Over the Christmas weekend the Louisville Courier-Journal ran a nice piece by Scott Timberg about our collective fascination with 50s America. Mad Men and Revolutionary Road are the obvious pegs, but the piece smartly spends more time exploring some of the reasons why that decade is so romanticized today. (Timberg’s main sources on this point are Richard Yates biographer Blake Bailey and Nixonland author Rick Perlstein, but I’d argue the real expert on the matter is Stephanie Coontz, whose book The Way We Never Were is a fascinating debunking of Ozzie & Harriet mythologizing.)
It’s striking to see, reading the article, how crucial books were in exposing and perhaps changing they way mainstream Americans behaved back then, and I’m hard-pressed to argue that they have the same impact today. Has Susan Faludi done as much as The Feminine Mystique? Does anything by Michael Pollan have enough force to change policy the way Silent Spring did? Why didn’t a book like, say, David Simon and Edward Burns’ The Corner shine a spotlight on urban poverty the way The Other America did?
Timberg’s story also introduces me to a book I badly need to be acquainted with. In arguing that the “’50s were crucial years for American fiction, with important work from Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov and Flannery O’Connor as well as the outlaw energies of the Beats and Norman Mailer,” Timberg calls on Morris Dickstein, author of Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction 1945-1970. Arguing that we have a “selective cultural memory” about that decade, he tells Timberg:
“Even more than the 1960s, this is a period too often reduced to stereotypes,” he writes, “and its culture has been seen by some literary scholars and art historians as little more than a reflex of the Cold War, repressive, patriotic, and militantly small-minded. … The postwar period, especially the 1950s, has been simplified into everything the ’60s generation rebelled against.”