Bracken, Peg

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BRACKEN, Peg

Born 25 February, circa 1918, Twin Falls, Idaho

Daughter of John Lewis and Ruth McQuesten Bracken; married Parker Edwards, 1966 (second marriage)

Peg Bracken grew up in St. Louis and graduated from Antioch College in 1940, where she was editor of The Antiochian magazine. Her writing career began with advertising copy and grew with short stories, light verse, a syndicated newspaper column, and articles on a wide range of "female" topics in periodicals such as Atlantic, McCall's, Ladies' Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, and the Saturday Evening Post.

Known primarily as a humorist who appealed mainly to women, Bracken's impact on popular culture deserves more attention and credit. A benevolent facetiousness and lively spirit of parody mark her tone. She provokes a new, more realistic perspective on sociability, especially with respect to the increasingly independent role of women as the major actors, instigators, and interpreters of social drama.

Discoursing lightly but authoritatively on subjects such as housekeeping, childrearing, travel, the telephone, rites of passage, and the art of conversation, Bracken established herself as a popular social commentator on the practical matters of human relations. She wrote The I Hate to Cook Book (1960) for the harried cook who refuses to be tied to the kitchen, and The I Hate to Housekeep Book (1962) for the growing class of occasional housekeepers. I Try to Behave Myself (1964) was a bestselling manual on common sense manners.

Bracken is an iconoclastic member of that overwhelmingly female elite of social arbiters led by Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt. Her effort has been to challenge, soften, and humanize some of the more traditional aspects of etiquette in its stiffest interpretation of white gloves and calling cards. She arrives at a more informal, adaptable code based on good intentions and good character. In this interpretation, etiquette is granted a wider range and a more active role in everyday life, rather than a ritual to be reserved for rare occasions.

This code, which Bracken calls the "intelligence of the heart," accommodates the radical shifts in taste and class that have occurred since the beginning of the century and especially since the early 1960s. Bracken recommends a pragmatic, inventive approach to the problems of daily living, distinguishing between the letter of an older social law and the more enduring spirit of any sound etiquette system. She advocates a social interaction made humane and comfortable through the predictability that comes from shared understandings among people.

The "new etiquette" acknowledges broadly based norms suited to a pluralist society in flux, where once-hard-and-fast distinctions of social status, age, sex, and education are now blurring and converging. Bracken seeks to resolve the conflict of old rules encountering new values without giving up the battle against the rising tide of barbarism in a steadily more crowded, uncaring, and competitive world. In this way, Bracken wrestles with unanswerable questions of contemporary living: what is "correct" (or appropriate) behavior, and how can it be defined, judged, and performed? How is the individual to manage a system of behavior which can only work if the majority understands and shares in it?

In the exploration of these questions, Bracken's role is that of a nonexpert, antihero housewife who tries to demonstrate that the individual temperament is the true measure of action. Individuals cannot and should not be forced into imposed patterns of do's and don'ts. Ironically, however, Bracken has devised her own imperatives and prohibitions: e.g., "108 Transgressions" (based on Buddhist beliefs) and "13 Things Children Should Learn and the Sooner the Better." Always a realist, Bracken's concern is not with how people ought to behave but how they do and would like to. Ultimately, Bracken's devotion is to the art of civilized living in a society which has left one set of standards behind and is badly in need of another.

Other Works:

Peg Bracken's Appendix to The I Hate to Cook Book (1966). I Didn't Come Here to Argue (1969). But I Wouldn't Have Missed It for the World: The Pleasures of an Unseasoned Traveler (1973). The I Hate to Cook Almanack: A Book of Days (1976). The Compleat I Hate to Cook Book (1986). The I Still Hate to Cook Book (1967, reissued 1980). On Getting Old for the First Time (1997). A Window Over the Sink: A Mainly Affectionate Memoir (1981).

Bibliography:

PW (25 May 1964). SR (5 Sept. 1964). WD (May 1970).

—MARGARET J. KING