Horkheimer and Sandburg on the Family

In his essay “The Future of Marriage” (1966), Max Horkheimer considers the institution under the weight of contemporary society:

However long the bourgeois forms of marriage may last, the awareness of a union that is unique in each case, the high significance of the family name, and the will of the partners to create a life peculiarly their own and, if possible, to give that life a permanence through their children, are now passing away. The older, individualistic categories of thought are losing their meaning because of the new awareness of dependence on society and the realization that the service of social goals is more important than the achievement of personal goals; in short, because of the adaptation to society as it is now (97).

The sadness of confronting the social pressures put on the family reminded me of a poem I read a few years ago. Carl Sandburg’s “Mag” (1916) is both a love story and a tragedy under the weight of capitalism. Given how short it is, I’ll quote it in its entirety:

I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
I wish you never quit your job and came along with me.
I wish we never bought a license and a white dress
For you to get married in the day we ran off to a minister
And told him we would love each other and take care of each other
Always and always long as the sun and the rain lasts anywhere.
Yes, I'm wishing you now lived somewhere away from here
And I was a bum on the bumpers a thousand miles away dead broke.
    I wish the kids had never come
    And rent and coal and clothes to pay for
    And a grocery man calling for cash,
    Every day cash for beans and prunes.
    I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
    I wish to God the kids had never come.

The speaker’s implication is that I wish we hadn’t created this family in this society. A couple that was once imagining their future born out of love, youth, and hope are crushed under the conditions of the proletariat. The speaker wrongly feels guilt for being a part of a situation in which they experience such hardships, but as we know, it is not the speaker’s fault, which makes it all the more tragic. Here a worker has defined his life and the lives of his family members by the worth of his own labor in the market.

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