Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Mount TBR #46

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Dear Dr. Menninger: Women's Voices from the Thirties - Howard J. Faulkner & Virginia D. Pruitt

This is an interesting collection of about 80 letters from American women to a famous advice columnist in the early 1930s. Readers of the Ladies Home Journal, the writers were usually educated articulate women who were facing the usual problems of life as an adult and troubles involving mental illnesses such as OCD, anxiety, and depression. Menninger’s advice column "Mental Hygiene in the Home" may sound quaint to us now, but his advice was lucid, concise, sound, and interesting to read though a bit on the repetitious side (“Go get professional help”). He is not shy, telling a writer “I think you are dead wrong. I think you have the wrong attitude toward your husband entirely ... I think there is still time to change, but get busy' (pp. 136-7).” I must admit that his advice about dealing with cheating husbands – pretend you don’t know, make a pleasant home he’ll feel comfortable in – does feel rather dated.

The main attractions to this book are the voices of the women. Certainly, the well-educated and fluent are represented here since such women were more likely to take pen in hand and describe their problems.

I am thirty-nine years old, have been married nineteen years, have two splendid girls in high school and two boys in their graves. I have undoubtedly lost whatever attractiveness I ever had, but I am in no way dirty or repulsive ... I am an easygoing, comfortable sort of person. My worst enemy couldn't say I was a nagger. I have a good education and have held several responsible positions both before and after marriage (p. 131).

Over and over again we read the poignant words, “I feel better for having written this out.” The problems are no less relevant today: the role of sexuality in their lives, philandering husbands, problem children, and in-laws that loved to make trouble.

Of course, the economic slump of the times casts a shadow, often exacerbating existing personal and social problems. Readers interested in the Thirties, advice columns, the popular press, and changes in attitudes and values in the US will find this an remarkable book. The unique voices of real people from that time can’t help but move and inspire us with their clear-eyed vision of their own situation.

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