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Till Divorce Do Us Part
It has been with us since Plymouth Colony. But that’s not why it’s an American institution.
November 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 7
The politics of prudery, and the prudishness of politics, have a long history. In 1828, when Andrew Jackson ran for the Presidency, a group of moral guardians, who also happened to be his political opponents, dredged up the decades-old circumstances of his marriage and his wife’s previous divorce, which were confusing at best, compromising at worst. Jackson’s enemies charged adultery, living together without benefit of clergy, and bigamy (though the last two could scarcely have existed simultaneously). He “tore from a husband the wife of his bosom,” testified one congressional candidate. BASE, WANTON, AND MALIGNANT FALSEHOOD , shrieked the equally excitable Jacksonian press. True, the scandal grew out of the circumstances of the divorce, rather than the issue of divorce itself, but until no-fault sundering arrived on the scene, and even since it has, the devil has always been in the lurid details.
As the country grew, Americans on the move divorced more but disapproved of it no less. Before 1900, no magazine except the radical Arena defended the right to divorce, and fiction was equally recalcitrant. When a divorced man proposes to a respectable woman in an 1865 novel titled Out in the World , by T. S. Arthur, she tells him, “I regard an offer of marriage from you as little better than an insult.” The 1880s and 1890s were a good period for the divorce novel, though few of these were any good by literary standards. Lawyers were typically given names like Mr. Sly, and the repercussions ran to alcoholism, business failure, ill health, and even death. When the literature was actually good, divorce fared better, though the portrayal of public attitude toward it was more scathing. In Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country , the heroine who is cavalier about divorce is ironically outwitted by it. But The Age of Innocence paints a chilling picture of a woman imprisoned by society’s prejudice against divorce.
Although moving pictures, more democratic mirrors and makers of opinion, did not give divorce a good name, they did occasionally give it a fair shake. One study found that of 24 films dealing with divorce in 1931 and 1932, fully 22 treated it sympathetically. A few years later, in Dodsworth , an underrated gem of American filmmaking, a luminous Mary Astor tells a long-married Walter Huston, “I used to be a British subject by marriage. I don’t know that one can be a British subject by divorce.” Astor’s tone is wistful, but the message is subversive. A divorced woman can make a better helpmate than a long-time wife.
Much of the literature on divorce took the form of advice manuals. Even here, the blush of shame would not fade. As late as 1947, a primer called ABC of Divorce asked such pertinent questions as “Have You Considered the Attitudes of Others?” and “Where Does the Boss Stand on Divorce?” and answered, “Prepare to get a mild brush-off from all but your most intimate women friends,” and, “[Many employers] maintain, with some justification, that a divorced person is not as steady or satisfactory an employee as a married one.” A decade earlier, Harper’s Monthly ran an article called “Thrice Married,” by Anonymous. Though the writer compared herself to a woman in a similar situation “now so well-known that I need not mention her name,” the fact that Anonymous would identify neither herself nor Wallis Warfield Simpson indicates the aura of disrepute that still clung to divorce, or at least to divorcées. (While a man is merely divorced, a woman is that racy breed, a divorcée.) Nonetheless, Anonymous shows a certain swaggering pride at her success in the marriage sweepstakes. “I would rather be envied than pitied. I would rather be judged a hussy than a wife who couldn’t hold her husband. But the truth is that I have been married three times just because I am not lightminded about marriage.” The last sentence is the giveaway. Like pornographers who camouflaged their dirty books in innocuous brown wrappers, marriage experts hid their happily-ever-after hints between the covers of divorce handbooks.