Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Hendrik Hartog's "Someday All This Will Be Yours"

Hendrik Hartog is Class of 1921 Bicentennial Professor in the History of American Law and Liberty at Princeton University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Someday All This Will Be Yours: A History of Inheritance and Old Age, and reported the following:
Someday All This Will Be Yours explores how family members solicited and produced old age care in the generations before World War II. It is a study both of how older people convinced younger ones to stay and work and about the arguments mobilized by younger people who fought to be compensated for the care they had provided. It offers a weird and different picture of nineteenth and early twentieth century family life than do most family histories. It focuses on negotiations and bargaining between family members around questions of care. The world it brings out is not one where family members worked together and shared an unconflicted “haven in a heartless world.” To the contrary, it is filled with dark stories about unsatisfied expectations and discomfort. It lends no comfort to those who might wish to return the care of dependent people to the private family.

The first half of Someday All This Will Be Yours is framed by what I call the “King Lear” dilemma. Older (or soon-to-be older) people struggled to secure care from mobile and free adult children and other younger people, without actually giving up power or control. A successful resolution of that dilemma depended on careful and constant mobilization of the language of “promise.” Older people promised, repeatedly and in many contexts and situations, to compensate those younger people who stayed to care. But the promise would be fulfilled only after death, through inheritance.

That language of promise was consciously ambiguous. Promises had to appear strong and unqualified, if younger people were to stay to work at home (and to give up economic prospects elsewhere). But, in order not to become like King Lear, the promisemaker could not offer an executed contract, an actual conveyance of property. Until death, the older person would, in theory, retain control. (In actual fact, of course, many older people would become actually dependent, might succumb to dementia or other disabling conditions, would lose control.)

Around page 99 I bring out the ways that language of promise often became something different when mobilized to keep a daughter at home, as opposed to a son. A daughter who stayed at home to do housekeeping, which might include intimate bodily caregiving to an elderly person, was often construed as doing what daughters did, as opposed to sons, who were understood as “naturally” moving away to seek trades and careers. As with everything in this difficult book, I move in two directions on page 99. On the one hand, I recount a modal case where a daughter lost in court because she was doing just what daughters did, because she conformed to gender stereotypes. The promises made by father to daughter would be reconstructed after her father's death as empty talk. On the other hand, I then qualify that overly simple picture by insisting on the ways needs sometimes overwhelmed conventional gendered categories and by reminding readers that parents often may have compensated daughters in other ways not revealed in the case transcripts.
Learn more about Someday All This Will Be Yours at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue