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Until Choice Do Us Part

Marriage Reform in the Progressive Era

For centuries, people have been thinking and writing—and fiercely debating—about the meaning of marriage. Just a hundred years ago, Progressive era reformers embraced marriage not as a time-honored repository for conservative values, but as a tool for social change.

In Until Choice Do Us Part, Clare Virginia Eby offers a new account of marriage as it appeared in fiction, journalism, legal decisions, scholarly work, and private correspondence at the turn into the twentieth century. She begins with reformers like sexologist Havelock Ellis, anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons, and feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who argued that spouses should be “class equals” joined by private affection, not public sanction.  Then Eby guides us through the stories of three literary couples—Upton and Meta Fuller Sinclair, Theodore and Sara White Dreiser, and Neith Boyce and Hutchins Hapgood—who sought to reform marriage in their lives and in their writings, with mixed results. With this focus on the intimate side of married life, Eby views a historical moment that changed the nature of American marriage—and that continues to shape marital norms today.

264 pages | 12 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2014

Gender and Sexuality

History: American History

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature

Sociology: Social History

Women's Studies


“In this fascinating and timely study, Clare Virginia Eby shines in her ability to bring us closer to the emotional and cultural aspects of the Progressive era, and her argument for marriage as a laboratory is extremely compelling. Until Choice Do Us Part will make a terrific addition to seminars on women and gender history, family history, and the history of sexuality—not to mention a number of other disciplines.”

Jennifer Fronc | author of New York Undercover: Private Surveillance in the Progressive Era

“Clare Virginia Eby’s Until Choice Do Us Part splendidly chronicles a critical era in the history of marriage in the United States, the transitional years from the Progressive era to the modern period by focusing on several representative unions among American writers and intellectuals. Eby probes how their ideas took shape and how those, in turn, shaped values governing intimate life for the rest of the century. Deft and nuanced, incisive and erudite, her argument searchingly elaborates the cultural anxieties that these unions expressed while exploring the challenges that Americans faced once the vows were spoken. Until Choice Do Us Part provides an unusually rich resource for literary and cultural historians and for students of US social life.”

Gordon Hutner, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“Until Choice Do Us Part demonstrates that marriage reform was a central concern of early twentieth-century US public culture, a concern that fueled many of the era’s best-known novels.  Without oversimplifying the strange political landscape of the early twentieth century, Clare Virginia Eby vividly captures the dynamism of the era’s thinking about marriage, monogamy, and divorce, drawing on novels as well as case studies of a few notorious marriages. Bold and nuanced, Until Choice Do Us Part is interdisciplinary scholarship at its best, carefully tracing the interplay between marriage’s political and economic underpinnings, its volatile intellectual surround, and some of the fascinating innovations at work in fictional and real-life marriages.”

Nancy Glazener, University of Pittsburgh

 “Until Choice Do Us Part offers an insightful analysis of how and why writers depicted the changing institution of marriage in the Progressive Era. This elegantly written, well researched book explores how and why marriage underwent significant critique and revision, along with changing conceptions of gender, sexuality, and the family, at the turn of the twentieth century. A distinguishing feature of this engaging work is Eby’s discussion of the connections between the form of the novel and the institution of marriage.  This study offers new insight into marriage, the novel, and the nature of social change and helps to explain why fiction writing is a uniquely important social endeavor.”

Priscilla Wald | Duke University

"As Eby shows in this rich and timely study, changes in fundamental attitudes toward marriage and divorce were both fervently advocated and hotly contested in the Progressive period.  Analyzing the tensions between theory and practice inscribed in a wide range of texts, Until Choice Do Us Part persuasively argues that Progressive era debates over marital reform anticipate and even continue to shape twenty-first century  position-taking about sexuality and marriage."

Barbara Hochman | Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

"...Eby’s project...successfully bridges the history of the family, marriage, and sexuality with the history of progressivism through skilled literary analysis of often experimental, messy books and their authors. She demonstrates how marriage, traditionally viewed as a bulwark of conservative stability, might also be reimagined in diverse ways as a vessel for social transformation."

Brent Ruswick | H-Net Reviews

“Historians of social movements and of marriage will benefit from Eby’s fresh emphasis on the novel as a profoundly social tool of reform. . . . Until Choice Do Us Part is both compelling and enjoyable. . . . a persuasive and bracingly written account of marriage reform during the Progressive Era.”

American Historical Review

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Chapter One: A Telescoped History of Marriage and the Progressive Era Debate
Chapter Two: The Architects of the Progressive Marital Ideal
Chapter Three: Sex, Lies, and Media: Upton and Meta Fuller Sinclair’s Marital Experiment
Chapter Four: Theodore Dreiser on Monogamy, Varietism, and “This Matter of Marriage, Now”
Chapter Five: Organic Marriage in the Life Writings of Neith Boyce and Hutchins Hapgood

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