Big Sister Anna Quindlen

Culturebox never dreamed, when New York Times Op-Ed columnist and suburban mom Anna Quindlen abandoned journalism for fiction-writing five years ago, that it would be nice to have her back. But consider the hole she left behind her in the pundit universe. The columns of her successor at the Times, Maureen Dowd, consist of Heathers-like pronunciamentos upon the coolness of this politician and the uncoolness of that one, each punctuated by a saucy flounce. Quindlen’s predecessor in the slot at Newsweek she began to fill this week, the late Meg Greenfield, issued closely argued bulletins from somewhere deep inside a Washington dinner party. Quindlen is neither saucy nor one step ahead of the conventional wisdom, but her virtues are ones that Culturebox suspects it’s unhealthy to do without: She’s substantive and stern; she’s loyal to husband and kids; she makes peace, not war; she favors old-fashioned horse sense over brilliance. ” ‘To see ourselves as others see us,’ was the line my grandmother would always throw out when she was crabby and I was full of myself,” is the sort of thing she’s wont to declare–wisely, self-deprecatingly, and only somewhat preachily. Culturebox would count herself lucky to have Anna Quindlen as a big sister, though she’d probably throttle the girl after a year or two.

Let’s clear up another common misconception while we’re at it. Big sister-ish though she may be, Quindlen’s is not the voice of feminism in our time. It’s easy to mistake it for that, and her critics generally do, making her a springboard for an attack on feminism in general. She draws on her own experience, thereby making the personal political, and was for a long time the only female voice on the white, male Times Op-Ed page. She favors what one critic, Karen Lehrman, calls “motherhood politics”–she’s for stuff that’s good for kids and against stuff that’s bad for them. But feminism is an ideology, which is to say a relatively coherent intellectual position, a set of arguments attached to a political objective. So weighty an agenda demands a consistency Quindlen has not, so far, evinced. Insofar as she’s a feminist, she’s a pop feminist–an Oprah or Lifetime feminist, a cheerleader for women in all their travails. But we read Quindlen, if we do, for her peppy style, and that emerges out of another tradition entirely–not the reformist rhetoric of Susan B. Anthony and Betty Friedan but the homespun, folksy, and often surprisingly liberal tones of an earlier era in American journalism, when newspaper editorialists and magazine editors and advice columnists elevated the anecdote of daily life to the status of gospel and did more than just about anyone else to invent our 20th-century idea of everydayness.

In short, Quindlen is a sentimentalist, which is not an insult in Culturebox’s book, since to harden one’s heart to sentimentalism is to take oneself beyond the reach of much of American culture. Some of those whose sensibility Quindlen shares happen be female–Ann Landers, Dear Abby, and Mary Worth, the well-coiffed, well-born newspaper comic-strip heroine who has been dispensing sage advice to her less well-adapted neighbors since 1938. But others are male, such as the author and illustrator who create Mary Worth anew every day, or George Horace Lorimer, an editor of the old magazine the Saturday Evening Post and an aphorist whose nuggets of wisdom sound uncannily Quindlenesque: “Education is about the only thing lying around loose in the world, and it’s about the only thing a fellow can have as much of he’s willing to haul away” is one of his more famous ones. Another Quindlen-like figure was William Allen White, the great turn-of-the-century editor of the Emporia, Kansas, Gazette, who deployed his aw-shucks tone to attack heartland know-nothingism and populism, but whose greatest column is widely acknowledged to be his elegy to his daughter, who died after she ran into a low-hanging branch while riding a horse.

Ann Landers and her sister believe in good behavior; White believed in the importance of humor, dignity, and not being provincial; what does Quindlen feel strongly about? Editorials are supposed to be the literature of opinion, but for the key to Quindlen’s core beliefs you must turn to her novels. These are as morally instructive in their way as the works of another, far greater sentimentalist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Quindlen’s first novel, Object Lessons, is a coming-of-age story about the perils of letting others tell you what to do in life. The homily is provided by–who else?–the heroine’s best friend’s smart and unusually poised big sister: “Just remember that sometimes you drift into things, and then you can’t get out of them,” the sister advises the novel’s protagonist. “Not to decide is to decide.” One True Thing, the story of a woman who comes home to take care of her dying mother and winds up accused of euthanasia, echoes that lesson but ups the ante: If you’re passive enough to let your parents dump their problems on you, they can darn near destroy your life. Quindlen’s latest novel, Black and Blue, makes the consequences of letting someone else tell you what to do even more horrifyingly explicit: It’s the movie-of-the-week-type saga of woman on the run from her abusive husband. Quindlen’s message is clear: You have to figure out who you are, think for yourself, take some responsibility, for crying out loud.

As convictions go, it’s not the most original around, but it’s not a terrible one either. Quindlen’s first column in Newsweek is more of the same. This time, the den-mother persona is underscored by the photograph that accompanies the piece, of Quindlen with sensibly cropped hair. The editorial is a sigh of disgust at the whole Brooklyn Museum mess. It’s slightly smarter than most on this subject, with more of a sense of history (she tosses the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice into the mix). But ah, yes, here comes the grandmotherly language: “Oh, for pity’s sake, here we go again.” Here’s the liberal common sense: “[I]n other news, cops are being accused of savagery, priests of impropriety, and thousands of children are failing in the New York City schools. And civic leaders, both political and religious, are using their bully pulpits for this?” So what if Quindlen’s about a week late to the story? The point is, she’s right, as she usually is. It wouldn’t hurt us to eat our fiber when she tells us to, or to grow up, either.