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."

Tom eventually quits his job, and together the Raths leave the rat race for what the novel promises will be a more authentic life in Vermont. Wilson's novel remains largely readable, and Rath's memories of combat, rendered plainly and without melodrama, still make for powerful reading. But The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit ends--as Castronovo puts it--in a "bundle of clichés." It has dated, as bestsellers almost always do.

Castronovo is an astute, blunt, and erudite critic; he is enthusiastic, not jargonistic, and manages to make many of the classic books of the 1950s--the ones most English majors know--seem relevant and fresh. He is interested, for example, in "accessible modernist classics" like Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man (1952) and Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March (1953). These books offered "thick symbolic and poetic texture" but "were nevertheless fun to read." They "transcended" the naturalistic mode and its "raw clunky narratives" but preserved its "vigor and directness" nonetheless. Ellison and Bellow were not, like so many 1950s novelists, literary descendants of Theodore Dreiser; they "experimented with language without losing contact with a readership hungry for vivid stories."

Castronovo is generous, but largely balanced in his praise of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957) for creating, each in its own way, "a unique idiom for registering personal experience." He hails the originality of such noir novels as Cornell Woolrich's I Married a Dead Man (1948), Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me (1953), and David Goodis's Shoot the Piano Player (1956); these stories of "ruination, blindness and anguish" make readers "think about warped human nature and scare us into some insights about ourselves."

Beyond the Grey Flannel Suit also praises J.F. Powers, whose Morte d'Urban (1962), about a Catholic priest, reveals a novelist with brilliant narrative and satiric skills. Powers's territory, Castronovo writes, "is, to a large extent, Mencken's booboisie," and yet his gallery of "rogues, clucks, and do-nothings, and know-nothings" is displayed "with a subtlety and dramatic sense that makes scourges of provincialism such as Sinclair Lewis and H.L. Mencken seem heavy-handed."

Castronovo also reminds us that the 1950s were a golden age for the short story, as the works of Flannery O'Connor, John Cheever, and Philip Roth reveal. These writers have not lost their relevance; certainly Cheever, with his careful prose and his mix of the fantastic and the real seems as fresh as ever, the one '50s writer who, in his short fiction, hasn't dated at all.

WHAT ELSE ENDURES? In a chapter on critical writing, Castronovo points to the accomplishments of both Dwight Macdonald and Lionel Trilling, two prolific and influential essayists who began to fade in the 1970s as criticism became more academic and recondite, and competing strains of literary theory, imported from the continent, began to hold sway. Trilling and the more acerbic and combative Macdonald were among the best of the 1950s critics who wrote "for a general literate audience," as Castronovo observes, focusing on "freestanding essays about our cultural life." They "dealt with issues that have never faded," including "popular vs. high art, politics and the demands of literature, the media, quality (or lack of it) in popular fiction, the dumbing down of American life."

Castronovo sent me back to Trilling, and I found essays like "Kipling," "Little Dorrit," and "Flaubert's Last Testament" as engaging as ever. Who could not be impressed by the depth of Trilling's learning, the seriousness of his purpose, or the lovely roll of his prose? Trilling brings into the twentieth century the music of the great Victorian stylists, like Matthew Arnold, one of Trilling's intellectual heroes. Of course, Sigmund Freud was another of Trilling's heroes, as such essays as "Freud and Literature" and "Art and Neurosis" make plain. Freud is also there, less explicitly, in Trilling's trenchant analysis of the sensibility of Alfred Kinsey, which appeared after the 1948 publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.

Kinsey, Trilling admits, did his homework, interviewing scores of men about their sexual practices and histories. But Kinsey, Trilling argues, did not take sex seriously enough. Instead, he signaled a baleful trend, believing that if you collect enough data and tally up all the numbers you can arrive at an objective presentation of the truth--even in regard to a subject as complex and encompassing as human sexuality. Kinsey's report emphasizes "the anatomical and physiological nature of sexuality," and relies "on animal behavior as a norm." It is "by no means unaware of the psychic conditions of sexuality, yet it uses the concept almost always under the influence of its quantitative assumption."

Thus, the report is "partisan with sex, it wants people to have a good sexuality. But by good it means nothing else but frequent." Kinsey's study, Trilling observes, "never suggests that a sexual experience is anything but the discharge of specifically sexual tension and therefore seems to conclude that frequency is always the sign of a robust sexuality." But obviously, "adult intercourse may be the expression of anxiety," among other things, and "its frequency may not be so much robust as compulsive."

Kinsey enjoyed wide publicity in the 1950s, and his findings, summarized in the popular media, have long since taken on the aura of irrefutability. ("Kinsey was the prophet," Hugh Hefner liked to proclaim, "and I was the pamphleteer.") In fact, it is the steady spread, the ubiquity, and the power of mass media in the last fifty years--and, more particularly, the last thirty years--that, for better or worse, has most transformed our culture, making the world of the 1950s appear increasingly remote. Castronovo knows this, observing finally that while it's true the 1950s "had its smugness and conformity and provinciality," the media "had not as yet set a program for the nation. There was still room for writers to attempt that--and writers' opinions, rather than those of focus groups, counted for something."

In a concluding chapter, Castronovo quotes the late Marion Magid, a Commentary editor who provides another glimpse into the uniqueness of the 1950s by noting that "it was the last time it was possible to have a 'personal' life. There was a sense of discovery then, but later everything became so codified. Now relationships are mapped, there are pre-established attitudes. There's a sense that everything's been ransacked--every secret, ethnic and sexual. There's no more privacy. You meet and everyone exchanges credentials. We had more room to live the inner life."

In Beyond the Gray Flannel Suit, David Castronovo effectively demonstrates that to reenter the life of the 1950s, that lost and transformative decade, we must turn again to the books that prove that "there was undoubtedly something good about a time when so many works of superb quality could be written and published and recognized."

Brian Murray teaches writing and film studies at Loyola College in Maryland.