Make America the 1950s Again

Trump’s catch phrase is “Make America Great Again.” Contrary to the thought that this is forward looking, it’s really an appeal to foggy memory and a white male America. In short, let’s bring back the good old 1950s, when prosperity seemed to prevail, when men earned and women tended the home, when America stood as the undisputed king of the world heap, and when America had a real enemy all could rally against; in short, the halcyon decade of the 1950s. Really, though, was it as great as it can seem when viewed through demagogic bluster? This history may help you consider the decade in a way that contradicts overly nostalgic memory.  

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

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Are You a Chicken for the Plucking?

Fascism: A Warning

By Madeleine Albright

Who better to help former Secretary of State Madeline Albright make her point than the first fascist, Il Duce, Benito Mussolini. He advised, pluck the chicken feather by feather so as to keep the squawking discrete; in this way, disappearing freedoms go unnoticed until too late. Sounds similar to what we are experiencing in the form of lie constantly, toss out outrageous statements regularly, do all to divert attention and confuse matters.

Using fascist leaders, dictators, and authoritarian rules from Mussolini’s and Hitler’s days, Albright describes and thereby alerts us to the pattern of how these people work. Wise people should pay attention.

Early on, Albright offers a checklist for defining a Fascist, and it’s worth quoting it here, for if you go no further than this, at least you will have a handy way for judging many of today’s strong men. “To my mind, a Fascist is someone who identifies strongly with and claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use whatever means are necessary—including violence—to achieve his or her goals. In that conception, a Fascist will likely be a tyrant, but a tyrant need not be a Fascist.”

Albright reinforces her point by taking readers through the circumstances allowing, the rise of, and the methods of control employed by a real rogues gallery of tough guys: Mussolini, Hitler, Franco (Spain), Sir Oswald Mosley (England), Stalin, Joe McCarthy, Milošević, Marcos and Duterte (Philippines), Chávez, Erdoğan, Orbán (Hungry), Putin, and the list, unfortunately, could be much longer. Learning about the motives and methods of these men, it won’t be lost on readers how Donald Trump seems to be drawing from these authoritarians’ playbooks. The message here is quite clear, forcefully laid out for all but the blind and addled to see: we like to believe that American democracy and our republican governmental checks and balances afford us protection against such strong men overwhelming our way of life, but we may be much to optimistic.

Back in the dim days of the Great Depression, when fascism rose in Italy and Germany, American author Sinclair Lewis saw clearly that we too could succumb to the siren song of order and national chauvinism. It’s well worth taking a look at his novelistic toppling of our government, It Can’t Happen Here (1936), both about fascist revolution and American populism manifested by Huey Long.

Again, with Albright’s book, we have yet another red flag volume that Americans should read, and that, alas, most, especially those who should, will not. w/c

Really, 18th Century Women Voiced Opinions?

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

By Jill Lepore

On page 242 of Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s fascinating, insightful, and thoroughly researched resurrection of Jane Franklin Mecom, youngest sister of Ben Franklin, she gets to the heart of her biography that does quadruple duty:

“What would it mean to write the history of an age not only from what has been saved but also from what has been lost? What would it mean to write a history concerned not only with the lives of the famous but also with the lives of the obscure? What would it mean to turn the pages of Jane Franklin’s Book of Ages?”

These are more than rhetorical musings on the part of Lepore; these are the questions she addresses using Jane Franklin’s thin chronicle of the births and deaths of her children and those close to her. Expanding this document are Jane’s letters to Ben and his to her, as well as a vast collection of primary and secondary materials delineated and explained in footnotes and a narrative bibliography.

The letters between the sister and brother, extracts of which Lepore presents with all the grammatical and spelling blemishes preserved, enable readers to view how much these two people, who rarely saw each other in person, cared for and respected each other. As avid readers and writers, they were able and willing to express their feelings in words. Jane it seems was every bit as intelligent as her heralded brother. But she lacked access to education and opportunity outside the narrow role defined for and confining women of her time, and women in general until the twentieth century.

Telling the story of one person requires telling the story of many. Lepore incorporates many luminaries of the times, especially those in the Boston area, where Jane lived. She touches on the lives of many more lesser known people, among them the large Franklin and Mecom families. Jane and Ben had ten brothers and sisters. Jane, who gave birth to her first child at 15, had twelve children and those surviving to adulthood had numerous children of their own. A difference between Jane and Ben regarding family was that Jane involved herself at close range while Ben, after leaving Boston for Philadelphia at 17, offered help from a distance, often long distance.

In these lives lies the tale of the times, which Lepore brings to life. It’s one of hard work, of a crafts and home-based economy, of hard luck, of religious and social stricture, of segregation and unequal treatment of the sexes (not to mention races), of primitive sanitation and medical care, and death, early and constant death. Film and television has lent a sheen of glamour to life in earlier times. Perhaps those at the highest levels enjoyed lives something like that portrayed in dramas. However, the vast majority of people lived as Lepore illustrates. Their lives may appear simple from our perspective, but there’s nothing simple about figuring out how you and your family will manage to survive another year.

