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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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.