By Dan Hagen
Reread the domestic humor of writers like Shirley Jackson, Jean Kerr and Erma Bombeck a half-century later, and you may detect a familiar undertone — the chatter of forced cheer mixed with a hum of quiet, if not desperation, at least constraint.
These were writers of considerable talent, a fact that gave them an outlet of expression largely denied to their audience — women raising large postwar baby boomer families who probably dreamed of other careers growing up, but found themselves bound to the lonely routine of housework. They felt unappreciated. People may pay lip service to drudgery, but nobody respects it much.
So, in magazines like “Woman’s Day” and “Good Housekeeping,” you could find short purported memoirs describing the life of a housewife as a lark of minor absurdities surrounded by reassuring routine. The happy home life was the hot fudge sundae, and those weird kids and that oblivious Mr. Magoo of a husband were the tasty sprinkling of nuts.
Those pieces from the late 1940s into the 1950s became a kind of cottage industry for freelance writers, and were reprinted in hardcover with titles like “Life Among the Savages” and “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies.” Movies were made. The pickings were choice enough that even some male writers started to poach in the field with books like “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.”
And yet, with the women writers, there’s something unsettled there beneath the smiles. This was the freelance market of their discontent. Amplifying domestic trivia into Thurber-level wit was no easy feat to begin with, and it had to be done under editorial restraints as stringent as those for sonnet writing. No martini-fueled drunken rows. No despair. No rage. No childhood polio or kleptomania or sexual acting-out. No genuinely hostile in-laws. Certainly no infidelities, either imagined in vivid detail as you waited alone in the silent house for his return or performed yourself, in frustration, in resentment, in a search for a thrill that might make one of those days vary from the sameness of all the rest.
Sometimes you can see the outlines of those darker absurdities that the women might have wanted to include. Shirley Jackson, for example, talks about the period when her son kept attributing his own misdeeds to another boy at school who didn’t exist. She plays the experience for laughs, but it’s the sort of thing that must have caused parents some anxious nights, some whispered conversations.
Restraints can channel artistic composition, but they can also inhibit it, particularly overtly commercial restraints. What editors demanded be censored in these stories may sometimes have been the most powerful undercurrent in the housewives’ lives.
Transient entertainments might have been elevated to something more enduring in these compositions, had editors not silenced the cellos and the oboes and demanded to hear only the flutes, always just the flutes.