Monday, March 28, 2011

Lucy, Desi, and the Pill: The Real 1950s in one gigantic book

My parents grew up in the fifties, and  what I knew of it from their attitudes, those of their parents, and also the memories of both.  In David Halberstam's hulking book about the decade, The Fifties, he describes the peaceful, simpler time my family remembered: "The fifties were captured in black and white, most often by still photographers; by contrast, the decade that followed was, more often than not, caught in living color on tape or film.  Not surprisingly, in retrospect the pace of the fifties seemed slower, almost languid.  Social ferment, however, was beginning just beneath this placid surface."  Halberstam, best known for his histories of the Vietnam War, doesn't seek to destroy the placid image so much as explain it, tell us what happened in between black-and-white television episodes, and make sure the children of baby boomers like me aren't all led to believe that we'd have been drug, sex and sin-free had we been so lucky to come of age in such a family-friendly decade. 

The jig was up, at least for me, when as a young teenager I began reading short stories, including those of Richard Yates, John Cheever and John Updike.  These writers dramatized the side of the decade that Halberstam exposes throughout the chapters of this readable and comprehensive history.  The emergence of suburbs, seminal books about the loneliness of housewives, the idea and invention of birth control, interstates and places to stay and eat while traveling on interstates changed the way the families in the literature at the time interacted with one another.  Men felt isolated from their families, as now, instead of walking a few blocks home to a city apartment, they commuted by train to a sea of tall buildings and young secretaries where money and efficiency held positions of utmost importance.  Women stayed at home, staring out picture windows and wondering if having a small patch of lawn to tend during the day really did make her life complete.

American optimism, despite the sad images of families growing apart, had never been higher; coming off a successful and large-scale war, the country welcomed home veterans to prosperity and the GI Bill, which would enable those patches of lawn (more pointedly, the houses atop them) to be purchased on a large scale, for the first time, by members of the middle class.  Halberstam gives us snapshots of existing American industries enjoying a renaissance under the rejuvenated economy and business-friendly Eisenhower.  The president's fostering of the interstate system, and the improving and increasingly affordable automobile would all combine to form what Halberstam calls suburbia: "a vision of a better life just ahead."  In a few years, with the help of American ingenuity and millions of dollars, large tracts of America were suddenly within reach. Ideas like those of the McDonald brothers  and Kemmons Wilson, the founder of Holiday Inn, would take advantage of the citizenry's newfound mobility.

It's not just cultural changes that Halberstam explores, although the book gives due to Brown v. Board of Education and Madison Avenue; he profiles cultural figures from Elvis Presley to Martin Luther King, Jr., delving into their historical importance and how they captured (or inflamed) the minds of the nation.   I confess that my experience with the book - using it as historical background for an undergraduate thesis about 1950s literature - led me to skim many chapters, including those on politics and the war in Korea, though not on the Cold War itself.  The fear of nuclear war would, whether or not they admitted it, pervade the thoughts of the characters I encountered in 1950s fiction, but social change would move (sometimes literally) them the most.  I've gone back over the years to pick up where I left off, and constantly see another seed Halberstam found in his study of the 1950s, something that brings it closer to me here and now, over a half-century later.


  1. Elisabeth HirschMarch 29, 2011 6:38 PM

    I'd love to read The Fifties. It sounds like an intriguing, meaningful read.

    I'm following from Book Blogs.

  2. What Book TodayMarch 29, 2011 7:08 PM

    Thanks so much for stopping by, Elisabeth! I will be sure to check out your site. So happy that you're intrigued by the book. It's definitely a history that gives us a lot of insight into our own decade.

  3. SamMarch 30, 2011 3:36 PM

    Thanks for stopping by the blog, I'm now following yours :)

    I think the 50s were very different in the USA and UK. The book sounds very interesting.

  4. (Diane) Bibliophile By the SeaApril 2, 2011 8:17 AM

    I love reading about the 50s and just love those old I Love Lucy reruns as well :)

  5. What Book TodayApril 3, 2011 8:56 PM

    I'm fascinated by the fifties - and Sam, I would love to read some lit or history about the 50s there. Sometime soon I'll profile some of our great American 1950s novels...Thanks to both of you for visiting, and to Sam for the follow!

  6. JulieApril 5, 2011 8:26 PM

    The fifties is one of my favorite decades to learn about. I will have to check this book out.

    Julie @ Read Handed (

  7. What Book TodayApril 5, 2011 8:33 PM

    Thanks for stopping by, Julie! You'll really enjoy the book. I haven't read any other Halberstam (except some short pieces) but he's a fantastic writer.

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