The Age of the Bachelor: Creating an American Subculture
by howard p. chudacoff
princeton university press, 341 pages, $29.95
Howard Chudacoff, a professor of history at Brown University, has written what amounts to a propagandist tract in the form of a purported sociological history of the experience of unmarried men in America from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. He has propped up his narrative with some data that estimate the numbers of men in this category and their ages over the last hundred years, but data is not really the point here. Chudacoff wants to convince us that these men produced a kind of subculture embedded within—even though slightly resented by—the dominant culture characterized by the family and the married man.
The book is nothing if not thorough. It includes a chapter on domestic life that reviews how and where single men lived; a chapter on associations such as the YMCA and YMHA, which sprang up in these years to offer support, wholesome company, and structure to bachelor life in the city; a chapter on bachelor-frequented institutions (a rather more dignified term than most readers would choose) such as the saloon, the pool and dance halls, and the barber shops. Chudacoff describes how the demands of single life promoted neighborhood services such as laundries, pawn shops, and drug stores with tobacco and soda services, but he dismisses society’s apprehension that such neighborhood facilities could be sites of vice and dissipation, implying that they were simply products of the service economy single men required.
Chudacoff wants to put to rest the stereotype of bachelor life as one of disorganization and dissipating anonymity. Bachelor subculture, he holds, shaped and was shaped by city life and contributed to the diversity of America by encouraging new forms of social order different from, and in some ways richer than, family life. It is an interesting argument, but it fails primarily because the evidence the author cites tends to prove the opposite—namely, that bachelor life in America has always been experienced as a phase, and a mostly uncomfortable phase at that. When it is not successfully passed through, the life that follows can be nasty and anomic. Most tellingly, Chudacoff announces that he adopts, and indeed plans to support, the positive view of diversified bachelor life described by George Chauncey in his book, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 . From this source, it is easy to anticipate the sort of diversity that Chudacoff has in mind.
It only makes matters worse for Chudacoff’s proposition that the majority of bachelors at the turn of the century lived with families—indeed, one-third of bachelor sons lived in the parental home as they tried to get their lives sorted out. Among the Irish (as exemplified by men like Al Smith) the proportion living at home—often with widowed mothers—was 10 to 15 percent higher than in other ethnic groups.
The boarding house encompassed about another third of bachelors. This style of living emerged in the mid-nineteenth century and offered men who were dislocated from family—usually immigrants or young workmen looking for opportunities in a new city—a supportive environment with more than just a room and bed. The houses had common rooms and group dining that offered sociability and camaraderie to their tenants. The lives of these boarding house men have been well described by Richard Stott in his 1990 book Workers in the Metropolis, which, while appreciating the many uncomfortable features of this existence, does describe the friendships that emerged among the boarders and specifically notes an absence of homosexuality.
Chudacoff, who throughout his book tends to introduce the theme of homosexuality with hints and surmises rather than data, counters Stott’s argument with this: “More recently [actually less recently—in 1985 and 1988] other historians have discovered hints [of homosexual relations].” He would have us believe that many of these men were homosexual and that many of the institutions and associations he describes facilitated homosexual encounters—all without documenting the magnitude of this behavior or the numbers of men involved. An unbiased view would presume the numbers of homosexual men at that time to be quite small—most likely the 2 to 2.5 percent that is now reported—and as far as I can see from the evidence, these few homosexual men did little or nothing to influence the bachelor subculture at the turn of the century.
If the bachelors were seldom homosexual, then Chudacoff would have us believe that they were struggling to free themselves from the “constraints” of traditional living. The evidence that a majority lived with families belies this opinion. Even those living alone give evidence of cherishing traditional links. A nice demonstration of Chudacoff’s distortion of the facts is a photograph—the only photograph in the book of a bachelor alone—showing a man in his boarding house room with what the author calls “ornate decorations” on the wall. The decorations? The Virgin Mary, the Holy Family, the Transfiguration, the Crucifixion, and the like—not an abandonment of traditions at all, but a devotion to them by a man in social transition.
Indeed, many of the photographs Chudacoff includes refute his idea of a reorganizing and enriching role for the bachelor subculture in these times. Rather they depict a dismal existence in the cafes, locker rooms, and pool and dance halls of the time. The only photograph depicting an opulent and graceful bachelor life in a swank bar is taken from a Culver Pictures movie set. It is perhaps not surprising that this was the picture used for the book’s front cover.
All of this is crucial given that Chudacoff never discusses the loneliness and forsakenness felt by many single people. In particular, he never describes the down-and-out districts of the American cities where bachelors did congregate. It is from these districts, among the bachelors who lived in them, that the highest rates of suicide in our country have been reported since the turn of the century. Ruth Cavan, in her classic book Suicide, showed that, in Chicago, high suicide rates were clustered in neighborhoods consisting mostly of cheap hotels and rooming houses where weak social links, unstable relationships, and impersonality were the norm. Chudacoff makes no mention of suicide among bachelors, a neglect of familiar evidence about their subculture and its problems that must be deliberate.
One of the most crucial facts Chudacoff plays down is that from the late 1920s through the 1960s most men abandoned bachelor life early in their twenties, with the result that the subculture he wishes to celebrate dwindled. Why did this happen, if the joys of bachelor life were so great? The most likely explanation is that family life became possible for more men during that time, and more men chose it above the bachelor subculture.
The Age of the Bachelor ends with the present time and a reemergence of bachelorhood. Chudacoff depicts—indeed celebrates—this reemergence with a photograph of Hugh Hefner surrounded by his “bunnies” and another of a Gay Pride parade. He suggests that this contemporary state of bachelor affairs is the natural fulfillment of the subculture of the turn of the century and, as well, that these formative expressions were originally suppressed and unacknowledged.
Nothing is further from the truth. Bachelorhood was a phase for many men in the last century and the early years of this one. But it was more a forced existence than a “lifestyle choice,” and men abandoned it when economic progress made it possible. The more recent phase of bachelorhood, sustained by the libertinism of the American sexual revolution, sprang forth with the great wealth showered upon Americans after World War II and was, to an astonishing degree, the creation of two well-published sex zealots, Alfred Kinsey and Hugh Hefner.
The bachelor subculture that was a part of the development of this nation has been replaced by a hedonistic, nihilistic, indulgent male counterculture inhabited by the “playboy” and the “gay blade.” To argue that the first was indeed a form of the second is a distortion of social and cultural history.
Paul R. McHugh, M.D., is Henry Phipps Professor of Psychiatry and Director and Psychiatrist-in-Chief in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, Baltimore, Maryland.