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November 14, 2008

Three approaches to Utopia
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 07:29 PM * 71 comments

1. First Contact

I’ve recently finished reading a first-contact story from one of the great names in SF.

It’s about a stranger who turns up, naked and starving, outside a slaughterhouse in a small California town. He cannot communicate with the people around him. The sheriff, uncertain what to do with him, puts him in a jail cell, where he is plagued with curiosity-seekers. News gets out of his appearance. A couple of young academics who have—by coincidence—been working on the stranger’s language, hear about the find and contact the sheriff. They establish communication and bring the him back to their museum.

The book then takes a break from the narrative and spends some time examining the stranger’s former world. It details the customs of its inhabitants, the nature of its landscape and its history, and the creeping disaster that doomed all but one of its people. This is the weakest part of the book, because the social structure it describes seems to exist without dissidents, without conflict, without mechanisms for dealing with misdeeds. I find the people’s death entirely realistic, but their life is too simple.

The final section of the story covers the stranger’s life in our society, and it is the most compelling part. He lives for a few years in a museum, teaching his new friends about his culture and his technology and learning a little about ours. His friendships with his hosts are lovingly and touchingly described. Sadly, in the end, he dies of a disease which, though common among his hosts, proves deadly for him. He is cremated after a brief autopsy, but his true legacy is the change that he has wrought in his hosts.

Sweet but formulaic, you say. But there’s a twist: it’s not fiction; it’s based on real events starting in 1911. I’m describing Ishi in Two Worlds, by Theodora Kroeber, published in 1961.

2. Broom Closet

Theodora Kroeber knew about Ishi partly because she married one of his closest friends, though she never met the last of the Yahi herself. One of the couple’s children grew up to write science fiction and fantasy. Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, has been one of my favorite authors* since my mother read me Rocannon’s World when I was 8.

Many of Le Guin’s early stories feel like meditations on Ishi’s experience as the lone representative of his culture in an alien world: Genly Ai on Gethen, for instance, and Shevek on Urras. Rocannon on his world. It’s not surprising, since that story will have been woven into her household culture throughout her childhood.

But equally interesting is how much her writing contrasts with the idealized picture of Yahi life that her mother presents. The utopian Always Coming Home includes characters who are shiftless and quarrelsome. Shevek’s anarcho-syndicalist society on Anarres is populated with a believable proportion of flawed, selfish and unjust people. And “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is, of course, the ultimate rebuke to pastoral idealism: the vivid reminder that there is always a price for the smooth running of a society, and that if you don’t see it, that just means that it is hidden somewhere, starving in a broom closet.

3. Hillerman is dead

Skype conversation with my mother, edited for brevity:

11/4/08 10:28 PM	Did you hear that Tony Hillerman died last week?
11/4/08 10:46 PM	I did.  Well, he was in his 80's.
11/4/08 10:46 PM	I know, but he did such good work
11/4/08 10:47 PM	He did.  I finally got tired, though, of the idea that no Navajo
                        could ever do any bad thing, it always had to be the anglos.
11/4/08 10:48 PM	Yes, what would have been really interesting would have been to do
                        a Murder of Roger Ackroyd with Joe Leaphorn
11/4/08 10:48 PM	THAT would have been a neat book.
11/4/08 10:48 PM	yeah.  Or something outside of the Noble Savage mold.

I stand corrected on the above; Hillerman did have Navajo characters who chose to do serious wrong. I still would have loved to read a Leaphorn version of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, though.

- o0o -

These relatively disjointed meditations are brought to you by the Myth of the Noble Savage and its recent descendant, the Myth of the Small-Town Real American.

* Really. My teddy bear is named Ursula.

Comments on Three approaches to Utopia:
#1 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2008, 06:49 PM:

I think that Noble Savage was named Lo, as in "Lo, the Indian. . ."

#2 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2008, 06:58 PM:

What about the myth of Savage Nobles?

#3 ::: Hmpf ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2008, 07:09 PM:

Currently reading Always Coming Home. It's a lovely book. I'm reading it very slowly, so as to savour it more thoroughly.

[Forgive me if I have recommended this here before: people who enjoy Le Guin, and also people who are interested in believable fictional societies (that aren't necessarily either utopian or dystopian) and the complicated interaction of different cultures, including examinations of the 'Noble Savage' cliché, may enjoy the fabulous comic Finder. It's my favourite comic bar none, and one of my favourite pieces of speculative fiction in general. I love it so much that I'm currently trying (and failing spectacularly, but that's not Finder's fault) to write my m.a. thesis about it.

#4 ::: DBratman ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2008, 07:26 PM:

If you don't mind, I'd like to pre-empt a common misleading idea about Ishi here. When it's said that he "lived in a museum," apparently people sometimes get the idea that he was on permanent display in a living-history diorama or something like that, and the anthropologists get criticized for treating him as an exhibit.

That's not what happened. As Ishi did not want to go back to his wilderness life - as you point out, he was naked and starving; that's why he'd come out - there was the question of where he could go and what he could do in a modern society he knew nothing about.

So he went to live in a small custodian's apartment in the museum building and did some caretaker work. And he did what you might call ranger talks for museum visitors - demonstrating how to make bows and arrows, stuff like that - as well as describing his life and civilization for the anthropologists, as they were eager to learn and he wanted to tell them, as he knew very well this was the only way any of it would survive him.

#5 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2008, 07:47 PM:

Yow. I never even knew what her K stood for, and it turns out there's a life-shaping story behind it....

#6 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2008, 08:22 PM:

I highly recommend Ishi's Brain by Orin Starn. There is a great deal of irony as the descendants of his enemies do their best to retrieve his remains and dispose of them properly. But most of the book is about trying to understand who Ishi was, on his own terms as much as possible. He comes across as a complex and interesting person. His life was tragic, but not sad.

