The Fifties: The Way We Really Were
By Douglas T. Miller and Marion Nowak
What is it about the 1950s that attracts us; that has us yearning for those simpler times, when everything seemed so … well, so ordered, so regular; those times when you knew exactly who your enemy was and who your friends were; and when those friends listened up; and when you could find a good job, and home was home; when everything and everyone (except, of course, for the evildoers) were, to steal a Babbitt hyperbole “standardized”; a time, in short, when all the ducks seemed to be lined up in nice, neat rows?
Time is a funny that way; the way it dims and obscures the past and hands us a pair of rose-tinted glasses through which to recall it. Could the 1950s have been the Shangri-La some of us pine for? Obviously, the answer is hardly. Which is why you’ll want to locate a copy of The Fifties: The Way We Really Were (pub. date: 1977).
Currently out of print, though available used and in libraries, even smaller local ones, here’s a comprehensive, interpretive history of a period prized as peaceful, prosperous, and all together pleasant, especially when compared to what followed, and life today. This history, putting aside its sometimes strident liberal viewpoint, is often brilliant, always incisive, and continuously thought provoking. It deserves to be reissued with a new chapter by the authors (if they are still with us). It would be interesting to learn what they make of present times, which carry a very apparent fifties’ imprint.
The following chapter by chapter summary will, hopefully, convince you to read the book yourself for a very complete and deglamorized for a stroll through an era that continues to influence all aspects of our lives.
Introduction: Provides a succinct overview of the era. The authors partition the fifties as follows: 1948-53, The Age of Fear; 1954-57, The Era of Conservative Consensus; 1958-60, The Time of National Reassessment.
1. Sinister Sweets and More Insidious McCarthyisms: Covers the nation’s almost irrational fear of Communism, which originated before McCarthy popped onto the scene to really focus the nation on its new Red scare. This fear’s “impact on that era can be seen in a variety of ways: the conformity, the search for security, the sizable return to religion, the celebration of the family and middle-class virtues, the absence of an effective left, the docility of labor unions, the ‘silent generation’ of college students, the widespread political apathy, the cold war, the arms race, the reliance on nuclear supremacy.”
2. Learning to Love the Bomb: Delineates the pernicious effect of the ever-present drumbeat of nuclear annihilation on the mentality of Americans, who found themselves encouraged schizophrenically to fear nuclear power and also to love it as a tamed servant. “The psychic consequences were great. Americans in general felt powerless, helpless, nervous. Many other factors had contributed to these emotions: the Red scare, the spread of corporate bureaucracy into their daily lives, mass conformity. But the nuclear threat motivating the cold war was the medium helping these factors succeed.”
3. Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Protestants, Catholics, and Jews: Explains the return to religion, the causes for and the manifestation of religion in American life. “What most Americans did want from religion was a sense of well-being, the assurance that as members of a church or synagogue they shared an esteemed place in society.” In other words, they wanted a secular religion.
4. People’s Capitalism and Other Edsels: Details the rise of American oligarchic capitalism, in which a handful of giant corporations dominate industries. Recently, as a presidential candidate promised to put America to work by building military equipment, we find ourselves brought right back to the fifties’ frame of mind. “And so, despite a growing national doubt, the decade ended economically as it began–spewing forth an ever-increasing volume of bombs, bazookas, bubble gum, cars and tanks, deodorants, crying dolls, hula hoops, pillows, and pollution. They called it people’s capitalism.”
5. The Paving of America: Discusses the corporate man and wife, the rise of suburbia, life in these mass-produced retreats from the city, and the people who occupied them. As the authors write, “An advanced technological society demands an increasingly high degree of social organization. It needs people who function smoothly in large groups; people who are willing to be commanded and who fit into the social machine without friction; people who want to consume more and more, and whose tastes are standardized and can be easily influenced and anticipated. By the 1950s American capitalism in conjunction with other social institutions–family, school, church, state–had produced such socialized individuals in abundance.”
