American Guilt: a challenge for contemporary emotions history

Peter Stearns, Ruthann Clay


This article assesses the unexpected increase of references to guilt in American culture, from the mid-20th century onward. The increase came against a pattern of decline over the previous hundred years, and also runs counter to many interpretations of growing American individualism and self-indulgence. The article deals also with the increasing criticisms of guilt, as damaging and unpleasant, that became increasingly common from the 1920s onward. A focus on guilt associated with parenting brings these themes into clearer focus, helping to explain the rise in guilt references – with causes that are fairly clear in the area of parenting – but also the disconcerting combination with resentments about guilt as harmful and unfair. Several parental reactions, particularly by the 1990s, followed from the tensions over patterns of guilt.


guilt, United States, parenting, childhood, emotions history

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