Then there is Ishi: The Last of the Yahi, a play that was produced at Theatre Rhinoceros in San Francisco. I'm glad I saw it. It was loosely based on Starn's book, although maybe "inspired by" would be more accurate. There were some scenes where the scriptwriter felt that Ishi's story wasn't awful enough already, and pepped it up with a bit of extra stuff he made up. But I loved the acting and the energy level and the intelligent dialog and the rock climbing. It's definitely the best queer radical leftist take on Ishi's life that I've seen.

#7 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2008, 08:42 PM:

Whoa. Whiplash of the brain. Ishi's story has been told a couple of times on our ABC. Most recently in an April 2008 All in the Mind progam – Disembodied brains, culture and science: Indigenous lives under gaze. You might like to read the rest of their story.

Reading the first part of the post I thought 'a story based on Ishi'; then it actually was the story of Ishi.

Re-reading Always Coming Home after some decades might be illuminating.

List of 2008 'All in the Mind' programs linked pages:

#8 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2008, 08:50 PM:

@2: Not a myth. In fact, it's a candidate for a sort of Prachettian anti-myth, something actually true but covered by a deceptive myth or legend.

#9 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2008, 08:57 PM:

Kevin Marks @2:

They are no members of the common throng;
They are all noblemen who have gone wrong.

#10 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2008, 09:49 PM:

I finally got tired, though, of the idea that no Navajo could ever do any bad thing, it always had to be the anglos.

In Skinwalkers, Navajos are committing the murders. Of course, they have been manipulated by the anglo doctor (sorry if that's a spoiler for anyone).

Still, the story develops the notion that murders among the Navajo are often motivated out of fear of witchcraft. Joe Leaphorn is a Navajo-atheist, out of revulsion for this dynamic, which he has seen frequently in his career.

#11 ::: Don Fitch ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2008, 10:03 PM:

I think your mother is mistaken. My memory is too weak for citing examples, but it's strong enough to be reasonably certain that Hillerman depicted a substantial number of bad Indians. It's just that they were almost all relatively minor characters.

What we need to recognize, perhaps, is that Hillerman was writing Cautionary Tales, against an Evil that certainly existed (& still does) in North American Indian cultures, but was almost (I say cautiously, having considerable ignorance in this field) universally reviled and warned-against. This Evil is individual Greed -- for money, or status.

A certain segment of Anglo culture, however, holds this to be a Virtue. Individualism, riches, power, success, fame -- all tend to be admired almost in and for themselves, with near-adulation of the people who achieve them -- with little or no attention being paid to the ruthlessness and harm-to-others involved in getting there. It seems to me to be appropriate that this evil be personified by Anglos.

I do wish he'd tackled the handful of Navajo & Lakota local Politicians who have mastered that Anglo quality so strikingly, but probably he considered it too much of a hot potato. And, after all, he was writing for Anglos.

I don't suppose the Navajo would have the adage "You can't get rich if you take care of your family right" if there weren't quite a few of The People who didn't share their wealth with their extended family & Clan & Band & Tribe the way the social _mores_ consider proper, but I don't recall anything in a broad reading of their Creation Stories and Mythology that extolled Greed.

#12 ::: caroline gaudy ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2008, 12:19 AM:

I recently found my old copy of Ishi in Two Worlds and better yet, an unopened cassette tape from god knows where of Ishi himself. Haven't listened to it yet (must find a cassette player) but am very curious. I'm guessing all this is from my misspent yout' as a cultural anthropology undergrad. Most of us at that time (early 70s, Univ. of Pennsylvania) were long-time science fiction fans and knew of LeGuin's background. If memory serves, SF has a goodly number of cultural anthropologists in the ranks. Joan Vinge comes to mind. While definitely not a requirement for successful universe or utopia building, it does sometimes give a greater depth of field.

#13 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2008, 01:17 AM:

I mentioned somewhere else this week- someone on my friends list having linked to a story in Mental Floss about the disappearance of the Anasazi- that Bill Lipe, southwesternist archaeologist, gifted teacher, and sometime president of the Society of American Anthropology- kept a collection of copies of The Dispossessed in his office, and passed them out to his students with a strong recommendation to read that book as anthropologist looks at an unfamiliar culture.

I'm bemused by Hillerman's stories being described as "noble savage" tales; not only are there murderers in Skinwalkers but drunks, bad parents, worse children, and all manner of normal humans behaving badly while Navajo (or Hopi, or other) people his books. Even Jim Chee is capable of being a complete drama queen, and Leaphorn is a grouch.

#14 ::: Chris Lawson ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2008, 02:35 AM:

I'm going to add my voice to #10 and #11. I read a few of Hillerman's novels and I never came away with the impression that the Navajos were saints and the anglos villains. Even when the villain was anglo, it was very common for him to be manipulating aspects of Navajo culture of which Joe Leaphorn expresses some exasperated criticism.

#15 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2008, 03:51 AM:

The problem with the Hillerman books (much as I love them) is that all of the flaws of Navajo society are portrayed as products of the intrusion of the white world onto a previously intact community.

It's not as stark as Kroeber's portrayal of the Yahi; there are mechanisms for dealing with social discord and bringing it back to harmony (Jim Chee's sideline as a singer gives us a lot of insight.)

But the books express the underlying idea that white society is, uniquely, structurally flawed, and an agent of corruption. In shorter terms, whites can be truly evil, but Navajo never seem to be worse than misguided, usually led astray by white society.

Some of it, as Don Fitch says, he was writing for Anglos. But that's the point: we're just casting our shadows onto the screens of other cultures.

#16 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2008, 07:00 AM:

Hillerman poking fun at himself: apparently he had done the reading for some of the audio books of his stories. He claimed that some of the Navajo 'cool kids' would deliberately mispronounce Navajo words to match the mispronunciations on his tapes.

