The Magazine

The Best Years of Our Lives

When did critics start yearning to return to the life of the 1950s?

Feb 7, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 20 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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Beyond the Gray Flannel Suit

Books from the 1950s that Made American Culture

by David Castronovo

Continuum, 203 pp., $22.95

IN THE PAGEANT OF THE decades, the 1950s always lose. The 1920s still suggest swagger and style: jazz, flappers, bathtub gin. The 1930s, though grim, are also linked in the popular imagination with nerve and verve: Lindbergh's flight and Lubitsch's films. The 1940s are heroic and the '60s cool. Even the 1970s, the polyester years, are now widely celebrated for their tacky charm.

But the 1950s have an image problem. Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe are now the decade's most famous faces: a pair of troubled celebrities who abused drugs and died young. Visual shorthand for the decade is always the same: black-and-white clips of row after row of cloned houses in Levittown, or gaudy tailfins on cars, or H-bomb clouds mushrooming over Bikini Island.

Modern films about the 1950s are usually about lynchings or gangland slayings--or they parody the too-perfect family sitcoms that live forever in syndication. Pleasantville (1998) is typical, underscoring the notion that Americans living in the 1950s were held hostage in a world of media brainwashing and sexual repression. Fortunately, the 1960s liberated these poor souls and their descendants, who might otherwise still be wandering around like zombies, the men dressed like Fred Mertz, the women in aprons and pearls with minds fixed on refrigerators.

Occasionally, interest in the 1950s flares up, and someone tries to set the record straight. David Halberstam's The Fifties (1993), for example, recalled a time of "general good will and expanding affluence." Millions of Americans remembered the Depression and the war--and then found themselves living in a time of high employment, low inflation, and the kind of prosperity they hadn't seen in nearly thirty years. No wonder the yearning for normalcy, permanence, and large household appliances was so keen.

Change was in the air, on a thousand fronts. Network television, air conditioning, computers, jet travel, a national highway system, chain hotels, franchised fast food: The country shrank as business boomed. Cultural and intellectual life was no less dynamic, as Eero Saarinen designed buildings, Elia Kazan made movies, Arthur Miller wrote plays, and John Coltrane blew his horn. Political journals thrived in a Cold War climate where much was at stake: Commentary, Politics, Partisan Review, National Review. From our current perspective, American culture of the fifties looks both daring and substantial, assured and adult. No wonder it excited the world.

In his new critical study Beyond the Gray Flannel Suit, David Castronovo surveys and analyzes most of the best and most influential literature of the postwar years, from 1946 to 1961. Malcolm Cowley, Castronovo notes, had described the 1920s as America's "second flowering," comparable to the generation of Emerson and Thoreau. For Castronovo, the literary 1950s were a "third flowering of American talent." In fact, American literature of the 1950s "now asserts special claims to greatness," drawing energy from a decade that was far from being "smug and absorbed with its own splendors."

THIS WILL SURPRISE READERS who associate the 1950s with those bestsellers that one still finds, yellowing and damp, on the shelves of rented beach houses and in barrels at church rummage sales. Many of these are what Castronovo calls "bread-and-butter naturalistic" works like John O'Hara's From the Terrace (1958), James Gould Cozzens's By Love Possessed (1957), and Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955). Wilson's novel, along with nonfiction books like David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd (1950), C. Wright Mills's The Power Elite (1956), and William Whyte's The Organization Man (1956), struck themes that would replay more loudly in the decade to come. There's a clear line of descent from Wilson's book to all those 1960s films and novels (think of 1968's Sweet November) in which unhappy businessmen end up chucking their suits for bellbottoms and beads.

Wilson's protagonist, Tom Rath, saw extensive action as a paratrooper in the Second World War. When he returns, Rath dons his new, grey flannel uniform and--as Whyte would put it--"takes the vows of organization life" to become a public-relations man in a large Manhattan corporation. Rath is well paid but unhappy, fearing that his drive for wealth and respectability has endangered his marriage and compromised his soul. Near the novel's close, Rath's wife tells him that "all you know how to do is work day and night and worry."