Illustration from The Scarlet Letter, 1878, an American novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne about shame and social stigmatization
Research into the history of emotions is a relatively new area of activity that has emerged as a valuable tool to examine social developments and cultural trends. Peter Stearns, professor of history at George Mason University, highlights some of the core ideas of the field by looking at the past 250 years of American history through the lens of several categories of emotions: happiness, love, shame and guilt, and anger and fear.
The examination offers opportunities to consider history from new perspectives, as Stearns links the evolution of emotions to consumerism, gender roles, and politics. He also connects historical developments with contemporary issues—such as a national surge of anger—at a time when the definition of “American character” seems to be changing in significant ways.
MAR 8 Happiness
The rise of a commitment to happiness—a key aspect of American individualism—began in the 18th century and continues to the present day. Stearns explores major stages in this evolution, including related developments such as the rise of sadness and boredom (a word that first emerged in the 19th century) and an emphasis on making children happy. He also looks at some of the problems associated with the pursuit of happiness, including new challenges that have emerged in recent years.
MAR 15 Love
Changes in love relate closely to patterns of happiness. Both courtship and parenting were emotionally redefined beginning in the 18th century. Nineteenth-century culture introduced further elements into an emphasis on familial love, including siginficant related changes in the experience of grief and mourning. Victorian-era approaches to love were discarded in the 20th century, as dating replaced courtship; new concerns about jealousy emerged; and a growing informality was reflected in dramatic new ways of handling grief. Stearns looks at how we still wrestle with many of these developments.
MAR 22 Shame and Guilt
The 18th century introduced a striking denunciation of traditional patterns of shame. (Have you ever wondered when and why the famous public stocks and scarlet letters of the colonial era were abandoned?) The 19th century extended attempts to limit shame—ultimately including the elimination of the classic emblem of classroom shaming, the dunce cap. Trends from the mid-20th century include new concerns about guilt as well as shame, reflecting growing discomfort with the use of negative emotions for social discipline. At the same time, uses of shame and guilt increased in some domains, including punishments for certain crimes. Tracing the history of shame and guilt helps frame important current questions about these two classic social emotions, including those that reflect today’s divisive culture wars.
MAR 29 Anger, Fear, and a Changing Emotionality
Anger and fear, two so-called “basic” emotions, have factored into important changes in national life. Americans mounted a number of efforts to control anger in the 19th and 20th centuries, and though their effects are still present, the emotion has escalated since the turmoil of the 1960s. Fear has had its own fluctuations, with interesting interludes such as a 19th-century anxiety about being buried alive. But fear has been increasing more systematically since the 1980s—for example, the September 1982 Tylenol poisonings stoked widespread apprehension in parents about trick-or-treating that year—and the causes are both clear and important. Stearns offers a final consideration: the fact that Americans overall have become more emotional over the past half century, a reflection of some revealing shifts in the national character.
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