I read that story in an AARP magazine a few years back, in which he and Sue Grafton were being simultaneously interviewed, and conversing with each other.

#17 ::: Irene Delse ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2008, 07:52 AM:

Abi: "The problem with the Hillerman books (much as I love them) is that all of the flaws of Navajo society are portrayed as products of the intrusion of the white world onto a previously intact community."

I didn't get that impression. Sure, Hillerman expressed a lot of sympathy for Navajo, Hopi and Zuni cultures, and was ready to point to the flaws of the white anglo civilization. But he also showed some negative aspects of Navajo life: his heroes often come across problems stemming from the belief in witchcraft, for instance. Not only the murders in Skinwalkers, but also instances of people being driven out of their community because they are suspected of witchcraft (or they fear they will be and flee).

And then, there is the character of the boy in The Dance-hall of the Dead, a Navajo who is not happy in the Navajo world and want to become a Zuni, because he doesn't like living a long way away from other people with only his immediate family. He feels lonely and envies the life of his Zuni friend in the "anthill at the center of the world" (as they call they pueblo). When he encounters the boy, Joe Leaphorn reflects that it must be difficult to be a Navajo if you are a very sociable kind of person.

#18 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2008, 09:25 AM:

OK, I'm overstating it.

But the fact remains: the murderers in his books were Anglos. When Navajos killed people, it was still the Anglos' manipulation that drove them to it.

From a writer of murder mysteries, that is significant.

Don't get me wrong - I still love his books. And I loved the sly cross-references between him and Roger Zelazny; I hadn't realized they were friends till I saw them citing each other.

#19 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2008, 10:52 AM:

abi, Hillerman is addressing acculturaion and culture change in contemporary reservation life, and yes, indeed, many of the difficulties of life in those situations come from the disintegration of traditional social controls under the pressure of new physical and social culture. From my perspective (what Hillerman describes, explicitly, as "neighbor and friend" as well as lapsed anthropologist), much of what he writes about- especially the impact of boarding school education, military service, and urban relocation- is spot on. It's not a matter of blaming the white man so much as showing the inevitable displacements of culture change imposed by new neighbors in overwhelming numbers.

More than once he deals with the Navajo as late-comers to the four corners region (Navajo and Apache having migrated into the Southwest from the interior subarctic about six hundred years ago). Hillerman also writes about the issues of contemprary conflict between the Dine and the Pueblos, also- remember the windmill that keeps getting vandalized? And bad feelings caused by the Black Mesa relocation runs through his mid-period books.

#20 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2008, 11:06 AM:

I'm supposed to be getting dressed to go out to a friend's late-life bat mitzvah, but I need to say this, now that I've gotten out of the anthropologist room in my brain: it is all too realistic that the perpetrators of murder-mystery level mayhem on any reservation would be outsiders. This is not because all white men are evil but because, really, most murders are nasty, brutish, and easy to solve. People kill their closest friends, spouses, and siblings. An exceptional case is caused by exceptional people.

Recently I read Clouds of Witness and Falling Man back to back, and in both, the murderer and the victim are outsiders come to a desolate location for a particular purpose. The presence of "natives" has relevence to the way in which the mystery develops, but the death at the center of the mystery is imported from far away.

#21 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2008, 12:38 PM:

There's an interesting thread here. You can have two entirely different cultures that work pretty well by themselves, but in very different ways. When they mix, you can get big improvements and big problems, because you often import one part of the other culture (say, the individualism) without the other parts (say, the systematic indoctrination to follow rules that leads super-individualistic Brits/North Americans to spontaneuously form lines when waiting for someone and collectively police those around them, or raise hands and take turns in a meeting, or whatever. There's an analogy with mixing together ecosystems, where you can introduce a plant or animal from one ecosystem (where it's controlled by predators or resource limitations) to another where it runs wild because nothing eats it or contains it.

Over time, ecosystems and cultures adapt and evolve to handle those new things, and there's nothing magically good or right about the way existing cultures have things balanced. But each time you get some new idea or major change introduced in a culture, you also get these opportunities for huge, sweeping changes.

As an example from the US, look at what happened when most women started working and having careers. All sorts of apparently-unrelated stuff also changed--wedding customs, average age at marriage, willingness to divorce, number of kids and age when you start having kids, quality of workers in traditionally-female fields like nursing, amount of prepared food vs home-cooked food everyone eats, cohesiveness of neighborhoods, home prices--all those things were strongly affected by this social change, along with millions of other things I'm not even seeing. And that's one social change.

Imagine what happens when you get 50 changes that big introduced into your society at once. We're heading down that broad path because of our massive technological changes and the social/economic changes they bring. It's hard on people, even when the changes are broadly beneficial. (How many people went to work for IBM or GM or AT&T knowing that they had a stable job at a rock-solid company, and could plan on that basis?)

One place I think most economic theory seems to go wrong is that people mostly don't seem to respond rationally to those changes, at least not early on. It's been quite a while since phone companies had no competition, yet the whole tone of the industry's customer relations and sales is still rooted in the world of being a regulated monopoly--you can dick around with the customer as much as you like on billing or starting service, but for God's sake get the service back up after the storm. We adapt to social/technological changes in ways that look a lot less like rational decisionmaking and a lot more like evolution.

#22 ::: Doctor Science ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2008, 02:15 PM:

I knew about Ishi and the Kroebers before Always Coming Home came out, so I always figured the title referred to UKL coming home, too -- that it was about how she had circled around until she was ready to come back to the issues and the landscape she grew up with.

#23 ::: comelovesleep ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2008, 02:52 PM:

#3 -- Seconding that. What a fantastic series.

