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Framing American Divorce

From the Revolutionary Generation to the Victorians

Norma Basch (Author)

Available worldwide

Paperback, 249 pages
ISBN: 9780520231962
August 2001
$29.95, £22.95
Divorce has become one of the most widely discussed issues in America. In this innovative exploration of the phenomenon of divorce in American society, Norma Basch uses a variety of analytic perspectives to enrich our understanding of the meaning of divorce during the formative years of both the nation and its law, roughly 1770 to 1870. She provides a fascinating, thoughtful look at divorce as a legal action, as an individual experience, and as a cultural symbol in its era of institutionalization and traces the powerful legacy of the first American divorce experiences for us today.

Using a unique methodology, Basch fragments her story into three discrete but chronologically overlapping perspectives. In Part I, "Rules," she analyzes the changing legal and legislative aspects of divorce and the public response to them. Part II, "Mediations," focuses on individual cases and presents a close-up analysis of the way ordinary women and men tested the law in the courts. And Part III, "Representations," charts the spiraling imagery of divorce through various fiction and non-fiction narratives that made their way into American popular culture during the nineteenth century.

The composite picture that emerges in Framing American Divorce is a vividly untidy one that exposes the gulf between legal and moral abstractions and everyday practices. Divorce, Basch argues, was always a focal point of conflict between the autonomy of women and the authority of men. Tracing the legal, social, and cultural experience of divorce allows Basch to provide a searching exploration of the limits of nineteenth-century ideals of domesticity, romantic love, and marriage, and their legacy for us today. She brings her findings up-to-date with a provocative discussion of the current debate over fault or no-fault divorce.
Norma Basch is Professor of History at Rutgers University, Newark, and the author of In the Eyes of the Law: Women, Marriage, and Property in Nineteenth-Century New York (1982).
"Anyone who imagines social lament over divorce to be a very recent phenomenon should read Norma Basch's book, which tells a fascinating set of stories about law and about culture in the United States, from the forging of divorce provision in the Revolutionary era to the moral ambiguities and acknowledged hypocrisies it caused a century later. Tacking between the social facts of rising divorce and the alarmed or enthusiastic commentary on it, Framing American Divorce guides us through the social landscape of nineteenth-century America."—Nancy Cott, author of The Grounding of Modern Feminism

"A careful, fascinating study of divorce in nineteenth-century America, which penetrates its legal logic, its diverse passions, and its prurient appeal."—Joyce Appleby, coauthor of Telling the Truth about History

"In a pathbreaking study that situates legal history in the larger social and cultural context of nineteenth-century America, Framing American Divorce transforms our understanding of the sexual and social contract that has defined our most intimate relations. Executed with a singular power and persuasiuveness, Basch's narrative is a compelling rereading of the past that has resonance for the present.—Mary C. Kelley, Dartmouth College

Scribes Book Award, American Society of Writers on Legal Subjects

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