Saturday, April 1, 2017

Revisiting the Myth of Those Idyllic 50s. What Really Happened?

Leave It To Beaver publicity still.
This past week I was listening to an audio book called The Next 100 Years, which begins with an insightful re-cap of the past 100 years. There is one given, if you take a forward look from any of the 20 year vantage points (1900, 1920, 1940, 1960, 1980 and 2000.) You will readily see how wrong your expectations would repeatedly have been. In 1900 did anyone expect a world war in less than 15 years? In 1920, after Germany had been totally crushed, did anyone worry about that such a resurgence of that nation could so quickly threaten the world? In 1940 Hitler and Stalin formed a pact and it appeared that democracy was doomed, yet only five years later the Axis powers -- and much of Europe -- lay in ruins. In 1960  how many Americans anticipated that we would be mired in a lengthy conflict in Southeast Asia for obscure reasons that were never quite clear. And furthermore, how could America lose a war? We'd "saved the world" only 15 years earlier.

In 1980 the U.S. economy was staggering and joblessness on the rise, yet over the next 20 years we became the most powerful nation in the world. Communism collapsed and as the new millennium dawned the future looked... Well, on 9/11 that picture flipped and we've been in a series of military conflicts near continuously since.

In short, who can really predict what tomorrow and tomorrow's tomorrows will bring?

In this short recap it seems fairly safe to say that many of us look back on the Fifties as a special time in our history. Families went to church, Billy Graham Crusades were filling stadiums, well-paying jobs were abundant. Life was good.

In truth, how idyllic were the 1950s really? If a picture is worth a thousand words, the image of Ward and June Cleaver is one of the best expressions of our image of the time. In contrast, one can parade a whole slew of pictures from the Sixties that would suggest that these are two different Americas. Kids burning draft cards, riots in the streets, burning cities, anti-war protests.

As I mulled over my memories of the Fifties this week, it wasn't all baseball and apple pie. We were in the midst of the Cold War. We practiced air raid drills in school. My aunt and uncle built and stocked a bomb shelter in their basement. McCarthyism disrupted many lives of people in the media, and Jim Crow laws kept people of color powerless in a large swath of our country. Sputnik terrified many who were suddenly made aware of the power of Soviet rocketry. And women were kept in their place in the job market.

The article Two Great Myths About the 1950s. by Alan Petigny, affirms my gut-check on the nostalgic interpretations of that period. Here's an excerpt.

This perceived divide between the nominally conservative, placid 1950s and the socially liberal 1960s has shaped our understanding of the early postwar years. Some see this divide as the product simply of a generation gap while others credit the civil rights and anti-war movements and the rise of second-wave feminism. Still others focus on the formation of a counterculture. But despite their disagreements over how and why, the "when" is considered settled: the decade of the 1960s was when everything changed. This understanding is profoundly wrong and obscures the most significant feature of postwar American culture: a dramatic liberalization of values during the Truman and Eisenhower years that has persisted to this day.

Here's the beginning of another article about the Fifties, The Good Old Days: a 1950s Issues Portfolio, by Renee C. Tolliver:

The number of social issues facing Americans today seems overwhelming. “Whatever happened to the good old days?” is an observation that has become cliche. What do people mean when they say, “the good old days?” When were they? Why were they good? Can we get them back? Do we really want them back? Were those days really so good?

A little further on she writes...

A look at the historical facts and issues of the fifties serves to debunk the myth that the fifties was a golden age for all. This is the decade that saw Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas in 1954 and the brutal murder of 14 year old Emmett Till in 1955 and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Even the arrival of television did not produce the focus for warm family gatherings that we seem to associate with the fifties. The impact of television was multifaceted. According to Lynn Spigel’s book, Make Room for TV, “Television was supposed to bring the family together but still allow for social and sexual divisions in the home.” However, what television delivered was not that cut and dry. It became a new conduit of truth, stereotypes and lies. Very few ethnic shows such as The Goldbergs appeared along with the traditional sitcoms like Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show and Leave It to Beaver.

Whereas it's true that that for many the times were to some extent idyllic, this was an experience only for some. The poor lived an invisible life outside the scope of our experience.

Here's one more take on the Fifties from Uncle Mike's Musings, another blogger who uses this platform. It's a long read, but has some interesting angles. Top Ten Myths About the 1950s was posted in 2014, but no less relevant today.

Frankly, I do have primarily idyllic memories from my Fifties childhood. We had a stable home, a safe neighborhood. We had books and music in our home and the fridge was always full. We took vacations, did things with our parents, went to the amusement park and the races from time to time. It wasn't till later that I came to understand that we were but one family experience and not representative of all.

Maybe this is the way all histories get written. The early writings glamorize our heroes. It's only later that we learn of their weaknesses, faults and feet of clay. Maybe that is what we miss. Having everything simple, cut and dried, black and white. But isn't that what childhood is in nearly every era? Growing up requires us to notice that things rarely fit into such tidy little packages.

Meantime, life goes on... What do you think?


M. Denise C. said...

Perceptions of the past and the reality often clash, in my experience. Why? I have no clue! It is like that terrible slogan Make America Great Again. What is this referring to? Aren't we great now? So obtuse. Back to the days of more blatant racism, more misogyny? Were we great ever? Extinction of natives, slavery? Lots to ponder.

Ed Newman said...

"The grass is always greener on the other side of the past."

Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

“And furthermore, how could America lose a war? We'd "saved the world" only 15 years earlier.” We’ll, no, actually we didn’t “save the world”. That’s all Hollywood hype, and our own blown up notions of ourselves. Take a closer look; the Russians did a heck of a lot more than we did. We entered the war late. Our role was not as big as we always blow it up to be. I get tired of our freaking blown up idea of ourselves and our nation. Especially these days.

Ed Newman said...

You probably missed my sarcasm, though I do believe the U.S. played a major role in the defeat of the Axis powers. The Soviets only began their march West in 1944. Till then it was all defense.

As for America chest-thumping, yes, it is overdone. For more along this line visit