Once Upon a Time, in America

Pictures come to mind when I think of the Lonely Revolution – that deterioration of the principles governing sexual behavior in the ruins of the Christian West.

One is of my father and my mother, before they were married, and of my father’s brother and his fiancée, at a lake near home. It is difficult to explain to young people how varied and energetic our social life once was in America; outdoors whenever it could be, indoors otherwise – at dance halls, playhouses, bowling alleys, schoolhouses, diners, and churches. The lake I have in mind was still a public business when I was a boy, with a large concession stand and an arcade with games. That’s all gone now, and nothing has come to take its place.

But there they are, four young people in bathing suits, on a summer day with probably a hundred other young couples on that same small beach, either high school sweethearts, or couples courting or just married. People did not assume, seeing them, that they were in bed with one another, because unless they were married, it was very likely not true.  The assumption of moral behavior made the scene possible.  

I will hear the objection, “Go to the ocean and you’ll see couples.” But we aren’t at the seashore. We are nowhere that requires a special trip. We are wherever you may go in public on a pleasant day. You find boys and girls, young men and women, in pairs.  The pairing implies no sexual consummation. They like each other.

The moral law that cleared the space for innocent flirtation, however, did imply more, because it had an aim, taken for granted. The coupling is directed toward marriage. Most people in those days were married before age twenty-six, even though the men had to do stints in the armed services, and though people had far fewer material comforts than we have.

In our time, very few people marry that young; many will not marry at all; divorce, which in my parents’ generation was rare and scandalous, is common; children grow up without their fathers; and it is hard to name a single custom, in our raising of children and in our brittle social life, that is aimed toward getting people married and helping them stay that way.

We are rapidly saying farewell to the last generation in America that can remember what it was like to have musicians playing live, every weekend at a dance hall within walking distance or a short drive; or what it was like to be young, in love, doing all the fun things that your schoolmates were doing, plenty of them involving a lot of physical delight, but not requiring that you take off a stitch of clothing.


Sin makes the sinner a cripple. The principles of sin do more: they cripple a whole people. They cramp the spirit. The Lonely Revolution has left a trail of mistrust, regret, recrimination, and despair – and many people who marry do so only after a series of sexual wrecks and betrayals.

That is not to mention the many millions of children who have been born out of wedlock, or who were cut to pieces in the womb. Where is the joy the revolution promised? Where are the marriages, stronger than ever, and rich with children? Where is the sweetness, the love and gratitude, that should bind the sexes?

Another picture, forty years later. I am teaching at a still somewhat Catholic college, though the Lonely Revolution has run through it also, like a scorching fire. I am walking to class, when I catch sight of a boy and a girl doing something stunning, in public.

They’re holding hands.

It strikes me with shock that I have not seen such a thing for a very long time. My readers may say, “But wait, I still see that!” Every day, every week? The point is that you should no more have to try to remember such a thing, than you should have to try to remember when you last saw a group of boys playing baseball in an open field, just for the fun of it, or many another good and beautiful thing that should be ordinary, but that in our time is rare to unknown.

If you do not see these things all the time, something is wrong. In my parents’ time, and this was still so when I was in high school, though it would come to a quick end, there was more love-making (in the old sense of flirting, kissing, dancing, talking, kissing some more, and so forth, without fornication) than now, and more marrying and having children.

Someone will say that people hid their misery back then. This is to argue from lack of evidence. You posit a magical cause, the hiding that by definition you cannot see, and you limit its operation to the time you depreciate.

No doubt, there will always be unhappiness in human life. But imagine that business people all decided that sharp dealing and other cheats would be permitted, even celebrated. It isn’t that you never had cheats before, or only that you would have more cheating now. It’s that ordinary features of business life would cease to be, for lack of trust. We would soon be unable to imagine that they could exist – as now we can hardly imagine that picture of chastity and passion at the lake.

One more scene. I’m at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, and I see a young man and woman, holding hands, as they walk to the chapel. Here, where the moral law is not just respected but loved, the boys and girls – pardon the youthful phrase – genuinely like each other, before they have chosen one as special.

The mirth, the ease, the trust, the beauty and the goodness of it, are like blossoms returning to a land when the poisons that had left it barren have been leached away.


*Image: Dancing on the Barn Floor by William Sidney Mount, 1831 [Long Island Museum, Stony Brook, NY]

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.