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2003-2004 Visiting Fellows

Rebecca Jo Plant
University of California, San Diego

My project, "The Repeal of Mother Love: Momism and the Reconstruction of Motherhood in Philip Wylie's America" explores the transformation of motherhood as a social and civic role, as well as a subjective identity, in the period from 1920 to 1960. I argue that these years witnessed the demise of a longstanding sentimental model of motherhood that celebrated the mother-child relationship as the most sanctified of human bonds. Beginning in the 1920s, and increasingly in the 1930s and 1940s, psychiatric experts and their popular exponents advocated a less emotive and intrusive maternal style - one that promised to foster the psychological autonomy that democratic self-government seemed to require. Although this new model stressed the importance of early mother-child attachment, it sought to limit maternal influence after the first few years of life, calling for greater paternal involvement as an antidote to potentially pathological mother love. Moreover, women were strongly discouraged from "living through" their children or deriving their entire identities from their maternal role. Preoccupied with averting crippling ties of dependency between generations, experts argued that mothers needed to be more emotionally self-sufficient, cultivating interests that extended beyond the home. Ultimately, I hope to show that the foundation for much present-day thinking about motherhood can be traced to the very period that is typically viewed (by both left- and right-wing critics) as so distant from our own.

My research in the Philip Wylie Papers at Princeton's Firestone Library is at the core of my project. An extraordinarily successful commercial writer, Philip Wylie (1902-1971) enjoyed a wide readership during the 1940s and 1950s; over the course of his career, he published over 34 novels, 13 nonfiction books, and countless magazine articles and serialized stories. His claim to fame, however, rests on his 1942 surprise bestseller, Generation of Vipers, a satiric critique of American morals and manners. In a chapter entitled "Common Women," Wylie attacked the iconic all-American Mother and diagnosed the nation as suffering from a severe case of "momism." Wylie's neologism was quickly appropriated by psychiatrists and sociologists, lending the concept a degree of professional legitimacy. As a result, Wylie came to be regarded as a popular expert on such subjects as motherhood, fatherhood, mental health, and sexual relations. His publications and his enormous body of correspondence - which includes thousands of letters from readers - is a treasure trove for anyone interested in how popular culture and psychiatric experts helped to reshape mainstream gender ideology in the mid- twentieth century U.S. Materials in the archive are valuable for shedding light on the close collaboration between psychiatrists and their popularizers, as well as the complex ways in which average, middle-class Americans responded to prescriptive literature.

I am very grateful for the Friends of the Princeton University Library Research Grant for allowing me to return to the archive as I begin revising my dissertation for publication. During my stay, I concentrated on fan mail that Wylie received in the 1950s. These letters demonstrate that the momism critique remained influential well into the Cold War, shaping the attitudes of a new generation of parents. In particular, numerous letters from women vowing to avoid the pitfalls of momism suggest that Wylie's caricature served as a powerful negative stereotype against which young mothers of the baby boom sought to define themselves. The Research Grant thus provided me the opportunity to gather sources for extending my narrative forward in time-sources that help demonstrate that an anti-maternal strain resided at the very heart of Cold War domesticity.


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