#24 ::: Zed Lopez ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2008, 03:00 PM:

The Berkeley campus has an Ishi Courtyard at the center of one building. And the anthropology building is Kroeber Hall.

There's a line in The Dispossessed that anticipates the title of Always Coming Home. I think it's narration by Shevek speaking of his physics professor, that he was never coming home, meaning, roughly, never at peace with himself.

#25 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2008, 03:35 PM:

albatross @21 – w/o disagreeing with your points – You say "our massive technological changes" later, but don't mention one big tech change that mostly enabled "women … working and having careers", viz, easy, reliable contraception.

#26 ::: Lisa ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2008, 07:02 PM:

Albatross, can you name a time when most American women did not work?

#27 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2008, 07:06 PM:

Lila, I think albatross is thinking 'work outside the home' like now, not like the idea that 'only unmarried women and widows work and then only as teachers, nurses, or clerks' that was around before the depression and WW2.

#28 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2008, 07:16 PM:

(actually, #26 was Lisa, not me)

#29 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2008, 07:23 PM:

Sorry, brain rot. Or smoke inhalation.

#30 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2008, 11:45 PM:

albatross, #21: I think most of the societal changes you describe here, including the entrance of a higher proportion of women into the workforce, have an entirely different underlying cause: the legalization of birth control. When women were given the chance, for the first time in history, to have some genuine power over the questions of whether, when, and how many children they were going to have... well, you can tell how far-reaching the changes were by how determined the Avengelical Christianists are to take away that power from all women everywhere, forever.

#31 ::: Pyre ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2008, 12:42 AM:

I finally got tired, though, of the idea that no Navajo could ever do any bad thing, it always had to be the anglos.

Rob Rusick @10 mentions Skinwalkers as a counter-example. I'll add Coyote Waits as another.

And in that, Abi @18, it wasn't "still the Anglos' manipulation that drove [the killer] to it".

Hillerman did exactly what he's being accused of not having done.

#32 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2008, 02:29 AM:

albatross: There are a lot of things in your post which I think are oddly blinkered by the perceived culture of the fifties, and at odds to the actual facts on the ground.

Look at the films of the late '20 and '30s. Women had careers, and independence. Come the end of the war we had some reactionary moves to an idealised past which never really was. The upper middle classes, (and the wealthy, but for different reasons) may have had that, but the working classes have always had women working (look at Upton Sinclair's the jungle, or contemplate that it was a lot of women who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire).

The idea of when people married was different too. Families, before the industrial revolution tended be started by men in their later 20s (who were finally established) to women in their early 20s, because they were finally being paid enough to get afford to support a wife and children. The working classes had different trends, because they needed the extra income of the other half of the family to afford to leave home.

If one lived in a city, the odds were one didn't have a kitchen, so the food would either be bought prepared, or taken to someplace to be cooked (there are still remnants of this, here in Pasadena there a place which specializes in cooking fish the patrons bring in, be it bought or caught).

These things are largely invisible to the recorded culture because the middle classes were the providers, and market, for the books which are now seen as the record of events is a narrow layer, not a complete vertical section. The same is, largely, true of the journals and letters we have to look at.

Things like divorce are just as strongly affected by things like independence of money. A woman was unable to get credit in her own name. Come a divorce she was constrained by this, even if; like my mother, she had a salable skill. If a woman had no such salable skill, she faced the question of uncertain finances, she had no way to no (esp. in the days when fault was required) what the courts might award by way of alimony. That was a stong incentive to put up with all sorts of unhappiness. Being faced with the possibility of starving (and the social obloquy of divorce) it was far easier for many women to put up with the evil they knew, rather than fly to what evils they knew not.

#33 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2008, 02:32 AM:

Lee and Epacris:

Yep, without birth control, a huge amount of that change would have been almost impossible. That's not the only cause, but it's surely a big cause.

#34 ::: fdeblauwe ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2008, 02:33 AM:

While reading, I recognized the story immediately... Of course, I am an archaeologist and a fan of Ursula LeGuin. I knew she was Dr. Kroeber's daughter. However, strangely enough, I had never made that link between Ishi and her books. My favorite work of hers is probably "The Word for World Is Forest," partially because the title in Dutch—the language I originally read it in—is even more beautiful: "Het woord voor wereld is woud." Perfect alliteration and rhythm.

#35 ::: Kurt Montandon ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2008, 03:00 AM:

I'm just more than a tad annoyed at environmentally unfriendly corporations trying to use Native American practices as justification for their own.

We've actually had people around here trying to claim that clear-cuttings necessary, because the Native Americans used to be "stewards of the forest" or some-such, and without them, something needs to be done to prevent forest fires, and the best way to save a forest from fire is to cut it down.

Because, you know, the few tens of thousands of Indians living in California before the arrival of Europeans went around preventing forest fires - there's no natural cycle of fuels buildups and burnings involved or anything ...

#36 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2008, 03:34 AM:

<plug>Since people mentioned they are reading Always Coming Home, I'd like to put in a plug for Potlatch 18. Potlatch is a small literary science fiction convention that helps support the Clarion West writers workshop. Instead of a Guest of Honor, we have a Book of Honor (or Books in this case). Our books of honor this year are Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin and Growing Up Weightless by John M. Ford. Potlatch has a strong sense of community, participation, and a common thread of discussion, much like Making Light. I know a number of fluorospherians will be attending, and more would be very welcome. Please consider yourself invited. </plug>

#37 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2008, 03:39 AM:

Hmpf, way up at 3: Oh good heavens yes. Finder is one of the best things around in comics, with a consistency in quality that ought to be making the major funnybook publishers cry into their pillows with shame.

