Friday, January 18, 2013

Dear Abby, Ann, Prudence, Caroline, and Amy

Dear Abby, circa 1961
The world has lost an American cultural icon.  Pauline Phillips, a.k.a. Dear Abby, the grand dame of advise columnists, passed away this week at the ripe old age of 94. Growing up, I remember my grandmother reading Dear Abby's column in our local newspaper and tsk-tsking about the questions posed by writers. From "modern" decorum inquiries and workplace dilemmas to the age old issues of wedding etiquette and dealing with in-laws, Abby's column addressed them all. Her answers were insightful, sometimes terse, and often laced with humor. Her column first hit the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle in 1956 before eventually becoming syndicated and reaching a broad audience of everyone from confused teenagers to disenchanted housewives and harried professionals.  Being an advice columnist ran in the family; Phillips' twin sister was the late Ann Landers of Dear Ann Landers fame and today the Dear Abby column continues with letters being answered by Phillips' own daughter Jeanne.

Dear Abby paved the way for a whole new generation of advice columnists.  Slate Magazine's Dear Prudence, The Washington Post's Caroline Hax, and The Chicago Tribune's Ask Amy are all modern day advice columnists whose styles and advise is reminiscent of Dear Abby.  I'm not a regular follower of American pop culture but I do read these advise columns whenever the opportunity arises.  Many of the letters and their corresponding responses are humorous; I often find myself wondering if the questions are real then I realize that you just can't make this stuff up.  From future mother-in-laws agitated about the bride's choice of wedding dress, bridal colors, and lack of old school formality to teenagers and all of their corresponding angst, the questions get asked and answered on newspaper pages across the country. The Internet has added a whole new dimension to advice columns with Caroline Hax's weekly live chat inevitably producing a lively "conversation" between the writer and her readers.  If ever I feel as though I'm having a really bad day, all it takes is reading one column to realize that my problems are minuscule compared to those of other people.

Beyond the entertainment factor, I think advice columns provide important insight into the world around us.  Weed out the absolute ridiculous (and yes, it does exist) and they reflect the concerns and issues that many of us ponder on a daily basis.  The teenager with angst over her parents not understanding her:  the actual issues might be different but the theme is one that transcends generations.  The same generational differences are reflected in letters from adult children dealing with their own aging parents, grandparents concerned about the way their grandchildren are being raised, and parents concerned about the pressure they are feeling from their own parents when it comes to child rearing.  The prospective bride who is receiving peer pressure in all directions about keeping her maiden name, hyphenating it, or changing it entirely: this is an issue that most of us married women have also contemplated at one time or another.  The advice may vary but more often than not, the underlying theme is one of picking which battles are worth fighting and which ones should just be left alone.  I would hazard a guess that, at one time or another, all of us have contemplated or at least thought about any one of the many issues that are discussed in these columns.  Yes, these issues are real now and will continue to be.

So rest in peace Ms. Phillips.  I don't know if you ever imagined that your reach would have been so vast but it was.  You influenced generations of Americans with your wisdom and your legacy is sure to live on.

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