely to trigger guilt.

THE Stearnses base their claims on marriage manuals, child-rearing tracts, diaries, letters, popular fiction, advice-texts, and other spigots of conventional wisdom. They know that this evidence comes predominantly from middle-class people (and was probably meant to be read by other middle-class people), and they do make some gestures of recognition that conclusions may not be valid for other social strata. But the gestures, ritually made, are typically forgotten, as the authors hurry toward their generalizations about “America.” Moreover, the periodization is not neat, and there is also substantial counter-evidence which, as responsible historians, they cite some of. But it is the oscillations in the focus of efforts at anger-control among home, workplace, and school, as well as the more or less constant ambivalence between the derogation of “anger” and the approval of masculine aggressiveness, righteous indignation, and holy wrath, that add very knotty ambiguities which eventually consume the energy of this book.

A campaign against anger suggests purpose, organization, and personnel devoted to the implementation of more or less official policies. Yet the evidence in this book is mostly the expression of private individuals, and one looks in vain for any coherent analysis of the organized groups promoting or opposing punitive sanctions on anger, or of whose interests gained or lost in the struggle.  Instead there is a mish-mash of references to economic, bureaucratic, and religious causes, and to “autonomous standards” of anger control mysteriously internalized by us Americans.

Occasionally, some hints do come through of what the Stearnses would like to say were they only less timid about overstating themselves. There are, for example, references to how the campaign against anger attempted to undermine the “emotional bases for grievance,” to “limit almost everyone’s anger while allowing particular emotional prerogatives to those at the top of the heap,” but “did not entirely succeed” (whatever that means) in stifling political protest. The Stearnses, in short, do seem to understand that venting or repressing anger has something to do with power, hierarchy, and social control, and that interests in and resources for controlling other people’s anger and coping with one’s own are unequally distributed, but patterned by class, gender, and perhaps ethnicity. Yet they don’t have any real theory to explain the persistence and change in the emotionology of anger over the more than two hundred years they cover.

I suppose that a scholarly history of American emotionology about anger is better than no book at all, and I suppose that we should be grateful for this beginning. But it’s disappointing to be unable to drum up a response stronger than gratitude about a book on so dramatic a topic, and I wish that its evidence were sufficiently convincing to allay the doubts about its thesis that common experience generates. Granted, there are plenty of people frightened even by the prospect of becoming angry. But if the campaign against anger has been as successful as the Stearnses say, what are we to make of the mayhem in the nation’s urban ghettos or the gallons of blood dripping from American screens? What are we to make of the instant sloganizing of “make my day!” from that Clint Eastwood film? Or of the popularity of spaghetti westerns and martial arts and Rambo-ism and cries of revenge against terrorists and contempt for “wimps” and a president who angers easily and is loved for it? More minor blips? Seething ressentiment? Substitute gratification? Righteous wrath? Are these working-class phenomena whose nineteenth-century equivalents somehow slipped through the sieve of the Stearnses’ middle-class sources? There are lots of plausible answers, which means that there are no compelling ones, and that’s a pity because Anger is a book that might have provided some.

IF, by attacking the very organic sources of feeling, the campaign against anger can be considered an effort at body snatching, then the “Roots”-driven revival of ethnic pride in the seventies can be characterized as a reaction against the soul snatching of Henry Ford’s version of the melting pot, which all those immigrants march into, ethnic and colorful, and march out of, rather like Model Ts, in identical business suits, carrying American flags.

In Beyond Ethnicity, such resistance reflects a permanent tension in American culture between  “descent and consent.” The two terms form an especially illuminating pair, more flexible and analytically deployable than the sociological equivalents that refer to the opposition between status claims based on ascribed (or inborn) criteria and those based on achievement or choice. In this “polyethnic” nation we have grown accustomed to thinking of ethnicity as something fixed, given, natural, primordial, permanently “deep,” whereas its opposite—call it assimilation, universalism, cosmopolitanism, modernism—is bland, shallow, alienating, effete.

These are volatile issues, and Werner Sollars takes them up with appropriate seriousness but, to his great credit, utterly without the piety or pandering of most writers on ethnicity in America, who tend to keep looking nervously over their shoulders for reassurance that they haven’t offended any important ethnic constituency. Although Sollars is not a sociologist, his sociological theory is sharp and up-to-date. Ethnicity, he keeps reminding us, is a social category, and, like other such categories, is not permanently inscribed by nature but socially constructed and periodically remodeled over time; its significance lies not in any specific cultural content that a given ethnicity usually purports to describe, but in the boundaries it attempts to erect and the membership criteria it attempts to enforce.