(Incidentally, and possibly-or-not relevant to this discussion, one of the interesting tricks Speed pulls off over and over again with Finder is that, due to the interplay of pictures, in-panel text, and endnotes, what you look at on the page is often other than what it seems to be, and you're never quite sure that what's being depicted can be taken at face value. I can't think of anyone else in comics who's playing that kind of game with the medium to the same extent; I don't know if there's a conscious thematic message being toyed with there, but I wouldn't be shocked to learn that part of what Speed's getting at in her extended anthropological-SF Gesamtkustwerk is the idea that surface perceptions cannot be trusted.)

#38 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2008, 04:36 AM:

Terry #32:

Your comment surprised me enough that I looked around a bit for statistics to see if I'd just completely bought a fairy tale for history. (That's happened before, alas.) But here, I'm pretty sure I haven't.

Womens' participation in the workforce (working outside the home) has increased enormously in the last 100+ years. Frex, see this BLS paper which mentions in passing that in 1913, only about 2-3% of married women worked outside the home, and less than a fourth of all adult women did so. Or this report showing a huge increase in labor force participation among women since 1950.

Similarly, a chart in this paper shows the amazing increase of women getting advanced professional degrees/graduate degrees since the mid-60s. I think more women than men are now graduating from both law and medical schools. That wasn't happening 100 years ago, 75 years ago, 50 years ago, or even 25 years ago.

Looking back at my post, I guess you could read it as me thinking women never worked outside the home before recently, which would obviously be wrong. Or that they never had careers, which would also be wrong. But it was not remotely the norm until relatively recently. And that massive change has had big effects on the world, many of which would have been really hard to predict or imagine ahead of time.

#39 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2008, 06:54 AM:

albatross @ 38:
Or this report showing a huge increase in labor force participation among women since 1950.

Did you mis-type a URL, perhaps? That link goes to a page which only discusses changes since 1980.

#40 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2008, 07:34 AM:

OK, having dredged up my copy of Listening Woman*, I stand entirely corrected regarding Hillerman. I'll annotate the post and drop my mother a line.

* It took an unconscionable amount of time to do this, considering that most of our books are unpacked in our lovely little library space. Time to organize them, I think...

#41 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2008, 09:52 AM:


I know how you feel. I've been unpacking our boxes of books and shelving them, and if we had about twice as many bookshelves (and twice as much wall space), they would all fit nicely. As it is, I have books double-stacked in various ways. Even so, I've met up with several old friends I'd been missing while unpacking and shelving them.

The thing I always find odd about Hillerman's novels is that the heroes mostly don't manage to solve the crime, they simply survive till the end of the story, at which point the consequences of the evildoer's choices land on him and resolve the whole issue for them.

#42 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2008, 10:05 AM:

fdeblauwe @34, ahhh, so a lost, hidden, rather euphonious English title for that book is The Word for World is Wood, where 'wood' is a gathering of trees, not their flesh. But that title would <ahem> have been too confusing, and possibly ugly, because of that confusion.

[Where forest is from Old French, wood Old English; another of the multiple joys of English.]

#43 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2008, 12:10 PM:

Kurt Montandon: Few tens of thousands? It was a lot more than that, and no; clear cutting isn't what they did. They used fire to manage things (CalPoly SLO has a great class on just that subject). I agree that the use of that sort of rhetoric is reprehensible, but the truth is the natives did manage the ecology (I commend 1491) and there were a lot more of them than is presently the received wisdom.

One of the things they did do (with the use of fire) was to control the cycle of fuel load. Where they managed it the landscape was open woodlands (comparable to the open savannah), and where they didn't it was denser scrub. Fire suppression favors the latter.

albatross: I read your post in much that way. But I also read it as implying the present idea of, "the nuclear" family was the norm, all the way back to time immemorial, where dad worked and mom stayed home.

And that's not really the case. For those who were better off, yes. For rural parts of the west; the more so (but butter and eggs were "woman's work" and so too the canning and preserving, not all of which stayed on the farm).

Urban life was very different. And the changes you were discussing (As an example from the US, look at what happened when most women started working and having careers. All sorts of apparently-unrelated stuff also changed--wedding customs, average age at marriage, willingness to divorce, number of kids and age when you start having kids, quality of workers in traditionally-female fields like nursing, amount of prepared food vs home-cooked food everyone eats, cohesiveness of neighborhoods, home prices--all those things were strongly affected by this social change, along with millions of other things I'm not even seeing. And that's one social change," are things which you seem to be claiming are more recent than 100 years ago.

If the seed crystal (of women working outside the home) is 100 years, and it took 60-70 years for the effects to show up in dramatic ways, the "huge sweeping" changes aren't so fast as all that, and I don't think laying the point of causation to one thing is practical at that time scale.

A better argument (for the one thing causing dislocational change) would be easy access to birth control (it ties in more strongly with the timeline you seemed to be positing in the first post).

But things like age at marriage (the trend in cities has always been to have later marriages than in the country, a combination of more available spouses, and higher cost of entry) aren't all that stable over time. When money is easy to get, people marry younger.

The classic is the "Elizabethans married at 14" nonsense I still hear at training for renassaince fairs. It's not true. The data show ages of about 27 and 19, (male, female; respectively).

It certainly feels to me (though it's the oddball sample of personal experience) that marriages in my circles are dichotomous. A lot of young (18-20) and a lot of older (27-40) first marriages.

I think the greatest change (and cause) of that shift is that we have come to expect a married couple to of an age, and some people aren't willing to wait, and others want to be "set-up" and stable before they take the plunge.

Which isn't, I think, something one can just lay to women working. Some of it is the demsise of union labor, and the subsequent dimunuition of wages; which makes it harder for single salary to keep a family afloat. I am sure the list of contributing factors is a lot longer than just those few.