Lepore leaves us with no doubt that Jane Franklin was an intelligent woman, one who accomplished a lot in her limited sphere. As was the case with women of her time, Jane received no formal education. Families that could afford education for their daughters sent them to schools that segregated the learning, teaching the girls little beyond the rudimentary, while devoting time, effort, and material on the boys. You wonder, as it appears Lepore’s intent, how much more Jane could have done with the freedom and opportunities Ben had, and how much better off we all would be if women had received even a modicum of equal treatment.

All in all, a superlative bit of biography and history made all the more pertinent by the lessons it holds for us today. 267 pages of text; 175 pages of footnotes, bibliography, and research narrative. w/c

An Unsexy Novel about Sex

Madam: A Novel of New Orleans

By Cari Lynn and Kellie Martin

New Orleans certainly boasts a colorful history, what with Andrew Jackson and pirate Jean Lafitte teaming to defeat the British at the close of the War of 1812 (actually after the Treaty of Ghent had been signed, so technically after the war had ended), the city constantly battling the encroachment of Gulf waters, and, the subject of this book, the confinement of prostitution and bordellos to a red-light district. While many cities have had formal red-light districts (and some still do, like Amsterdam and many German cities), New Orleans’ version has always held a sort of romantic appeal, perhaps because of its nickname, “Storyville,” or that it is way back in history.

Lynn and Martin attempt to resurrect the period, really 1898, the time leading up to the inauguration of the district, by novelizing the life of a young prostitute. While interesting and definitely portraying the misery that was (and is) street prostitution, it’s never as compelling as you might expect a novel on this topic to be. Truth be told, it’s kind of flat. Lynn and Martin might have done better by shortening the build-up to the instituting of the district and lengthening the portion devoted to the district.

In fact, there was a real Mary Deubler, the central character. She, however, wasn’t nearly as downtrodden and hapless as her novelized version. She proved a quite shrewd entrepreneurial type who did operate a house called the Arlington, who even in short biographical sketches sounds intriguing. Probably many of the characters who have basis in history, like Tom Anderson and Lulu White, were more interesting than as Lynn and Martin portray them. Which highlights the weakness of their novelized approach, weak characterizations.

In the end, Madam isn’t really the place to seek out information about or titillation from Storyville. Those wishing to pursue these might try a source cited as a favorite by the authors, Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red Light District and the extant photographic work of E.J Bellocq, E.J. Bellocq Storyville Portraits, as well as novels using the period and location as a backdrop. w/c

Adolf Hitler, Private Dick

A Man Lies Dreaming

By Lavie Tidhar

How to escape the inescapable; how to vent your pain, suffering, and anger for all you have lost and will yet lose for no other reason than you are a Jew; how, then, to escape Auschwitz? If you are Shomer (a nod to Sholem Aleichem), the author of popular shund pulp, you write a novel in your mind in which the chief perpetrator of your fate finds himself pummeled repeatedly, frustrated constantly, embittered always to rage, and condemned ironically to his personal version of hell. And so it begins when a dame, Isabella Rubinstein, walks into the office of a down and out London P.I., Herr Wolf, seeking her missing sister, Judith.

It’s the year 1939; however, it’s a 1939 different from what you’ll find in the history books. Rather, it’s the 1939 of Shomer’s imagination. Hitler and the Nazis lost the 1933 election to the Communists. The Nazis and their hangers-on were forced to flee Germany or perish. Now London teems with them, still operating true to their criminal characters. And worse, to Wolf’s indignantly jealous mind, the banner of National Socialism rests firmly in the hands of the weasel Oswald Mosley and his black shirt British Union of Fascists movement. Wolf could have had more, of course, as old cronies remind him, but he, unlike them, remains a man of principle (hmm, that sounds very familiar), though existing on scraps. Even in this world, even to a man of dubious and discredited principle, money talks; Wolf sets off to find Judith, and readers follow him into the underbelly of a London awash in intrigue, revolution, human depravity, and weird sexual perversions worthy of a lurid shund cover.

That’s the fantasy. Intercut throughout, intruding always like a festering wound, is reality. Reality is the slow, tortured crawl to death that is Auschwitz. Shomer creates to escape and, more, to extract retribution. However, the daily rhythm of living and dying in the camp is the lesser pain for Shomer. Greater, and maybe prime above his other reasons for conjuring his pulp tale, is memory of his wife, his children, their quotidian lives as a family, and the terrible moment of separation on the Auschwitz railroad platform. Nothing, not the cold, the firth, the slave labor, the degradation, the unrelenting inhumanity, nothing inflicts as much torment as his memories. In almost any other circumstance, they would be treasures. But in the bowels of Auschwitz they are like being constantly in the fires of hell. Shomer’s occupied mind is his firewall and his fiction is his revenge.