SOLLARS’S insights have their own lineage. Eric Hobsbawm has made the point that “traditions” are invented and always selectively shaped (Sollars quotes Leslie Fiedler observing that the white man who raped and impregnated Kizzie is somehow excluded from Alex Haley’s roots); and the point about boundaries was made effectively (though not without controversy) by Fredrik Barth, whom Sollars also cites. But the insights don’t have to be totally original to make this a wonderful book. With confidence and great good humor, Sollars shows us that the dichotomies of blood/water, nature/culture, achievement/ascription, destiny/choice, and indeed descent/consent are not nearly so absolute and impermeable as their conventional usage suggests. To be Black or Brown or Jewish or Native American or otherwise “unmeltably” ethnic is not passively to accept a reified identity imposed either by  prejudiced others or by official spokespersons for one’s own ethnic group; both may have interests in freezing extant definitions of inclusion and exclusion. Although American culture is to some extent forged in the conflict between the descent dimension of ethnicities and “the promise of America,” ethnics in effect consent to those features of descent that they can live with, and ignore, reject, or otherwise struggle with the rest on American ground. “Enough ethnic distinctions have emerged in the United States to put the theory of old-world survivals to rest.” We make our own history, in short, but not under conditions we have entirely chosen.

Beyond Ethnicity, though, is neither a polemical nor a hortatory book. Sollars is a scholar of American literature (he’s also head of Harvard’s Afro-American Studies program; only Harvard would have the chutzpah to appoint a white German-American to such a post), and although he uses the work of social scientists as successfully as any literary scholar I’ve ever read, his book is devoted primarily to the analysis of literary materials with ethnic themes. From Biblical exegesis by Puritan divines to the films of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Gene Wilder, and with lots of novels, plays, poetry, and autobiography submarine-sandwiched between, Sollars shows us how the double vision (descent/consent) of ethnicity is inscribed in the American experience.

He is especially good when showing how the establishment of romantic love as a basis for marriage was connected to the power of consent in American culture (vs. the descent-emphasis of arranged marriage); how it often opposed spouses to parents and evoked both blessings and curses form the latter; how the idea of the honeymoon (in which only the newlyweds went on the trip) was connected to the need to establish a family by choice; how Niagara Falls as a honeymoon place was connected to Indian legends of tragic lovers leaping into gorges.

THIS is poignant stuff, but Sollars resists the temptations to bathe it in a rosy glow. He knows his ethnic literature so well (including a pidgin-German curiosity published in Cincinnati toward the middle of the nineteenth century), and sees so many paradoxes in it, that the temptations to moralize pale beside the attractions of analyzing so many interesting and complicated facts: that origin myths almost always exaggerate the “purity” of descent; that the New York ethnic stage early in this century, far from being quaint and provincial, was more modernist than mainstream theater; that the well-known “third-generation” hypothesis was largely the creation of second-generation Americans; that the striking parallels between Black and Jewish literary renderings of the problems of intermarriage and assimilation enabled some commentators to speak of “Bluish” literature.

Although “ethnic” has ancient Greek roots and originally meant gentile, i.e. “other” (gradually taking on the meaning of alien or absolute other), the noun “ethnicity” came into common English usage only after the Nazis had discredited the linguistic currency of “race.” There is still some controversy among scholars over whether race and ethnicity are most usefully conceived as entirely separate categories (biology and culture) or whether race should be understood as one among other dimensions of ethnicity. Sollars opts for the latter; largely, I think, because the identity-struggles so evident in his literary materials impress him with the fact that although “race” may be permanently visible, its meanings register variably over time; and Sollars is interested in the meanings of ethnicity.

He finds such meanings in the work of Charles Chesnutt and Abraham Cahan, Ludwig Lewisohn and James Weldon Johnson, Israel Zangwill and Malcolm X, Alex Haley, and W. E. B. Du Bois, as well as in the invention by one generation of the Indian as noble savage and the satirical destruction of that myth by another generation. From these and other accounts by European and other immigrants of the  American experience with ethnicity, we learn of course that blood may be thicker than water; but we learn too that blood can be watered and water blooded. The meanings of where one has come from are  always subject to redefinition and are likely to be reinterpreted so long as descent and consent remain essential parts of the language of American identity. Heritage, then, is selective; but choice is always constrained. These are paradoxes that Americans have been learning to live with for a long time. Sollars is right, of course, that “polyethnicity” is increasingly the norm among nations, and that the self-congratulatory rhetoric of the United States as the nations of nations is far off the mark. But all it takes is a quick look around the polyethnic world to conclude that, as polyethnics, we Americans are luckier than most; and luckier, perhaps, than we deserve.