#44 ::: Magenta Griffith ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2008, 01:46 PM:

Re women working outside the home. Few people worked outside the home until relatively recently. When you farm, both women and men are "at home". So that's another trend to throw in - move from rural agriculture to urban factory and office. Another trend is that for a long time, it took one person at home to do the cooking, preserving, washing, etc, necessary to maintain the family. Contraceptives were necessary for women to work outside the home, but washing machines, factory canned foods, and fast food are factors as well,

#45 ::: Kelley Wegeng ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2008, 02:37 PM:

I wrote an ode to Tony Hillerman the day after he died. It's much too nerdy to reproduce here, slide guitar being hard to reduce to text.

#46 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2008, 02:50 PM:

I'm a big fan of Elizabeth Wayland Barber's book Women's Work, The First 20,000 Years. Women did work that was compatible with child care, but it was valuable work and sometimes even acknowledged as such. That was profoundly changed by the move to factories. I wonder, now that more people work in offices, why we persist the industrial pattern that home and children are separated from adults and work.

#47 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2008, 03:02 PM:

Terry Karney, there's a tendency in 20th century environmental studies to hypothesize a perfect pre-human ecosystem; it is an assumption as romantic and unrealistic as anything the Victorians pulled out of their... less-scientific knowledge base.

Even the shortest estimation of human residence in the new world is a long time in the terms of climactic fluctuations and the age of plant communities. In the glaciated areas, there is no pre-human topography at all; there's reason to believe fire was being used to create prairies around Puget Sound very few centuries post Vashon maxima.

#48 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2008, 03:21 PM:

fdeblauwe @34, I've had a strange experience with that book- I've loaned it out several times, and it's always returned to me.

#49 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2008, 04:59 PM:

Terry Karney @ 43:
But things like age at marriage (the trend in cities has always been to have later marriages than in the country, a combination of more available spouses, and higher cost of entry) aren't all that stable over time. When money is easy to get, people marry younger.

There is, I think, good evidence that marriage age also varied by social status. In particular, people in the nobility tended to marry younger than did people in the lower classes -- perhaps because noble marriages were far more likely to be arranged by the parents. In 18th Century New Mexico, for example, the mean age of marriage for women was 18 for commoners and 15 and a half for nobles.

The classic is the "Elizabethans married at 14" nonsense I still hear at training for renassaince fairs. It's not true. The data show ages of about 27 and 19, (male, female; respectively).

The mean age of marriage for women in 17th Century England and Scotland was probably about 26 (versus 28 for men), and this was also true for the first half of the 18th Century. I've seen an estimate of 21 for the 15th Century; this implies that the marriage age rose significantly during the 16th Century (something which apparently happened in the Netherlands as well).

The interesting question is to what extent Shakespeare's audience would have found Juliet's mother's marriage (at age 13) plausible: was it because the family was noble, or because they were Italian?

#50 ::: Kevin Reid ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2008, 06:59 PM:

#34, #42: And the German title is Das Wort für Welt ist Wald.

(I have not read it, in any language.)

#51 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2008, 07:48 PM:

Something else to consider -- a woman might well have been doing external work (piecework) in her home...

#52 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2008, 08:32 PM:

xeger, #51: Or the canonical occupation of the single mother pre-child-support: taking in laundry. Because that was something she could do at home while looking after the children.

#53 ::: Spherical Time ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2008, 10:29 PM:

Ah. Suddenly the personalized copy of "Dance Hall of the Dead" (a result of the first time that I ever approached an author for an autograph) has become significantly more precious to me.

As to the "noble savage" question, I studiously offer no opinion.

I will say that the connection with Ursula K. Le Guin was not something that I anticipated, although since I am currently reading a Le Guin book, I was thinking about her work through the first section's description.

What a very small world.

#54 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2008, 12:20 AM:

JESR: I know not to mythologise the native population (look at the cliff kills of buffalo, for the tongues, if you want to dispell the idea of perfect harmony).

I know the natives (from coast to coast) had a decided effect on the landscape; and to their purposes. I was cavilling at the idea that the population here was "a few tens of thousands".

Peter Irwin: They would have accepted it because they were those crazy foreigners, and they were "noble".

One of the things which changed in the 13th/14th centuries was the changes in population distribution in the wake of the plague. France, for example, didn't see the same number of people until the turn of the 20th century, but she has never seen the same density. After the plague people started to gravitate to the cities.

And cities are more expensive to live in, which affects the ages at marriage. My guess as to the shifting ages in the 16th century has to do with the failure of the guilds as gateways (until one was classed a journeyman one couldn't speak at town meetings, enter into most forms of contract, etc.) This both limited, and sped, marriagebilty. Once someone was at least journeyman a living wage was in tolerably easy reach. Absent that entré a steadt living was less certain and people were more conservative about taking the risk of letting their daughters get married.

While I (for I partly raised it) agree that women's contributions to the worth of the family, and it's fortunes, most of those don't really counter albatross argument that it was women working outside the home which caused the change.

#55 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2008, 12:38 AM:

Terry Karney, I was expanding on what you'd said, not disagreeing. I suspect that most people underestimate the precontact population of North America, and especially of the west coast; importantly, in this case, they overestimate the population densities necessary to modify and control plant succession.

However, the tongue hunts were post-horse and part of inter-tribal conflict and then later (Kit Carson period) a frank attempt to deprive the plains people of subsistence.

Have you read Joe Ben Wheat's reconstruction of the Olsen-Chubbock buffalo jump site site? (Speaking of Kroeber students, I found when I googled hs name) It's in a collection edited by Ernestine L. Green, In Search of Man. Worth searching for, especially since the articles were chosen for the clarity of the writing.

#56 ::: Jerome Stueart ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2008, 01:38 AM:

Arthur Kroeber also studied another famous group of native peoples--the inuit. Documented in this book:
Give Me My Father's Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo is the story of six Inuit who came back with Peary to be studied, one of them a six year old boy, who was the lone survivor after most of the six died of pneumonia, including his father, in the Museum of Natural History, where they lived. The orphaned boy was adopted by Peary, but experienced one tragic moment after another, culminating in a horrific discovery of his father's bones on display in the museum itself. It was made into an amazing movie by director Staffan Julen, The Prize of the Pole.