6. The Happy Home Corporation and Baby Factory: A potent indictment of the American myth of the male-female mystique as a mentally debilitating straightjacket for both sexes. A chapter clearly influenced by the early more radical wing of the feminist revolution; nonetheless, an insightful view of gender divisions in the 1950s. “The master stroke of the feminine mystique was to be able to explain away … restless women’s discontent … if a woman was discontented, it was for no reason other than her denial of her own femininity. Yet for her to embrace her femininity, woman had to deny her rationality and many emotional satisfactions.”
7. Three-Fifths of a Person: Many intriguing insights into the rising civil rights movement, not the least of which the influence of the cold war on American race relations. A hallmark of the period, one perennial in American history, cited by the authors as a reason for the stagnation in racial understanding that had begun after WWI: “But racial awareness froze at that point for many years. To an extent, this happened because of the way Americans handled many problems in the fifties. A problem is recognized; it is acknowledged to be un-American and wrong; then it is pronounced to be vanishing–because people now care.” From amid the turmoil of present day, the assessment rings loud and sharply.
8. Intellectuals: The Conservative Contraction: An interesting argument that you might find helps explain why now, as then in the 1950s, the moderate middle seems lackluster and less effective. Probably the most complex chapter in the book, it’s where the authors clearly define their political and intellectual leanings. “The dominant intellectual climate of the 1950s … was profoundly conservative … In championing an anti-utopian, hardheaded realism–a wheeler-dealer pragmatism and factionalism with little concern for ideas or morals–they helped lay the groundwork for the amoral policies of the sixties and seventies: Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Watergate.”
9. Showdown at the Little Red Schoolhouse: Very familiar, the political and ideological battleground known as the American public education system. While the progressive education movement was failing for any number of reasons, the right assailed it as an organized Communist plot to win over the hearts and minds of American children. “The most serious and consistent conservative criticism was that progressive education and Communism were one–or nearly so.”
10. Growing Up: Delves into the silent youth of the 1950s and the turmoil seething below the surface that contributed to delinquency and, later, rebellion. What it meant to be a youth in the 1950s, as the authors write, was adaptation to conformity. “Security itself was the watchword, for youth as well as for adults. For girls, security meant marrying the right man and mothering a family. For boys, it meant having that family too, plus a nice corporate job.”
11. More than a Music: Among the best histories of rock ‘n roll, particularly its social significance and impact on youths and adults. Touches on many icons of early rock and the African-American experience, as it pays special attention to the importance of Elvis Presley in popularizing the music form. As to rock’s significance, “It was how adults reacted to rock in the latter fifties that made it more than a music. Because without consciously doing so, the opponents of this music were articulating a cultural stance of inherent contradiction, a cultural stance not so much against the music as against the thing it represented. Entertainment was on the way to becoming polemic.”
12. Hollywood in Transition: Covers changes in the film industry brought on by factors including the anti-Communist investigations, antitrust rulings against production companies, and the popularity and challenge of television. The authors highlight creative and technological trends in films, discuss a number of movies and their significance, and provide insight into the effect of Communist witch hunts. “The effect of such pressure was to enforce mediocrity. Films dealing with social, political, or psychological problems were reduced to a minimum.”
13. TV’s the Thing: A comprehensive analysis of the rise and influence of television on American life. In particular, the authors demonstrate how in short order large corporations co-opted the medium. “The shape TV assumed in the fifties was authoritarian, commercial, and monolithic.” Includes a look at reality shows of the day, among them Queen for a Day, a thoroughly disturbing display of personal mendicant humiliation.
14. Beyond Alienation: Fiction in the Fifties: An interesting take on the serious novels of the decade, those featuring an alienated protagonist. Quoting Philip Roth from a 1961 Commentary article: “The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination.”
Among the better histories of the Age of Conformity and highly recommended to those who wish to peek behind the rosey scrim of nostalgia veiling the period. w/c