There’s a long-standing myth that the 1950s were a sleepy time in America, an intellectually nondescript and culturally barren time, an ideologically stultified period marked by silly distractions like the Hula-Hoop and I Love Lucy, ruled by a fuddy-duddy, president, and terrorized by fluoridated water scares and hysterical Commie-hunters.
But portraying this decade as socially and culturally stunted not only misses the point, but egregiously misrepresents what really happened. Defining the American 1950s in terms of consumerism, Dwight Eisenhower and Senator Joe McCarthy is tantamount to defining Oklahoma in the 1990s in terms of J.C. Watts, Sooner football, and Timothy McVeigh.
Indeed, not only were the 1950s not an era of anti-intellectualism and mindless conformity, they were the diametric opposite. Even a cursory examination reveals that, culturally, socially and politically, the 1950s stand as one of the most innovative decades in U.S. history.
Arguably, the 1950s were what the Baby Boomers thought the 1960s were. Everything the Boomers thought happened for the first time during their turbulent coming-of-age years actually happened a decade earlier….and in a more disciplined, presentable and elegant fashion. The only difference was that these phenomena didn’t affect the masses or spill out into the streets until the 1960s.
The list of cultural mindsets and social movements that began taking shape in the 1950s is staggering: the drug scene, the free love scene, the music scene, the modern art scene, the civil rights movement (Brown vs. Board of Education, 1954), feminism, the peace movement, the anti-nuke movement (SANE was founded in 1957), the environmental movement.
Paul Krassner’s influential counterculture magazine, The Realist, was launched in 1958, and Rachel Carson, the patron saint of American environmentalism, was cranking out her nature material (The Sea Around Us was published in 1951) well before the Boomers and Time Magazine got around to officially “discovering” her.
The Fifties weren’t socially conscious?! Please. It was during the Fifties that organized labor reached its peak membership (at nearly 35-percent of the American workforce). Unions were not only widely respected, they were acknowledged as a reliable means by which working people could enter and remain members of the affluent middle-class. During the 1950s, union welders lived next door to college professors and accountants.
Hard as it may be for a modern audience to believe, but union leaders like John L. Lewis, Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Harry Bridges, and Walter Reuther were mentioned prominently in high school civics textbooks. These labor leaders were treated not only as visionaries and social reformers but as true patriots.
The U.S. underwent a tremendous artistic and intellectual enlightenment in the 1950s, fueled largely by the enthusiastic embrace of Europe: the existentialist philosophy of Sartre and Camus, the unconscious mind deconstructed by Freud and Jung, the Theater of Absurd represented by Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter, and Jean Genet. There was the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas, the films of Bergman, Fellini and Luis Bunuel, the plays of John Osborne and Terence Rattigan. These were the Fifties.
Of course, America had its home-grown phenomena as well: Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Margaret Mead, Jackson Pollack, the Jazz Renaissance, the Beat Generation, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Stan Freeberg, Jules Feiffer, J.D. Salinger, Gore Vidal, Eudora Welty, and the Golden Age of television (Playhouse 90, Paddy Chayevsky, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Rod Serling, Sid Caeser, Ernie Kovaks, Edward R. Murrow, Dave Garroway, et al).
And people dare call this decade—this hothouse of creative expression—bland?? Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick, Stanley Kramer, Elia Kazan, Mary McCarthy, Budd Schulberg, Saul Bellow, Hannah Arendt, Sylvia Plath, John Updike, Nelson Algren, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer—they all more or less came of age in the Fifties.
Marijuana was already being used by hipsters—jazz musicians, beatniks, artists—15 years before it became the coolest thing on campus. Oh, yeah, something else was brought to white kids during the “boring” 1950s, something that’s managed to stick around a while: rock and roll. The Fifties introduced the world to Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
Moreover, the Fifties marked the first sustained attacks, satirical and otherwise, on such cultural phenomena as subliminal advertising, Madison Avenue, (think Vance Packard, David Reisman and Mad Magazine), herd mentality, consumerism, suburbs, the organization man, keeping up with the Joneses, split-level Hell, and the evils of plastic.
Seminal sociological works like Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain and Notes of a Native Son were written in the Fifties. Simone deBeauvoir may have been “discovered” by women in the 1960s, but her classic treatise on feminism, The Second Sex, was published in America in 1953.
We could go on and on because the list is endless. I’m reminded of that quote from the movie Flashback, where the Dennis Hopper character says to the FBI agent, “When we get out of the Eighties, the Nineties are going to make the Sixties look like the Fifties.” A clever line….but inaccurate and misleading.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com