#57 ::: Aquila ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2008, 04:48 AM:

Jerome, he was Alfred Kroeber, not Arthur (same mistake made in the Amazon review).

#58 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2008, 07:48 AM:

Terry Karney @ 54:

The mean marriage ages I mentioned were mostly for rural populations; even in the 17th Century, the vast majority of people did not live in cities. So I don't think it was moving to cities that made a difference.

One of the main reasons for delayed marriage in the lower classes seems to have been, quite simply, the lack of family wealth. Parents weren't able to provide much for their children's potential new households, and so had less authority over their children's marriages. (Contrast this with noble families, where children were entirely dependent on their family's wealth, and families had strong political and economic interests in marriage alliances. The result was children largely forced to marry as and when their parents dictated.[*]) Instead, young men and women sought out wage labor[**] to support themselves and build up nest eggs; the result was later marriages and much less in the way of parental control over marriages.

This paper (PDF link) argues that, post-Black Death, the wage-labor market started expanding, particularly in Nortwest Europe; combined with the Church's official doctrine that marriage required the consent of both partners (however honored in the breach that might sometime be), this created a situation where lower-class children had more incentive, and more freedom, to earn their own livings and make their own marriages.

[*] I suspect younger marriages in the nobility had at least two causes: first, making an alliance sooner rather than later is always preferable; second, younger children are more easily coerced into doing their parents' bidding.

[**] This includes things like agricultural labor and service in wealthy rural households, so living in a city wasn't necessary.

#59 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2008, 09:06 AM:


Arggh! I totally left that out of my thinking. When the US was predominantly rural, of course *everyone's* rate of working outside the home was lower. I'm very sure we really have seen a major shift in women working outside the home in the last century, but the raw numbers I found need some additional context to be meaningful.

Anyway, my bigger point was using women working outside the home only as an example. The current social world is a complex negotiated/evolved tradeoff between all kinds of different things. How many kids you have, when you marry, whether you divorce, what kind of education you pursue, what kind of career (if any) you pursue, all these things are as they are now because of this kind of multisided tradeoff worked out among millions of people over many years. When some of the "inputs" to that tradeoff change, then the decisions also shift, often in really hard-to-predict ways.

You see this sort of shift happening all the time. Look at how the music industry has, despite massive lobbying and handing-out-of-cash to congresscritters, been massively changed by the internet and digital music players. The old music industry was the result of all kinds of these tradeoffs--negotiated deals between parties, prices set by markets, legal agreements, etc. When the underlying reality changed, they fought hard to keep their industry from changing, but that was a hopeless fight.

For another example, look at how retail sales have changed in the last half century or so. Local small hardware stores and small bookstores used to be common in small towns, and often (I speak with some experience here) their selection was terrifically narrow, their prices were high, and they were closed during most of the times a person with a full time job might have wanted to shop. Chain discounters (especially Wal-Mart) and chain home-supply stores (Home Depot/Lowes/etc.) have mostly gotten rid of the small hardware stores--those that remain tend to actually have selection or expertise that those big stores can't provide. The makeup of stores in small towns was another complex tradeoff, and when reality changed, so did that trafeoff--and that led to other changes, like hours of operation. I remember being in high school when Missouri got rid of its blue laws, and allowed normal retail stores (not just pharmacies and gas stations and grocery stores and such) to be open Sundays. Wal-Mart was pushing for that, and lots of folks who wanted to be able to shop on Sundays agreed. Similarly, the makeup of the merchant middle class in the US shifted, I think, from people who owned small stores of their own to people who owned small franchise stores. And that led to a much more top-down sort of society, in which political or economic or social negotiations could be held with the corporate management of Wal-Mart or McDonald's or Safeway, rather than with the individual owners of tens of thousands of local hardware stores and greasy spoons and independent grocery stores. Similarly, those large corporations can lobby for laws favorable to them in ways that tens of thousands of little independent companies would never have managed, just for transaction-cost sorts of reasons.

And on and on. I'm not all that solid on the history of any one of these changes, but all of them have this in common: changes in a few things propogated to cause massive shifts in how the world worked. Things are the way they are for a reason, and often, nobody can say exactly what the reason is. But when something changes, you find out.

And we're in a time of massive, continuous change. All kinds of complex tradeoffs are constantly under renegotiation, because the facts that drove them have changed. That makes us a bit like those traditional societies that were doing well enough until they had an outside context problem[1], and their whole world changed irreversibly.

[1] From Banks' Culture books. Basically, one day, your more-or-less stable agricultural village in the mountains has a bunch of Spanish soldiers in iron breastplates, carrying iron swords and muskets, swagger in, offer to trade, and sneeze a couple times on the natives. It's a singularity for you, as nothing in your previous experience gives you any idea what to expect next.

#60 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2008, 09:15 AM:

Peter #58:

I'd think there's at least one more benefit to negotiating the marriage earlier: The longer you await an offer for your lovely nineteen-year-old daughter's hand, the more likely she'll surprise you with an impending grandchild that takes the whole negotiation right out of your hands.

Anyway, I know Malthus and a lot of economists around his time talked about these marriage-age decisions. There was a whole theory (the "Iron Law of Wages") which said that long-term improvements to the quality of life of people at the bottom was impossible, because any increase in wealth would simply lead to more children being born (largely through earlier marriages and non-malnourished kids), which would force wages back down to just-above-starvation levels. It's an interesting example of how perfectly sensible extrapolation of your current world into the future can produce nonsense. (From my imperfect memory of reading his Essays, Malthus was more concerned with ultimate limits--there's only so much land, and in the experience of his times, putting more labor and more capital into land could only improve its productivity so much, so the rate of increase of population could always outstrip the rate of increase of production of food.)