In the back of the book, Tidhar provides some historical context that includes brief comments on the parade of Nazis and Nazi sympathizers in the novel, as well as some Auschwitz victims. A highly recommended imaginative addition to alternate history and holocaust fiction. w/c

An Intimate Margaret Sanger

Terrible Virtue

By Ellen Feldman

Authoring a biography of a life lived publicly can be fraught with challenges, among them the question of veracity, as Virginia Woolf artfully and humorously lampooned in Orlando. Harder still is digging deeper into a famous life, down to the emotional self of the person to illuminate the sacrifices a person makes, particularly if the person engages in a virtuous crusade against centuries of belief and tradition, as did Margaret Sanger. Ellen Feldman lifts the title of her novelization of Sanger’s life from her subject’s own words: in the pursuit of a virtuous cause, Sanger suffered in many ways, among them the sacrifice of a home life with her three children, with the haunting self-accusation that she contributed to the death of her daughter, to a broken marriage and love affairs, to alienation of family and friends.

Sanger witnessed firsthand as a girl growing up in Corning, NY, the toll of unlimited childbirth on her mother and her very large family. She also saw that well-off women avoided having a half dozen, even a dozen, children, as did poor women who could ill afford them. She set about learning everything she could about limiting family size, until, while only a visiting nurse, she knew more than most doctors. And unlike those doctors who did understand birth could be prevented with a bit of education, some of whom were familiar with methods used in more liberal European countries, she set about disseminating that information and those methods, particularly the diaphragm (known then as pessary, and earlier as a womb veil). The latter she learned about when pursuit by the federal government under the guise of Anthony Comstock, a U.S. postal inspector dedicated to preserving Victorian morality at nearly any cost, forced her to flee the U.S. for Europe.

A movement like birth control certainly could not be achieved by just one person. As Feldman’s novelization dramatizes, many of the leading radicals of the day and leading society women supported her cause. However, as was illustrated with her coopting of her sisters Ethel’s hunger strike, Sanger was not above directing the spotlight on herself, alienating many, not the least of whom her own sons who wished for a mother, or at least a bit more of her in their young lives. She also wasn’t immune to stumbling down and supporting discredited causes, the most notable being eugenics, though as Feldman has Sanger point out, this was a couple of decades prior its use to eliminate and prevent what one group or another felt were “undesirables,” namely the Nazis, as well as practitioners of serialization in the U.S.

Sanger proved herself, too, to be a woman of interesting contradictions. Socially and philosophy, while herself engaging in her own version of free love, she did not advocate excessive sex, though she did believe, and found this to be true herself, that birth control could allow women to enjoy and better express their sexuality. She enjoyed time with many famous lovers, with the likes of Hugh de Selincourt (Brits will know him), Havelock Ellis, and H.G. Wells appearing in Feldman’s novel. Also, while a woman firmly rooted in the social causes and pleasures of a worldly life, she was a spiritualist, as the final pages of her life illustrate, her particular expression being Rosicrucianism.

Feldman’s novelization follows a linear path from early life, to working life, to death. From time to time, and with great effect and insight, she interjects statements highlighting and criticizing aspects of Sanger’s life. These statements come from her sister Ethel, her sons Stuart and Grant , her first and second husbands, her legal defender and lover J.J. Goldstein, as well as others, and serve to add dimension showing the effect she and her driven determination had on those close to her.

All in all, Feldman’s novel is a worthwhile and at times penetrating look at a woman who in the eyes of many changed the world for the better by starting a campaign that by no means is anywhere near over. w/c

Our Most Liked Review Ever

The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story

By Lily Koppel

Since we told you about our most hated review, we thought you might enjoy knowing what was our most liked. Sad to say it wasn’t a stellar review of a truly meritorious novel or non-fiction book. Nope.

Sometimes you dash off a blurb of a book review and expect nothing of it. Then, to your surprise, it resonates with people who shared your expectations and were equally disappointed. So it was with Koppel’s really cursory and inadequate coverage of a topic we had high hopes for. More than 9 out of 10 of the hundreds who read the review that follows at the end either found it helpful or concurred with our evaluation.

When Stephanie Savage (known for Gossip Girl) reimagined the book as a limited-episode television event running on ABC, we decided to give it look. Sometimes with the vision and skill of a good show runner a bad book can make for good film. Unfortunately, the television version of Koppel’s book proved as vapid as her book. While the production values, a visually interesting pictorial of the fashions, tract homes and autos of the late 50s and 60s, were quite good, the story line, which included a love interest involving a Life magazine reporter and Louise Shepard, proved mundane, riddled with cliches, and, worst of all, revealed nothing additional about the wives.

Here’s the review:

In the name of comprehensiveness, Lily Koppel sacrifices a lot, that being a deeper understanding of what it must have been like to be the wives of the astronauts, especially wives of the Mercury 7. In fact,the early pages devoted to the Mercury program are the best part of the book. Koppel probably would have produced a better, more in-depth, and more insightful examination had she focused on these early years. Just our opinion.

Too, much of what she does cover we know already. Long periods of separation, check. Pressure on marriages, check. Horndog husbands (except for a few), check. Tears and breakdowns, check. Bossy NASA, check.

There’s a great book lurking in the subject, that’s for certain. Unfortunately, this isn’t it. Decent reportage at best.

Perhaps a brilliant novelist whose long suit is psychological analysis will tackle the subject. Now, that might be an interesting book.

And no index, no listing of astronauts and wives [included in current editions], nothing you would expect in a non-fiction book of this sort.

The astronaut wives endured a lot and deserve better. A disappointment. w/c