#61 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2008, 01:30 PM:

60: There has been serious suggestion that Malthus was unlucky to publish just before the start of a two-century period in which his laws seemed (thanks to rapid technological progress which improved the productivity of a single person or acre of land incredibly fast) not to apply, but which may now be more or less at an end.

#62 ::: Thalia ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2008, 02:44 PM:

I would like to know more about this myth of the Small-Town Real American--I'm only recently well-acquainted with the Noble Savage myth, so I may be late to the party. I know that Small-Town Americans are fewer than they were, but I don't know what's "real," "unreal," or "mythological" about them. I know I grew up with small-town Americans, and I never really understand what the big-city people are talking about.

#63 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2008, 03:03 PM:

Thalia @62:
I would like to know more about this myth of the Small-Town Real American

Your attention is drawn to the following quote:

"We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity and dignity. They are the ones who do some of the hardest work in America, who grow our food, run our factories and fight our wars. They love their country, in good times and bad, and they're always proud of America. The speaker spent the next few weeks using terms like "real Americans" to refer to the inhabitants of small towns.

Now, I grew up some in a big city, some in a small rural town, and some in a small town within a large conurbation. So I can compare and contrast among the various places. And in my view, idea of the small town American as the sole and unmixed avatar of our values is as unreal, as idealized, and as bizarre as the idea of the Noble Savage.

It's also extremely insulting. In both cases, the speaker is denying the complexity and the variability of the people discussed. Each of us, wherever we are, has the capacity to be a sinner as well as a saint. Pretending that one set of people is automatically virtuous denies their humanity.

The halcyon myth of small-town America should be tarred with the same brush as the myth of the Noble Savage, because they spring from the same oversimplifying, myth-making impulse. And though myths are all very well, these ones seem to get used as a basis for value judgments and decisions that affect real, non-mythical people, sinners and saints and ordinary mortals alike.

(There is a difference, though, between the two myths. The person who made the speech above came from a small town, and should have known better.)

#64 ::: Jason Aronowitz ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2008, 04:21 PM:

Abi @ #18:

Cross references between Hillerman and Zelazny? I managed to miss all of them. Help, please, if you have a moment.

(Possible excuses: I read Eye_of_Cat a long time ago, before any Hillerman. And I "read" most Hillerman via the excellent* Guidall-narrated audio books.)

*Yes, that's a recommendation.

#65 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2008, 04:32 PM:

Jason @64:

Eye of Cat is dedicated to Joe Leaphorn, Jimmy Chee and Tony Hillerman.

And in Sacred Clowns, one character is described as reading a book with "a dust jacket that looked vaguely science fictionish and bore the name Roger Zelazny."

#66 ::: miriam beetle ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2008, 04:40 PM:


*Yes, that's a recommendation.

hmmf. unfortunately, those havent made it onto, where i'm always looking for recommendations.

#67 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2008, 04:54 PM:

abi, #63: I agree that as stated, the Mythical Small-Town "Real America" is just that. However, as with many other myths, there's a grain of truth buried at the bottom of the shitpile -- in this case, that the percentage of Republicans in small-town and rural America tends to run significantly higher than the percentage of Republicans in urban areas. This happens due to the interaction of a number of different effects; it's by no means as simple an equation as a lot of people would like to make out.

But by invoking that myth (which is reinforced by a lot of popular culture, including things like Superman, Forrest Gump, and just about every Jimmy Stewart movie ever made), the McCampaign was engaging in yet another type of divisive strategy, and appealing to people who had a high probability of being in their base. Contrast that with Obama's remark about "bitter, desperate people clinging to guns and religion"; no matter how true it may have been, that was pretty much a direct slap at the Mythical Small-Town "Real America", and I'm still not sure how he got past that with as little actual damage as he seems to have suffered.

#68 ::: Ron Sullivan ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2008, 05:34 PM:

My teddy bear is named Ursula.

Well of course. What else would one name a teddy bear?

I grew up in a post-WW2 suburb that managed to contain all the vices I can think of that small towns are infamous for: conformity, in-group rule, advanced nosiness, homogeneity. The saving grace was that there was a fairly large space where we could run around more or less unsupervised but still in earshot of home, including a couple of big overgrown vacant lots (The Weeds) bordered by a small creek (The Crick) that was good for wading, ice-skating, minnow-catching, and generally messing about in. I retain a taste for getting away from humans when I can.

The small town I was born in, and which we visited to see relatives, was oddly more cosmopolitan. The Irish, Italians, Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Ukranians, even some of the Welsh there had hung on to important cultural items like cooking and holidays and language, but they mixed freely enough by then to enjoy each other. (My grandmother's getting disowned by her Irish family for marrying a Welshman had happened long enough ago to be a laughing matter.)

That went for generations, too; I was thrilled when I was maybe 13 to see that the garage band that played for the yoot' dances at the old roller rink always played a coupla polkas around intermission so the various adult chaperones and soda-sellers could come out and dance.

The thing is: "Small-town values" reads a lot like "family values." Mostly both phrases are about the things a lot of us ran away from to save our lives.

#69 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2008, 06:24 PM:

I really have a yen to go back once again
Back to the place where no one wears a frown
To see once more those super-special just plain folks
In my home town...

#70 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2008, 10:59 PM:

I grew up in three different smallish towns, ranging from about 25,000 people to about 3,000 people. The three were as different from each other as any of them was different from the college town of 100,000 where I later lived. Trying to lump all small towns and communities within into the same category is like trying to lump all big cities and communities within into the same category. ("What, you mean San Francisco and Salt Lake City aren't the *same*?")

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